President’s Opening Convocation: Dease's remarks center on quasquicentennial, social entrepreneurship

Editor’s note: Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, spoke to faculty and administrators at his annual academic convocation Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 8, in O'Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium. In case you missed the convocation, Dease’s remarks, titled "125 Years in Service of the Common Good: The Mission Then and Now," follow. (Or, watch video.)

Founding of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary

It was exactly 124 years ago today, on September 8, 1885, that a handful of educators gathered for the formal opening of the first academic year of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, the forerunner of what was to become in time the University of St. Thomas.

Historian Marvin O’Connell, in his definitive biography of Archbishop John Ireland, the founder of St. Thomas, cites the first rector’s reflection on that day:

The morning of September 8 … dawned cool and cloudy. The grounds were wet after a thunderstorm the night before. In the seminary’s little chapel the rector celebrated mass in the presence of his five faculty colleagues and sixty-two students. The rest of the day was taken up with the chores of registration. Classes opened the next afternoon, but the sessions were brief. ‘There being no books, no desks,’ the rector noted in his diary, ‘very little was possible.’ The rector was Thomas O’Gorman.1

 The one material resource the new institution did have was land. The woods and meadows along the east bank of the Mississippi on which Saint Thomas was built were made available as the result of a freak accident almost four decades earlier. On July 9, 1847, a young infantryman by the name of William Finn, an Irish immigrant, was wrapping up his guard duty at Fort Snelling when his rifle accidently discharged, blowing off the forefinger of his right hand. His compensation for his partial disability was 160-acres of land upon which to start a farm. William and his wife, Elizabeth, eventually transferred this property to Archbishop John Ireland. Had it not been for a young soldier’s mishap, it is unlikely that the University of St. Thomas and The Saint Paul Seminary would be where they are today. I love this little story – perhaps because on occasion I have shot myself … in the foot. 

With the commencement of this academic year the University of St. Thomas begins its 125th year of service to the community. Thanks to the devotion of colleagues who have gone before us and who possessed sufficient faith in the future to invest their lives in this work, St. Thomas begins this year in a position of strength. It is fitting for us to acknowledge that this thriving university community is made possible by the dreams, labor and sacrifices of almost a century-and-a-quarter.  As the old Celtic saying reminds us: “We drink from wells we did not dig and are warmed by fires we did not build.” Therefore our observance this year should be one filled with gratitude. It should also serve as a reminder of the stewardship that has been entrusted to us. Something very precious has been placed in our care.

St. Thomas was founded in large part to serve the educational needs of underprivileged immigrants. The founder was himself an immigrant who possessed an unusual appreciation of the power of education. It became his principal priority.

Archbishop John Ireland was born in Ireland in 1838 and spent his early childhood in the dark years of the mid-19th century potato famine. O’Connell has observed that from a distance of more than a century-and-a-half it may be difficult for us to imagine the kind of Ireland of the 1850s that the 12-year-old’s family fled in search of survival in the United States, or the cold reception they received here. As O’Connell, wrote:

It cannot be overemphasized…that he had begun life as a refugee, a displaced person, who as a child had fled from his homeland and from the unimaginable horrors of the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Once arrived in an America where help wanted signs had routinely appended to them the terse statement “Irish Need Not Apply,” the Ireland family drifted from place to inhospitable place…. Typical of the masses of immigrants who crowded into the United States in the nineteenth century, John Ireland, his parents, and his siblings, were people nobody wanted, rootless, unsettled, insecure.2

Perhaps because John Ireland had experienced more than a child should of deprivation, chaos and fear he became determined to use the years allotted to him to their fullest advantage to improve the lot of others. Unlike Europe where higher education was mostly limited to the aristocracy, Ireland saw in America a land of unparalleled opportunity where education could open doors to a better life for the multitudes of immigrants amassing on its soil. The key to it all, of course, would be access.

In selecting the name “St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary” after the renowned 13th century Dominican scholar, Ireland likely intended to honor his predecessor and mentor, Bishop Thomas Grace, who was also a member of the Dominican Order and who had long dreamed of one day seeing a Catholic institution of higher learning grace his community. Ireland used the term “seminary” in the loose sense of the word since his fledgling institution included laity as well.3

In its first decade St. Thomas combined three distinct educational purposes within one organization: a college-preparatory school, a college for classical and professional studies, and a seminary. By 1894 growth made it necessary to split the three programs into three distinct institutions. The college preparatory school became Saint Thomas Academy, which remained on this campus until 1965. The seminary program became The Saint Paul Seminary. And the program of classical and professional studies became what is today the University of St. Thomas.

Jim Winterer of University Relations has posted on the university’s Web site a fascinating decade-by-decade summary of key events and interesting little stories from the history of St. Thomas. For example:

A small stream that meandered through campus was dammed in the summer of 1887. As described by a student, “When we returned to school last September we found a pretty little lake where we had left an ugly swamp last June." Students used Lake Mennith for boating and skating until it was drained 13 years later.4

Why was it named “Mennith”? I think I have pieced together the answer to that question, but you’ll have to consult the endnotes to these remarks to find out.5

In 1894, nine years after the founding of St. Thomas, and with the financial backing of railroad baron, James J. Hill, Ireland opened The Saint Paul Seminary. Hill was himself no mean entrepreneur. Known in his time as “the Empire Builder” he was also a micro-manager. He personally inspected on horseback the more than1700-mile proposed transcontinental route from Saint Paul to Seattle that opened in 1893.

