Aquinas College marks 60 years of serving the community 

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Sister Mary Bernard, OP, leads an English class at Aquinas Junior College in the 1960s. Aquinas is marking the close of its 60th anniversary year with a celebratory picnic open to alumni and the community 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 14. Since its founding, the mission of the college, owned and operated by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, has been to prepare the community’s young sisters to be Catholic educators and to serve the Nashville Catholic community. Photos courtesy of Aquinas College

Throughout its 60 years, the leaders of Aquinas College have always seen an important part of the school’s mission as serving the needs of the Nashville Catholic community as well as the broader community. 

While forming the young Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation for the community’s teaching apostolate has been the primary focus, the college has also educated and formed nurses, law enforcement officers, and business people, among others. 

“Why do the programs keep changing? Because the needs are always changing,” said Sister Cecilia Anne Wanner, OP, president of Aquinas. 

The college, one of only two Catholic colleges in Tennessee, will close its 60th anniversary year with a picnic open to the community on Saturday, May 14. 

The school opened in the fall of 1961 as Aquinas Junior College. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia opened the school to prepare their young sisters to teach in Catholic schools, bringing Christ’s message of mercy and truth to generations of children. 

The community had established the St. Cecilia Normal School in 1928. At the time, a person could become a teacher with two years of training after high school, explained Sister Jean Marie Warner, OP. The two-year normal school was affiliated with Catholic University of America and met at the Dominican Motherhouse. Sisters would often go on to earn a bachelor and graduate degrees at secular schools, such as Peabody College in Nashville, which is now part of Vanderbilt University, Sister Jean Marie said. 

When Catholic University dropped the program offering the affiliation with the St. Cecilia Normal School, Mother Joan of Arc Mayo, OP, prioress general of the St. Cecilia community and Aquinas’ first president, “decided it would be better to educate the young sisters ourselves,” said Sister Jean Marie, who graduated from Aquinas in 1973. “In order to do that we needed a college.” 

The sisters broke ground on the Dominican Campus, which also is home to St. Cecilia Academy and Overbrook School, in 1960, the 100th anniversary of the community’s founding in 1860. 

Meeting community needs 

Students in Aquinas’ nursing program, above, participate in clinical training in the 1980s.

Saint Thomas Hospital at the time sponsored its own nursing diploma program. The Daughters of Charity, who owned and operated the hospital, partnered with the Dominicans to have their nursing students take their academic courses at the new junior college while they completed their clinicals at the old Saint Thomas Hospital on Hayes Street. 

Aquinas Junior College opened in the fall of 1961 with 56 nursing students, 15 sisters and five lay students enrolled in the nursing and education programs and a secretarial program. The first year, all the students were women, and nursing, teaching and being a secretary were among the most common professions for women, Sister Jean Marie said. 

The next year, the Saint Thomas program had two male nursing students studying at Aquinas. “So, we went co-ed by default,” said Sister Jean Marie, who currently teaches history at Aquinas and served as assistant academic dean from 1996 to 1998. 

Aquinas added and subtracted programs through the years as the community’s needs changed. Aquinas offered a criminal justice degree beginning in the fall of 1968 with 45 Metro Nashville police officers and one state trooper.  

In the fall of 1970, Aquinas started an allied health program in conjunction with the Division of Allied Health Professions at Vanderbilt University.  

Saint Thomas dropped its nursing diploma program in 1970, but Aquinas started a new nursing program in 1983 with financial support from Saint Thomas, which had moved to a location on the other side of the creek on the edge of the Dominican Campus.  

“We were forming nurses who understood holistic nursing before it became a term,” Sister Jean Marie said. At Aquinas, nursing students learned to treat their patients with dignity, she said. “They also came out with superb nursing skills.” 

For more than three decades, the nursing program was Aquinas’ largest. 

In 1994, Aquinas Junior College became Aquinas College with the establishment of the four-year Teacher Education Program offering a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies that fulfilled the requirements to earn an elementary teaching license in Tennessee. Shortly after, the college added courses that led to secondary licensure in English and History. And in 2012, Aquinas started offering graduate degrees in education benefitting both the sisters in the community as well as lay teachers. 

Two of the Dominican sisters studying at Aquinas participate in activities during the Literacy Night the college hosted for children in the community.

Before the four-year Teacher Education Program was established, sisters were completing their undergraduate degree at other universities. “It was decided it would be better to educate them here,” Sister Jean Marie said, where the sisters could receive a solid foundation in Catholic anthropology. 

