When the Order of Preachers introduced the charism of St. Dominic to the American frontier, they brought with them plans to educate the youth. Just two years after settling their first foundation in the young nation, the Dominicans of the Province of Saint Joseph founded the country’s third Catholic educational institution for boys and the first west of the Allegheny Mountains. This school, St. Thomas College of Springfield, Kentucky, opened its doors in 1807 and educated students from border states and new territories for over twenty years.
While referred to as a college, its own history reveals that St. Thomas would be characterized today as a secondary school. Enrollment drew primarily from students in their teenage years. The curriculum at St. Thomas focused on courses on the sciences and the classics. The path of study was designed to supply a firm educational foundation upon which those first students of the friars could prepare their minds for building the young nation while also directing their efforts toward their growth in virtue.
After the founding of St. Thomas, the successors of those frontier friars would maintain their commitment to preparing and forming the minds and habits of the youth. One concrete manifestation was the establishment of the famed Aquinas College High School in Columbus, Ohio, which opened its doors (originally as St. Patrick’s College) in 1905. Through their commitment of men and financial resources, the friars were able to fulfill a long-standing wish of the Columbus faithful to have a religious school that would provide a broad education to the youth of the city. At its height, twenty-five friars instructed a student body of around 500 students. George Steinbrenner’s first coaching job was as the Aquinas varsity basketball coach for the 1954-55 season. He, of course, then went on to fame as the owner of the New York Yankees.
A combination of factors, including a declining number of friars available for the ministry due to new mission commitments overseas, led Aquinas to close its doors in 1965. While an active alumni association continues to keep fresh the memory and traditions of the school, the closing of Aquinas represented a practical suspension of the friars’ secondary education apostolate.
Today, a fresh wave of vocations to the Dominican order is opening up passages to former, but familiar, ministerial paths. Within the past year, two friars have returned to secondary education. Frs. Matthew Carroll, O.P., and Peter Totleben, O.P., are reengaging with one of the apostolates that characterized the friars’ earliest years in this country.
Fr. Carroll, ordained in 2013, began teaching at St. Vincent Ferrer High School in New York City in the fall of 2016. The Manassas, Virginia native provides instruction on religion to the sophomores of an all-girls secondary school of approximately 500 students located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. After completing his first year in the classroom, Fr. Carroll said of his experience that: “While being a high school teacher is certainly a lot of work, it’s a great blessing to be able to teach and get to know the students. The teenage years are formative ones and it is critical that young people receive a strong introduction to Jesus Christ as part of that formation.”
Fr. Peter offered similar thoughts. After serving at our parish of St Patrick in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016, Fr. Peter relocated to the Eastern border of the State and begin teaching theology, robotics, and mathematics at Cardinal Mooney, a co-ed high school in Youngstown. “Secondary education is an exciting and important apostolate for the Order of Preachers,” said Fr. Peter. “As a high school teacher, I get to lead students to an encounter with Jesus Christ at a crossroads in their lives, so that his Gospel can direct the path of their futures.”
The presence of the Gospel in the high school classroom has arguably never been more in need. Numerous recent statistics show a steep decline in the knowledge, practice, and interest in the faith among Catholic youth. The segment of the population that identifies as ‘nones’ – those having no particular religious beliefs or affiliation – is expanding among our country’s younger generations. Recent surveys, including one sponsored last year by Our Sunday Visitor, reveals that a greater number of Catholic youths, even those who attend Catholic schools, are being assumed into this expanding group of nonbelievers.
The roots of Dominican ministry in the United States lies partially in cultivating the faith among the youth in an educational setting. Through the work of Frs. Carroll and Peter, the province is beginning to reconnect with one of its earliest apostolates in an effort to address the alarming trend toward the abandonment of religion. The expanding number of vocations in our province offers the hope that a new generation of friars will supply a link to the province’s past, that will in turn secure the place of many youth in the future of the Church.
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