In 1885, Archbishop John Ireland founded St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary on a farm near the Mississippi River, between the growing cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The institution began with six faculty members and 62 students who ranged in age from high school teenagers to post-baccalaureate seminarians. On the day the seminary opened, the rector, Father Thomas O’Gorman, made the following entry in his diary:
“Classes opened September 9, in the afternoon, with a short class. There being no books, no desks, very little was possible.”
The institution evolved from these humble beginnings, and in 1894, Archbishop Ireland reorganized St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary into three separate institutions: the College of St. Thomas; St. Paul Seminary, which opened across the road from the college; and St. Thomas Military Academy, an elementary and secondary school. The college was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation with members; in 1908, its members were reconstituted as trustees. St. Thomas Military Academy separated from the college in the 1920s but remained on its main campus until 1965. In 1990 the college was renamed the University of St. Thomas to better reflect its growth and evolution into a comprehensive university, which now operates as an independent 501(c)(3) corporation under the authority of its Board of Trustees.
For its first 65 years, St. Thomas was strictly a men’s undergraduate college. In 1950, the first graduate program, in education, was founded and enrolled men and women. Twenty-four years later Monsignor Terrence Murphy, president from 1966 to 1991, opened graduate programs in business. Monsignor Murphy and later Father Dennis Dease, the university’s current president, subsequently started graduate programs in art history, Catholic Studies, engineering, English, law, music, professional psychology, social work, software and theology.
Growth also occurred on the undergraduate level with the decision in 1977 to admit women. Within a decade, women represented half of the undergraduate population. By 1991, when Father Dease became president, St. Thomas enrolled more than 10,000 students—a nearly fivefold increase from the 1,900 undergraduate students and 260 graduate education students during Monsignor Murphy’s first year.
To accommodate this growth, St. Thomas took two important steps in 1987:
- It reached an affiliation agreement with the St. Paul Seminary to align academic programs and allow St. Thomas to gain access to most of the seminary’s property for redevelopment purposes. The seminary operates as the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas.
- It began to offer graduate business classes in a shuttered department store building in downtown Minneapolis. This effort, which allowed St. Thomas to better serve the growing numbers of graduate students who worked and lived in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, was so successful that the Board of Trustees decided to open a permanent downtown campus. What today is called Terrence Murphy Hall opened in 1992, primarily as a location for graduate business programs, followed by Opus Hall in 1999 (education and professional psychology), the School of Law building in 2002 and Schulze Hall in 2005 (business).
A third campus was developed in the early 1980s in Owatonna, Minnesota, on a former estate and horse farm bequeathed to St. Thomas. The 180-acre property today is used as an executive education and retreat center. A Rome campus opened in 2001, and today it primarily serves Catholic Studies students from the university and men preparing for the priesthood at the St. Paul Seminary.
St. Thomas clearly is no longer a place where “very little is possible.” In 1965 the Carnegie Foundation chose St. Thomas among 12 liberal arts colleges (and the only Catholic college) for study of “how a college can be what it ought to be.” The Carnegie report said St. Thomas “had faced new issues in higher education with a foresight and courage that made it a bellwether among Catholic colleges,” and predicted that St. Thomas, because of its leadership, governance and extraordinary opportunities in a progressive metropolitan area, would “stand out with a clear identity and continue to be a pioneer Catholic college.” Nearly 50 years later, this remains the university’s objective and commitment.
To view a 125-year timeline, prepared for the university’s quasquicentennial in 2009-2010, see http://www.stthomas.edu/125/.
To view aerial photos of the main St. Paul campus from 1928 to 2000, see http://www.stthomas.edu/125/aerials.html.