A Brief History of Aquinas College

The founding of Aquinas College in 1961 was the realization of a long-held dream of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia of Nashville, Tennessee: to have a place where the newest members of the religious community could receive their initial degrees to serve in the community’s teaching apostolate. Over the years, this fundamental mission has remained, even as the sisters have continually found ways to serve the educational, professional, and catechetical needs of the Nashville community and beyond.

Since their founding in 1860, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation have been devoted to the apostolate of teaching. In order to provide professional preparation for the sisters, the Congregation established St. Cecilia Normal School in 1928. In 1929, the St. Cecilia Normal School became the first institution of its kind to be affiliated with The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. 

In 1961, St. Cecilia Congregation opened Aquinas Junior College, which assumed the purpose of the Normal School. Two significant milestones in the institution’s history occurred at this point: the College was established at its present location on The Dominican Campus, and it was opened to the public. The first students in the fall of 1961 included 50 nursing students from St. Thomas School of Nursing, 13 sisters, and five lay women. In 1962, Aquinas Junior College became co-educational.

In 1971, the College was granted accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award the Associate degree. In 1994, Aquinas Junior College changed its status to a four-year college when approval was given to offer a Bachelor’s degree in education. In 2012, Aquinas College received approval to offer Master’s degrees in education.

In addition to the current array of offerings in teacher preparation programs, past programs in nursing and other health care fields, business, and law enforcement represented the College’s response to the permanent and changing educational needs of the Nashville community and beyond. Sensitivity to the Church’s urgent need for well-formed educators has prompted to College to focus all of its resources on the preparation of teachers at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Along with educating the young sisters of the Congregation, the College continues to provide area schools with lay teachers who have been prepared with a strong spiritual and professional foundation.

Timeline of Aquinas College

1860 Dominican Sisters of the of St. Cecilia Congregation was founded at the request of Bishop James Whelan, O.P.
1923 The property on which Aquinas College presently sits was purchased by Mother Scholastica Breen.
1928 Saint Cecilia Normal School began at the Motherhouse.
1929 Saint Cecilia Normal School was affiliated with the Catholic University of America.
1961 Saint Cecilia Normal School was replaced with Aquinas Junior College.
• The College moved from the Motherhouse to its present location.
• The College was opened to the public for the first time.
• The Congregation’s Prioress General, Mother Joan of Arc Mayo, acted as the College’s first President.
• Sister Dominica Goebel was appointed Academic Dean. She continued to be assigned to the College until her retirement in 1989.
• The first 68 students registered included 50 nursing students from St. Thomas School of Nursing, 13 sisters, and five lay women.
1962 Aquinas became co-educational with the enrollment of its first male students.
1964 Sister Noreen McDowell became President of Aquinas Junior College.
• Sister Noreen worked to obtain accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
• A building campaign was launched to provide the College with a library and assembly hall.
1967 Sister Henry Suso Fletcher was appointed President of the College.
• Sister Henry Suso strove to make Aquinas more known in, and of better service to the Nashville community.
• Theology and Philosophy courses began to be taught.
• Certificate courses were provided for parish religious education instructors.
1968 The Law Enforcement Program was begun, offering an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice. This program was seen as no longer in keeping with the needs of the community and the mission of the College, and eliminated in 1992.
1970 At the recommendation of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the College received a charter from the State of Tennessee and the Aquinas Board of Directors was formed.
1971 Aquinas received full accreditation from SACS to award the Associate Degree.
1972 An athletic field was designed and built on campus, with the first official baseball game played in March of 1974.
1976 The Aquinas Center was completed, providing the College with a physical education building for its inter-collegiate basketball team and other intramural activities. The Aquinas College Annual Benefit Dinner was begun.
1983 Aquinas began its Associate of Science in Nursing program.
1993 The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges granted Aquinas candidacy to award the Bachelor of Arts degree.
1994 Aquinas Junior College became a four-year college, changing its name to Aquinas College and offering a Bachelor’s degree in Teacher Education.
1996 The College began offering a Bachelor of Science in Nursing to allow RNs with two- year degrees to complete their bachelor degree.
1999 The Bachelor of Business Administration degree was added.
2001 Aquinas began its Adult Studies program to provide both Associate and Bachelor Degrees to working adults. Classes began to be offered at additional sites in the Nashville area. The intercollegiate athletic program was eliminated.
2002 Sister Thomas Aquinas Halbmaier, O.P. was named President of Aquinas College.
2004 The library was moved to its new home in the recently renovated Aquinas Center.
2006 The Board of Directors of Aquinas College approved New Horizons 2015 Strategic Plan to provide the vision for the College in the coming years.
2008 Sister Mary Peter Muehlenkamp, O.P. was named President of Aquinas College. The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College included Aquinas College as one of the top 21 Catholic colleges in the nation.
2011 Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, O.P. was named President of Aquinas College.
2012 Aquinas College introduced graduate studies and a residential life program.
2017 Aquinas College reconfigured in order to focus its academic programming on preparation of educators and to strengthen its service to Catholic school teachers, leaders, and catechists through spiritual and professional formation programs.
2017 Sister Mary Agnes Greiffendorf, O.P. was named President of Aquinas College.
2019 The Board of Directors approved Sent to Witness: Aquinas College Strategic Plan 2019-2025.
2020 Sister Cecilia Anne Wanner, O.P. was named President of Aquinas College.