While most of the teacher education students, including the sisters, have gone on to teach in Catholic schools, some taught in public schools, bringing the values they learned at Aquinas with them, Sister Jean Marie said.  

The college also started a business administration program and added a liberal arts degree. Father Justin Raines, the current pastor of St. Christopher Church in Dickson, was the first graduate of the liberal arts program before entering the seminary. 

Several priests in the diocese, have attended Aquinas before the seminary, including the late Bishop David Choby. 

‘A very pivotal experience’ 

For Chris Murphy, attending Aquinas gave his life a new direction. “Aquinas turned me around,” he said. “They got me to believe in myself.” 

Murphy wasn’t a great student when he started at Aquinas, he said, but with the help of his professors he improved.  

“They got me into Auburn University,” where he earned a bachelor’s degree after graduating from Aquinas with an associates degree in sociology in 1976, Murphy said. 

He went on to a long career in law enforcement, including 21 years in the U.S. Secret Service, four years as the Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety, and seven years as Director of Public Safety for the city of Montgomery, Alabama. 

He fondly recalls many of the Dominicans whom he met at Aquinas, including Sister Henry Suso Fletcher, OP, the president of the college, and Sister Domenica Gobel, OP, who was the school’s academic dean for its first 28 years. Sister Mary Leonard, one of the professors, “held me accountable in a loving way,” Murphy said. 

“The professors really cared about the students as persons and really wanted them to succeed,” Sister Jean Marie said.  

Murphy will return to Aquinas as the speaker for this year’s commencement exercises on Saturday, May 7. “It was a very pivotal experience for me,” Murphy said of his time as an Aquinas student. 

‘Concentrating on one area’ 

More change came to Aquinas College in 2017 when the school restructured its academic program to focus more tightly on forming Catholic educators, particularly the sisters of the St. Cecilia community. 

In designing the restructure, the college’s leaders focused on “Why were we founded?” and “How can we serve?” said Sister Cecilia Anne. 

The decision was to focus on Catholic education, “concentrating on one area and doing it really, really well,” Sister Cecilia Anne said. 

The college offers undergraduate and graduate degrees through its teacher education program. It also offers bachelor’s degrees in English and history for students who are pursuing licensure to teach in high school.  

Aquinas has 52 students, 43 of whom are Dominican sisters, Sister Cecilia Anne said. 

For the Dominicans, their apostolate in education is part of their role in the Church’s mission to evangelize, said Jason Gale, director of Aquinas’ Center for Evangelization and Catechesis.  

Sister Mary Leonard, O.P., meets with a committee of students at Aquinas Junior College in the 1970s. 

No matter the subject being taught, “Catholic education is really focused on discovering the glory of God in his creation,” Gale said. The role of the college is to form the young sisters “to teach, preach and witness to truth and charity for the salvation of souls and the transformation of culture,” he added, quoting from the school’s vision statement. 

The Dominicans’ approach to teaching flows from their prayer life, Gale said. “It really stems from a relationship with God. And that’s something they try to hand on to their students. … That world view shapes who they are and how they teach.” 

Although most of the students at the college are sisters, Aquinas is still serving the broader Catholic community and Catholic educators through the Center for Evangelization and Catechesis and the Center for Catholic Education. 

The Center for Evangelization and Catechesis offers workshops, retreats and directed study for catechists, parish directors of religious education, and religion teachers “in an approach to catechesis that engages both the mind and heart,” according to the center’s mission statement. 

The Center for Catholic Education provides spiritual and professional formation in the area of mission and Catholic identity for educators already working in Catholic schools. 

“At Aquinas College, we have the unique privilege of providing the best education possible to our young Dominican sisters, preparing them to bring Christ into the schools in which they will serve,” Sister Cecilia Anne said. “We then allow the beautiful and rich overflow from this to be given to any lay students who share in our vision, forming teachers and leaders prepared to be witnesses to truth and charity in the world.” 

60th anniversary celebration picnic 

Aquinas College will close its 60th anniversary year with a celebration picnic from 11-3 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at 4210 Harding Road in Nashville. 

The free picnic will feature food, fun and fellowship, including lunch beginning at noon and children’s games. 

The school is inviting alumni and the public to help it celebrate 60 years of serving the Catholic church and the Nashville community. 

A RSVP is not required but appreciated. Send an RSVP to

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