The Recorder – Northfield seniors tour Thomas Aquinas College campus

NORTHFIELD — A group of Northfield seniors toured the Thomas Aquinas College campus on Tuesday, learning about the school’s instruction and history while also sharing their personal experiences on the historic grounds.

The tour group consisted of around 20 participants. Many of them were at the event courtesy of the “Happy Feet” program, a Northfield Senior Center group that organizes walking tours. Previous walks have been held at Barton Cove in Gill, the Turners Falls canal and other sites. Recently, the program also started holding walks with Northfield Elementary School kindergartners.

“The reason we picked them was because the campus is beautiful, the area has a lot of history and a lot of people who used to be professors at (NMH) were curious about what changes had been made,” said Senior Center Director Colleen Letourneau .

The tour, which was originally intended to be held during the school’s winter break but was delayed to the summer due to inclement weather, was led by Associate Director of Admissions John Jost. Jost, an alumnus of Thomas Aquinas College’s larger campus in Santa Paula, California, was joined by Visitor Coordinator and Admissions Assistant Caroline Guinee, Assistant to the Dean Andrea McCann and Pedro da Silva, a rising sophomore from Brazil who is staying at the campus over summer break.

Explaining the history of the 217-acre campus that was founded by 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, Jost noted the grounds were previously owned by Northfield Mount Hermon School. When NMH consolidated to its Gill campus in 2005, the land was left vacant for more than a decade. Hobby Lobby purchased the land and ultimately donated it to the National Christian Foundation in 2012, which in turn gave it to Thomas Aquinas College for use as a secondary campus.

Jost said he is proud of the way that the campus, while trying to build something new, has also tried to maintain a sense of continuity with the campus’ previous tenants.

Many of the tour participants shared their own history with the campus while it was still owned by NMH, being students themselves, professors or parents of students. One resident recounted how their daughter was married in the campus chapel while another noted how the chairs in the auditorium had changed since she was a student there.

The first stop on the tour was Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel. On the back wall, Jost pointed out four pictures, depicting the chapel’s evolution from the unused building it was when the campus opened in 2019, to the colorful and vibrant place it is today. The chapel holds Mass twice a day, and is considering holding three Masses on Sunday next school year.

The tour then moved on to the Tracy Student Center, which an NMH alum remembered as the old gymnasium. Jost explained that the building serves as a social hub for the campus’ small student body, with activities such as foosball, ping-pong and a study hall in the former running track upstairs. The hall is also used as a dance hall.

“This is as convenient as it gets,” Jost said. “It’s where we love to have our dances.”

Jost also spoke about how Thomas Aquinas College intends to remain a small campus. The Massachusetts campus opened in 2019 with roughly 60 students in two classes, and recently celebrated its first commencement ceremony for students who had arrived as sophomores. As of 2022, the student population has grown to 180, but the school plans to cap enrollment at 400 students, with 100 students per class.

“We want to maintain a close-knit community,” he explained.

The college has a rather high percentage of international students, making up 20% of students in last year’s freshman class. Da Silva noted how many students, himself included, could not find the education they wanted in their country, and heard recommendations about Thomas Aquinas College by students from their countries. Jost added that the students are making a strong commitment to the school, as many of them do not return home until after they graduate.

The tour ended in a classroom in the Palmer Building. Gathering the tour group around a long table, Jost explained the school’s “Catholic liberal” educational model and academic mission. In each class, after an opening prayer, the professor asks a question about the text, which the students then discuss for the duration of the class.

“We think it’s important for students to ask questions to help with (their faith),” Jost added.

Noting how everyone is essentially taking a “double major in theology and philosophy,” Jost mentioned that students are encouraged to view their disparate classes as part of a combined whole. As an example, he mentioned that a student might be doing a math class, but he or she might bring up a concept from science or philosophy. To help with this, the college also has a long-term goal for the faculty to teach every course the college offers. In the 50 years since the California campus opened, Jost said only four or five professors have completed the whole curriculum.

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