‘Though the lot of church-related colleges is hard nowadays,” Russell Kirk wrote in National Review in 1971, “one promising new liberal-arts college (most decidedly Catholic) has appeared: Thomas Aquinas College, near Malibu in southern California. It offers much for mind and conscience. It is intellectually rigorous; it is unabashedly Christian; and it is on a humane scale. Its doors (those of a former seminary) will open to undergraduates this autumn. The institution does not expect to enroll more than three hundred students, ever.”
Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) has withstood the test of time. Forty-eight years later, it’s still traditionally Catholic, grounded in a great-books curriculum, and dedicated to studying the foundational documents of the American political order. It still caps enrollment at fewer than 400 students. Now it’s replicating its efforts in the lovely rural setting of Northfield, Mass., along the Connecticut River valley. This semester, fall 2019, is the first for the New England campus
Originally established as two separate Christian schools by the 19th-century Protestant evangelist Dwight Moody, the 217-acre property consolidated as Northfield Mount Hermon School in 1971. It was later purchased by Steve Green, the ambitious owner of Hobby Lobby, and he invested a substantial amount of money into renovating its hundred-year-old red-brick buildings.
Then Green “gifted it to the National Christian Foundation [NCF], asking them to find a truly Christian, excellent school to pick up the torch again and to do what Moody was doing,” Anne Forsyth, director of college relations for TAC, tells National Review. “And I think, perhaps to their surprise, it turned out to be a Catholic school!”
After NCF gifted the campus to TAC, it came to light in the application process with the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education that, if the college opted to admit students of all faiths (or none), it would be subject to anti-discrimination regulations that would require it to adopt policies — relating, for example, to transgender applicants — that would conflict with Catholic moral teaching. This meant that the college here would be allowed to enroll only Catholics, unlike its California counterpart, where anyone can apply.
Despite the stipulation, the school’s founding is an ecumenical triumph: Twenty-two of the buildings were granted for the Catholic school’s operations, and six were given to a group that would preserve Moody’s legacy through a museum. Furthermore, the NCF has committed a matching grant of $5 million to TAC over five years, to assist in the renovation and maintenance of the physical plant.
In recent years more than 25 percent of liberal-arts colleges have closed, merged, or abandoned their original mission, TAC East has successfully launched in the region hit the hardest. Even more providentially, residence halls and other buildings have been outfitted with furniture and equipment purchased for pennies on the dollar from nearby Newbury College, which recently closed its doors.
Even though TAC does not accept direct government or Church funding, its generous financial-aid packages have earned it first place in Kiplinger’s ranking of “best college values.” The Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report, and CNBC have given it similar marks. Thanks to the college’s private benefactors, the school caps any one student’s debt at $18,000 after four years — well below the national average of $28,650.
As for TAC’s commitment to the faith, the institution is truthfully Catholic, standing in contrast to, for example, the theology professor at nearby College of the Holy Cross who has likened Jesus to a drag queen and ascribed “queer desires” to him. For Massachusetts, which according to Pew Research is the second-least religious state in the country, TAC is a rare gem.
“It is indeed fortuitous that Thomas Aquinas opens here in New England at this Northfield campus at this time,” Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield remarked at its inaugural ceremony. “It’s a time when Massachusetts, and New England, and indeed our whole country need the light of the gospel, need the rays of hope that come from faith, to give to us new life, new hope, in the gospel message.”
Growing up in Springfield, I found the number of cafeteria Catholics even more alarming than the waning of the faithful’s population. In its 2019 guide to Catholic higher education, the National Catholic Register gives TAC a perfect score from designates it as one of only 38 faithfully Catholic colleges in the United States. This means that the administration could answer the following questions in the affirmative:
Did the president make the public “Profession of Faith” and take the “Oath of Fidelity”? Yes.
Is the majority of the board of trustees Catholic? Yes.
Is the majority of the faculty Catholic? Yes.
Do you publicly require all Catholic theology professors to have the mandatum? Yes.
Did all Catholic theology professors take the “Oath of Fidelity”? Yes.
Do you provide daily Mass and posted times (at least weekly) for individual confession? Yes.
Do you exclude advocates of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning or advocates of the redefinition of marriage as commencement speakers and/or recipients of honorary degrees? Yes.
Do you exclude sponsoring campus groups and clubs that are not in line with Catholic teaching? Yes.
Do you prohibit coed dorms? Yes.
Do your student health services prohibit referrals to abortion businesses? Yes.
Forsyth notes that, although TAC runs against the grain, it has received tremendous support from alumni of Northfield Mount Hermon School, local business owners, elected officials, and residents in western Massachusetts. “Many have prayed that the shuttered campus would come alive again under the auspices of a genuinely Christian institution, and thus return to its roots,” she says.
To that end the college will offer the same academic program as at the California campus. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently awarded the curriculum an “A” rating, which it reserved for the top 2 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities.
TAC’s goal for its new campus is to replicate to the extent possible the intellectual, spiritual, and community life now well established in California. Daily Mass will be offered in both the ordinary and the extraordinary forms. The chaplain, Father Greg Markey of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., will hear confessions before and after Mass and lead evening Adoration and, as requested, spiritual direction.
Eight seasoned faculty members, most of whom studied or taught at the California campus, will be a strong source of continuity between it and the New England college, as will four resident directors, who are recent graduates. Thirty sophomores who completed their first year on the California campus have also come eastward, bringing a sense of the TAC tradition and spirit to Massachusetts.
“We anticipate adding about 36 students each year for the next two or three years, and that will be possible because we intend to recruit another three or four faculty per year,” Michael McLean, president of TAC, tells National Review. “We’re very optimistic that will be possible because of the impressive pool quality of the applicants we’ve received showing interest in our New England campus.”
“For students, and students’ parents, who desire to participate in the Catholic tradition of genuine education, the new Thomas Aquinas College is the answer to prayers,” Kirk wrote almost half a century ago. What he said of the California campus then applies with equal force to TAC East, as it brings the tradition of Thomas Aquinas College, and of Catholic education, to New England.