A 156-year snapshot of UST: Some history for Heritage Week

(Editor’s note: The following brief history of the University of St. Thomas was written for the recently published Celebrate Saint Paul: 150 Years of History. The book was prepared in connection with the sesquicentennial celebration this summer of the Grand Excursion. In June 1854, a group of more than 1,000 people, including President Millard Fillmore, traveled by train, steamboat and carriage, bound for the outpost of St. Paul. Their journey became known as the Grand Excursion. St. Thomas would not open its doors for another 31 years, but something unusual already had happened that that would lead to the university’s founding near the banks of the Mississippi. Here’s the story.)

When scientists study chaos theory, they ponder how a small event, like the gentle flap of a butterfly wing, might lead to a much larger event, like a powerful thunderstorm.

Maybe that theory was at work 156 years ago when a misfired musket at Fort Snelling led to the founding in St. Paul of what would become the state’s largest and, according to a recent survey, most respected private university.

On a warm July day in 1847 – two years before St. Paul would become the capital of the Minnesota territory – a young Irish immigrant named William Finn accidentally shot his hand while completing guard duty at the frontier fort. In part because of his injury, Finn was allowed to select a quarter section of land near the fort when he was discharged a year later.

Finn explored the unsettled countryside and selected a choice tract a few miles upriver. By 1854, the year of the Grand Excursion, the former infantryman already was expanding his thriving new farm. Called Shadow Falls for a small waterfall that still tumbles down the city’s river bluff, the site was four miles west of the growing village of St. Paul and three miles downriver from the little lumbering settlement of St. Anthony. It was a good location for a farm, but an even better one for a college. As Finn neared retirement, he wanted his land to serve a charitable purpose and transferred the property to the church.

In 1885, just a stone’s throw from the original Finn farmhouse, Archbishop John Ireland opened the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary. Sixty-two students and a faculty of five lived in a building described as “spacious, perfectly ventilated, heated throughout with steam, lighted with gas, and possessing all arrangements conducive to comfort.”

While it was called a seminary, it also served as a high school and college. A few years later, with support from railroader James J. Hill, the theological department moved to a new campus next door and became the St. Paul Seminary. The liberal arts portion remained on the former farmstead and became the College of St. Thomas. More recently, in 1987, the St. Paul Seminary reunited with St. Thomas, and in 1990 the College of St. Thomas became the University of St. Thomas.

That name change reflected what had happened to St. Thomas in the 20th century, and especially what happened in recent decades. St. Thomas went from a mostly all-male undergraduate college of 2,500 students to a coeducational comprehensive university of more than 11,000. It added a graduate business program that became one of the largest in the country, and a graduate software program that became one of the largest in the world. It increased the number of undergraduate majors from 34 to 87 and went from one graduate program (in education) to 50 graduate programs (in music, law, social work, English, art history, Catholic studies, business, counseling psychology, manufacturing engineering, software design, theology, education, pastoral studies and ministry). It added five doctoral programs.

It also more than tripled the number of students of color, welcomed more international students, and rose to the top of national rankings for students who study abroad.

It opened new campuses in Owatonna, downtown Minneapolis, and Rome, Italy. New buildings on its St. Paul campus, meanwhile, continued what many call “the St. Thomas look,” an architectural tradition marked by Collegiate Gothic design and generous use of Mankato-Kasota stone.

While St. Thomas is clearly a Catholic university — home to two seminaries and the nation’s oldest and largest undergraduate program in Catholic studies — it also welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds. Slightly less than half of its students, in fact, are Catholic.

With more than 1,800 employees and an annual budget of $158 million, St. Thomas has become the state’s 15th largest nonprofit organization, and the largest nonprofit outside the field of health care.

Throughout its 118-year history, St. Thomas has pursued a mission to be a Catholic, liberal arts institution that emphasizes values-centered and career-oriented education. It is a mission that encourages students to consider ethics and service in their lives and vocations.

Each year, for example, students volunteer 112,000 hours of community service. The university has been named to the Templeton Foundation’s list of “Colleges that Encourage Character Development,” and in a recent Twin Cities Business Monthly survey on “Which Minnesota nonprofit organizations have the most respected reputations?” St. Thomas ranked fifth behind the Mayo Foundation, Courage Center, United Way and Children’s Hospitals.

Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas since 1991, speaks often about higher education’s mandate to help solve problems faced by the central cities, and especially about St. Thomas’ role as an urban university. “It is one that is not just in or near the city,” he says, “but of the city.”


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