In 2011, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (the “Nashville Dominicans”) celebrated the 50th anniversary of Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. It was also a new beginning for the College, with a new president, Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, O.P.
Begun in 1928 as a teacher-training school for Dominican sisters, Aquinas became a junior college in 1961 and a four-year college in 1994. Its education program is the training ground for lay people as well as the Dominican sisters who teach in 33 Catholic schools in 22 dioceses in the United States. And the Sisters belong to one of the few congregations of women religious in the United States that today enjoy significant growth.
The small College has launched a long-desired residential program for its 83-acre campus, just five miles from downtown Nashville. Limited housing opened in 2012, and permanent campus residences are scheduled to be completed by 2014.
Aquinas has managed to remain a faithfully Catholic institution surrounded by a largely Protestant and Evangelical Christian population.
That means that only about a third of the students are Catholic, but devotion to Christ and traditional morals nevertheless pervade the campus. The presence of the Dominican Sisters and a faithful faculty and staff ensure the strong Catholic identity of the College.
“What Aquinas is today is clearly a result of careful thought and prayer,” Sister Mary Sarah told Aquinas College magazine, citing several examples of the Sisters’ foresight and Catholic inspiration. “They set in place a liberal arts core but attached practical programs to it. To address the battle of the mind, they founded the School of Education. To address the battle for human life and dignity, they founded the School of Nursing. To address the battle for humane growth in the marketplace, they instituted the School of Business.”
Certain that residences will attract students from far outside the Nashville region, the College’s strategic plan for 2015 anticipates 1,000 students (from its present 600) and expanded academic programs. Aquinas also expects more full-time, Catholic, and male students; currently the popular nursing and education programs attract more women (85 percent of the student body) and Associates degree candidates.
Unlike many Catholic colleges that are now legally independent of the religious congregations that founded them, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have never ceded control of Aquinas. They are the sole owners of the College, with a mixed lay-religious board of trustees. Sister Mary Sarah entered the Congregation in 1988, has advanced degrees in education administration and history, and has worked as a teacher, professor, principal, and dean in various Catholic schools and colleges.
The undergraduate tuition remains far below the average private college tuition in Tennessee, and even lower than the national norm.
Even with large numbers of students in education and nursing majors, Aquinas integrates the liberal arts and Catholic teaching into all of its undergraduate programs. According to one administrator, the College strives to teach “what theology and philosophy have to say about other disciplines.”
Course requirements vary according to degree program. All students with majors in the School of Arts and Sciences—including theology, philosophy, history, English, and liberal arts—take three Catholic theology courses in fundamental theology, moral theology, and Scripture and three philosophy courses in logic, ethics, and philosophy of the human person. They also study English composition and speech, and choose among electives in history, literature, math, science, fine arts, and a foreign language. More than half the credits
required for a bachelor’s degree come from the core and distribution requirements.
Nursing, education, and business students take fewer theology and philosophy courses, but still at least 40 percent of total credits come from the liberal arts.
The theology professors have all received the mandatum from Nashville Bishop David Choby, who attended Aquinas in the 1960s before moving on to the seminary. He has taught moral theology at the College and is a strong supporter of the College and the Congregation.
Brother Ignatius Perkins, O.P., former dean and nursing professor at Spalding University, directs the Aquinas School of Nursing and has done much to raise its national profile. “We give students the tools to help their patients make the right moral decisions,” said one nursing professor.
Support for a free-market economy is complemented by a desire for “Christian moral constraints” in the business program. The College boasts, “The primary goal of the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) Program is training competent business leaders who are conscious of their broader responsibilities to society.”
Ten Dominican sisters teach at Aquinas, joined by more than 70 other full- and part-time faculty. Most full-time, non-nursing faculty hold doctorates or equivalent terminal degrees.
The College makes an effort to ease the challenge of the first year for students through its Aquinas College Cares about Every Student’s Success (ACCESS) program and a freshman formation retreat launched in the 2011-2012 academic year. ACCESS is a required program of mentoring, tutoring, and advising for first-year and other new students. The freshman retreat introduces students to classic Dominican spirituality and education.
