The University of St. Thomas is moving closer to its Roman Catholic roots … literally.

The university less than an hour ago (about 9:30 a.m. St. Paul time) purchased a residential estate on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome, Italy. The 20,000-square-foot facility is located directly across the river from the Piazza del Popolo, a major entrance to ancient Rome, and from the roof terrace of the five-level building you can see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Thomas officials were in Rome this week to complete the purchase of the estate, which will be called the University of St. Thomas Rome Campus. The university is in the process of receiving contributions that will significantly help pay for the cost of the campus, about $4 million, and renovations, another $1 million.

The campus will be home to the university’s Center for Catholic Studies Rome Program. Other uses will include academic and religious conferences; academic study tours; a home base for other St. Thomas faculty, students and seminarians who are studying or doing research; and as accommodations for visitors to Rome, especially during the upcoming Jubilee Year 2000 observance.

“Opening a campus in Rome is an exceptional fit for the mission of the university,” said Dr. Judith Dwyer, St. Thomas’ executive vice president, who was in Rome this week to complete the purchase. “The new campus speaks to St. Thomas’ commitment to its Catholic identity and to international educational opportunities for students and faculty.

“The campus’ location in the heart of Rome provides an ideal base for our students to experience the intellectual, cultural, historical and religious traditions of one of the world’s greatest cities,” Dwyer said.

Under the Catholic Studies Rome Program, St. Thomas juniors and seniors who are majoring in Catholic studies spend either a semester or year living in Rome and studying at the Angelicum, the Dominican Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, located near the Vatican.

The Minnesota university has a formal affiliation with the Angelicum and is the only U.S. college or university with an affiliation to a pontifical university in Rome.

The Catholic Studies Rome Program, which began last year, has 13 students this semester and 20 enrolled for spring semester; those numbers include five students who are spending the entire year in Rome.

In St. Paul, about 100 St. Thomas undergraduates are majoring in the 6-year-old interdisciplinary program in Catholic studies. A graduate-level program in Catholic studies also is being developed at the university.

“The new campus in Rome presents an exciting opportunity for St. Thomas from many standpoints,” explained Dr. Don Briel, who holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Studies and is director of the St. Thomas Center for Catholic Studies. “Currently our students attend classes at the Angelicum but are housed at different locations in Rome. This will allow all our Catholic studies students to live, study and worship as one community in the heart of the city.

“We wanted our students to live and study in Rome, but we’ve had difficulty finding suitable housing,” he said. “This residence is ideal and we are extremely fortunate to be able to purchase it.”

The Angelicum, where St. Thomas students attend classes, was founded by the Dominicans (of which St. Thomas Aquinas was a member) in the 16th century. It has a student body of about 1,000 clergy, seminarians, religious and lay people, and a faculty of about 140. Both students and faculty come from all over the world. The Angelicum is unique among the Roman pontifical universities in that classes are taught in both Italian and English.

“By studying with an international mix of other students and faculty, the St. Thomas students at the Angelicum encounter the universal Church in a full and very real way,” Briel said.

St. Thomas’ Rome Program immerses its students in the Catholic intellectual tradition through courses in theology, philosophy, literature, art and history. The mission of the program is to help students understand the role that the church plays in culture and life, and how Catholicism interacts with the modern world.

Rome Program students each semester take three required courses, one elective and a course in Italian language and culture. The required courses are Introduction to Catholicism in Rome, Introduction to Catholic Social Thought in Europe, and a course taught by a visiting St. Thomas faculty member. The Rev. Michael Joncas, a member of the St. Thomas theology department and a noted composer, is in Rome this semester teaching a course on the history of liturgy. Faculty planning to teach in the coming year are the Rev. Arthur Kennedy, also of the theology department, and Dr. Mary Reichardt of the English department.

Because of the affiliation between St. Thomas and the Angelicum, its courses apply directly toward a St. Thomas degree. The cost of the semester program, including airfare, is about the same as tuition, room and board for a student attending St. Thomas in St. Paul or Minneapolis.

In addition to academic work, students in the Rome Program also participate in service projects, working with communities such as the Missionaries of Charity and the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The St. Thomas Rome Campus is located along the Tiber River boulevard called Lungotevere delle Armi. By foot, it is about 10 minutes north of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square and 20 minutes north of the Angelicum. It is a five-minute walk to the Villa Borghese park, and the ancient part of Rome can be reached by crossing the Ponte G. Matteotti, a bridge just down the boulevard from the campus. Students can reach the Angelicum by taking the bus or subway, or by walking along the Tiber River or through St. Peter’s Square.

The campus is located in a quiet neighborhood that is a mixture of well-kept homes and law and other professional office buildings. The Italian Supreme Court is about a mile away, and planned for the neighborhood is a new contemporary art museum being
designed by Zaha Hadid.

Originally built as a private home in 1923, the building was purchased by an order of Spanish nuns in the 1950s. Most recently they used it as a residence for troubled girls and young women. There are now only four sisters residing there and the facility has become too large for them to maintain.

“The sisters had been offered more money for the facility,” Briel said. “They decided to sell it to St. Thomas, in part, because they wanted it to be preserved for educational and religious purposes. They also wanted a new owner who would cherish and preserve the building’s beautiful, 50-seat chapel.”

A noted European architect, Cinzia Abbate, is overseeing the structure’s remodeling. When renovations are complete by this spring, the facility will include comfortable accommodations for 35 to 40 people, several guest suites, and separate quarters for a faculty member and resident director. It has complete kitchen and dining facilities.

The fenced property has a landscaped courtyard and the building’s fifth floor is mostly an open terrace that offers views of both ancient and modern Rome. The building still has well-maintained details of its original Italian stucco, tiles and cast-iron fixtures.

Remodeling of the St. Thomas Rome Campus will take place this winter and spring; it is expected to be available for conference use by June 2000 and for the Catholic studies and other academic programs by fall 2000.

Marlene Levine, who has been director of the University of St. Thomas’ Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna since 1996, will assume a temporary assignment as director of the St. Thomas Rome Campus for the coming year. During that time she will be on leave from her Gainey position; an acting director will oversee operations at the conference center while Levine is in Italy.

Levine joined the St. Thomas staff as director of mail services in 1985. She later was named operations and marketing manager for the university’s Minneapolis campus. She became associate director of that campus in 1993, and three years ago was appointed director of the Owatonna facility.

Levine holds an undergraduate degree in industrial psychology from St. Cloud State University and a master of business administration degree from St. Thomas. She also is a graduate of the Greater Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Minneapolis program and the Blandin Foundation Community Leadership Program.

Although St. Thomas offers programs in other countries, this is the first campus the university has opened beyond Minnesota. The university’s main campus on the western end of Summit Avenue in St. Paul opened in 1885. St. Thomas opened its Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna in 1982 and its downtown Minneapolis campus in 1992.

In addition to those university-owned facilities, St. Thomas offers classes in Chaska, Anoka, Woodbury and Rochester; at the Mall of America in Bloomington and at the Ford plant in St. Paul; and in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Taipei, Taiwan.