In the fall of 2000, St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus in Rome first opened its doors to students from the Catholic Studies program. The Catholic Studies study abroad program in Rome, affiliated with the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum), began two years earlier; however, the program had depended on the use of convent residences for the students, and space could not be guaranteed from semester to semester. With the opening of the Bernardi Campus, students could belong to a unique St. Thomas community as part of their experience abroad.
In January 1999, when St. Thomas decided to find a campus for its students in Rome, Don Briel and Bishop Arthur Kennedy travelled to Rome to see if they could find a suitable space. They found that space in a 20,000-square-foot residence on the west bank of the Tiber River. Built as a private home in 1923 and later purchased by an order of nuns, it is roughly a 20-minute walk from the Vatican. Trustees John Morrison and Bill Reiling assessed the building’s condition and recommended that St. Thomas move forward. The residence was purchased thanks to a generous gift from Antonio and Cecilia Bernardi, parents and grandparents of St. Thomas alumni. Says Luigi Bernardi ’85, ’89 M.B.A., “The Bernardi Campus is special to us. The building is a connection back to Italy for our family, and its relationship to Catholic Studies is important to our faith. We are glad to have the opportunity to help students grow through their experience in Rome.”
Campus director Thanos Zyngas has been living in and working at the Bernardi Campus since 2003. In his position, Zyngas is responsible for overseeing the campus, including building maintenance and operations, training and supervising staff and working with the students. “The students are my highest priority,” he says. “It all comes down to them.” Student questions stretch him to constantly explore Rome for answers to everything from “What bus should I take to take to get to the Angelicum?” to “What’s the best place for a woman to buy dress shoes?” Years after they have graduated, students contact him to reminisce about their experiences in Rome – “the community, the people they met, their growth spiritually, academically, culturally and as an individual.” Zyngas notes that during the fast-paced semester, students are often unaware of the changes taking place in their lives. “The days go by quickly, and they don’t have time to fully absorb what they are learning and experiencing,” he says. “At the end, they put things into perspective.”
Jim Gearen, University of St. Thomas trustee and chair of the Catholic Studies Advisory Board, says that the Bernardi Campus gives St. Thomas a presence in Rome that few other universities have. “The campus is a reminder of our relationship to Rome,” he says, “and it is a reminder to Rome of the significance of St. Thomas in the United States.” Indeed, during a recent visit to Rome, Center for Catholic Studies Director Don Briel, along with several benefactors of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, was able to meet with Archbishop Bruguès, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, to discuss the work of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
Students from outside St. Thomas also recognize the unique opportunities offered by the Bernardi Campus. While no students from other campuses are currently in residence, in the past, St. Thomas students have been joined by students from other schools, including Yale, Williams, Dartmouth, Southern Methodist, Marquette, Notre Dame and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The campus’ location also enables St. Thomas to use its resources wisely by allowing other schools to pay for its space to house students when St. Thomas students are not in residence.
Mary Gearen, a member of the College of Arts and Sciences Board of Advisors, says, “It is important for a Catholic institution to have access to the source of their faith and doctrine, to the center of the development of the Catholic Church and Christian faith.” She also notes that students come not just to draw on the resources of Rome but to bring what they have learned back to campus. “St. Peter was fleeing Rome when he was called to turn back. So we are called to turn around and take what we have learned back to campus.”
The importance of the Bernardi Campus to the University of St. Thomas has made it one of the priorities for the Opening Doors capital campaign. Gifts designated to the Bernardi Campus will defray the remaining debt on the building, establish a maintenance endowment and improve some of the rooms. Zyngas notes, “The building is old. It requires a lot of maintenance. I’m always asking for money to do improvements.” This year the Board of Trustees approved replacing the windows, and next year the roof will need to be replaced and the façade repaired. In addition, student-room floors are showing definite signs of wear. “The residence has wear and tear just like a home,” says Zyngas.
When asked about the importance of the Rome campus to St. Thomas, Sue Morrison, wife of John Morrison, chose to quote Cardinal Pio Laghi: “Rome is a wonderful professor.” The St. Thomas students who stay at Bernardi would agree.
To donate to the Bernardi Campus, visit www.stthomas.edu/openingdoors/bernardi
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