Students also benefit from the College’s Write Reason Center, which aims to strengthen student writing across the curriculum and provides mentors to assist students. The unique program is rooted in the classical Trivium, emphasizing habits of mind (logic) and habits of expression (grammar and rhetoric) so that students learn to write and think logically and with concern for objective truth.
The center of the campus’ spiritual life is St. Jude’s Chapel, which is open more than 13 hours a day. Aquinas offers many spiritual
programs including weekly Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, weekday confessions, daily Mass, Lenten Stations of the Cross, an annual Eucharistic Procession, and numerous other opportunities for group prayer.
Polish native Father Jacek Kopera, O.P. is the campus minister, providing for daily Mass which is in English but includes many portions in Latin. English professor Father Albert Trudel, O.P., a native of Canada, also serves the spiritual needs of the campus community.
The campus ministry is heavily involved in pro-life activities. Students pray at abortion clinics and each January erect a “Cemetery of the Innocents” on the front lawn of campus next to busy Harding Pike to memorialize aborted children.
Campus ministry also sponsors Bible study groups, social activities, inquiry sessions for non-Catholics, participation in the 40 Days for Life, and retreats for student leaders.
Perhaps the most exciting recent development at Aquinas has been the launch of its residential program, which is likely to transform the college as many more full-time students from around the country find it easier to come to Aquinas.
In 2012, Aquinas announced a partnership with St. Thomas Hospital, which is adjacent to the campus, to house students in a portion of the hospital’s Seton Lodge. Students have access to the medical services and health club at St. Thomas Hospital. The hotel-like residence, which is single-sex by floor, will accommodate only a small number of students for the first year, but the College hopes to greatly increase the number of residents for the 2013-2014 academic year. Residents for the 2012-2013 year hail from ten states: Washington, New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
The College plans to begin construction of on-campus residences in 2013, fulfilling a longtime objective of Aquinas leaders and encouraging the expansion of student services and academic departments in disciplines favored by full-time students. While campus housing is under development, Aquinas assists students looking for off-campus houses or apartments.
Aquinas promotes the “house” model of students, faculty, staff, and alumni joining together voluntarily to support each other and organize joint activities. Four houses each for men and women are planned, sponsored by patron saints and are represented by faculty or staff heads of house.
Nashville is the capital city of Tennessee with a population of over 630,000 people. In addition to famous and historical ties to the country music industry, Nashville has a vast health care sector and a growing automobile manufacturing industry.
Nashville is a transportation hub, which includes the Nashville International Airport, a hub for Southwest Airlines and host to other major carriers easily accessible from the College. Due to its central location and the numerous interstate highways converging in the city, Nashville is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the nation’s population. Despite being located in such a busy urban area, the campus has a very low crime rate.
A Student Activities Board sponsors speakers and other events, and student organizations include groups for student nurses and prospective teachers, a business fraternity, a classical literature reading group, a theology club, and a philosophy club.
The Frassati Society encourages students to conform their lives according to the Beatitudes and sponsors pro-life activities. There also
is a weekly student discussion group that is similar to the popular “Theology on Tap” programs around the country.
The Aquinas Singers perform both sacred and secular music and is open to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the greater Nashville community.
The student chapter of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development provides professional development opportunities for teacher education students and allows them to attend the Association’s national conferences.
Known as the “Athens of the South,” Nashville offers many cultural, social, and entertainment opportunities. There is, of course, the venerable Grand Ole Opry with its internationally broadcast Saturday night performances, a growing Christian music community, and also National Football League (Tennessee Titans) and National Hockey League (Nashville Predators) teams to follow. Cultural attractions include the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which hosts the Nashville Symphony.
The Bottom Line
Aquinas College is a small Catholic college that has carved out an important niche in the Bible Belt with its nursing, education, and business programs, as well as a strong emphasis on the liberal arts for all students. It is poised to expand significantly its campus, curriculum, and enrollment in the coming years.
This is an obvious choice for students in the Nashville region and those who are interested in nursing and education. But especially with the new residential options, others might take notice of the affordability, the solid liberal arts, and the careful attention and dynamic spirit that the Dominican Sisters and dedicated faculty and staff provide to faithful education.
Aquinas is on the move, with a bright future and much to offer to Catholic families.