To design the seminary Hill chose a young architect by the name of Cass Gilbert. Gilbert put up six buildings, but not without exasperating oversight by Hill. The seminary’s original administration building looked like a railway depot and the three residence halls that still stand – Grace, Cretin and Loras – resemble three train boxcars lined up in a row. Even though the final cost of the construction of the six buildings had come in well under budget, Hill greatly vexed the young architect by challenging some minor, unapproved changes that appeared in the final invoice. One can admire some of the young architect’s touches by visiting the former seminary gymnasium that currently serves as the university’s Service Center and South Campus power-plant. Though Gilbert is better known for having gone on to design the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul and the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, we, of course, know that Grace, Cretin and Loras Halls were, in actual fact, his crowning achievement.6

“One of the more unusual tales from St. Thomas’ early history,” As Jim Winterer puts it in his decade-by-decade summary:

… took place on a January evening in 1902.  Father John Dolphin, rector, met a weary-looking young man who had just been expelled from St. John's University for drinking beer in the woods instead of attending a prayer service.  When Ignatius A. O'Shaughnessy admitted his expulsion was fair and deserved, Dolphin invited him to attend St. Thomas. After graduation, the grateful student showered his alma mater with gifts that included athletic, library and classroom facilities.7

Certain events stand out as milestones in the institution’s evolution. In 1910, for example, St. Thomas conferred its first baccalaureate degrees. In 1916 it achieved its first regional accreditation. In 1923 it opened a law school that closed in 1933, a victim of the Great Depression. Interestingly, the last remaining graduate of that program, the late Judge Archie Gingold, lived to serve on the exploratory committee headed by Judge Diana Murphy that in 1999 recommended to the Board of Trustees the re-opening of the law school.

Given the growing financial and leadership problems that developed in the decade following Ireland’s death the Board of Trustees in 1928 outsourced the administration of the College of St. Thomas for five years to a group of highly skilled educators from the Congregation of the Holy Cross – the religious community that sponsors the University of Notre Dame – who managed to reverse the decline of the 1920s and stabilize the institution. [True to form they also designed a domed football stadium, the plans for which remain to this day in the archives.]

In 1950 St. Thomas established its first graduate program, a master’s degree in education. Twenty-four years later it launched its first master’s program in business. Now it has seven academic divisions: the College of Applied Professional Studies - Education and Professional Psychology; the College of Arts and Sciences; the College of Business; the School of Engineering; the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity; the School of Law; and the School of Social Work. In 1977, the college admitted women undergraduate students for the first time. Parenthetically, that was my first year of teaching at St. Thomas and it was an exciting and energizing time. In 1990 the Board of Trustees changed the name from the College of St. Thomas to the University of St. Thomas reflecting the evolution that had occurred.

Today the university’s mission rests upon four pillars: faith, liberal arts, professional education and community engagement.  As the mission statement reads:

Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.

The Opus Prize

 Given our formal commitment to serving the common good, it is fitting that as we mark this 125th year of the university we will host the conferral of the Opus Prize for social entrepreneurship. As the Opus Prize Web site describes the honor:

The Opus Prize is a $1 million faith-based humanitarian award and two $100,000 awards given annually to recognize unsung heroes who, guided by faith and an entrepreneurial spirit, are conquering the world’s most persistent social problems.

Social entrepreneurs from Brazil, Colombia and Morocco will be honored by St. Thomas and the Opus Prize Foundation in November. One of them will receive a $1 million award and the other two will each receive a $100,000 prize to further their organizations’ faith-based humanitarian efforts. The identity of the $1 million award winner will be announced at the Opus Prize presentation at 8 p.m. on November 4 in Orchestra Hall, and I hope you will attend.

Luncheon discussions will be held on the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses on November 5 for students, faculty and staff to meet the honorees and to highlight the congruence between their work and our mission. Other related activities will continue at St. Thomas throughout the academic year.

The Minnetonka-based foundation and St. Thomas are collaborating in the Opus Prize awards.8 A St. Thomas committee led by Dr. Charles Keffer worked on the project for 18 months and identified 23 nominees. In May and June St. Thomas students, faculty and staff accompanied foundation representatives on due-diligence visits to the three finalists, after which the foundation board chose the winners. All funding for the prizes comes from the foundation. 

The finalists

 The finalists are:

  • Aïcha Ech Channa, who is founder and president of Association Solidarité Femininé, which since 1985 has provided services in Casablanca, Morocco, to help unmarried women with children gain the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure their own livelihoods.
  • Sister Valeriana García-Martín is is founder and director of the Asociación Hogares Luz y Vida (“Homes of Light and Life”) in Bogotá, Colombia, which cares for 145 physically and mentally disabled children and educates or provides day care services for 850 children from the community. She founded Luz y Vida in 1991.
  • Father Hans Stapel, O.F.M., is co-founder and president of Fazenda da Esperanca (“Farms of Hope”), which has established more than 60 therapeutic communities in 10 countries to help people with drug and alcohol addictions rebuild their lives. He founded the first fazenda in 1983 in Guaratinguetá, Brazil.

Social entrepreneurship

 As we salute these three extraordinary individuals one cannot help but note in this 125th year of St. Thomas a certain congruence with the social entrepreneurial spirit of our founder, a trait that endures in this university’s culture and in its mission “to advance the common good.”

As the leader of the young, local and largely immigrant Catholic community from his installation in 1884 at the age of 46 until his death in 1918 at the age of 80, John Ireland demonstrated again and again the qualities of an extraordinary entrepreneur. He once said that Jesus “made the social question the basis of his ministry.”9 In the same decade that he established St. Thomas, according to O’Connell, “Ireland founded thirty-eight new parishes …a school for deaf children, a boy’s orphanage, three homes for ‘friendless and unprotected’ girls, two hospitals, and perhaps fifteen grammar and secondary schools.”10 He was rapidly assembling a network of services that would systematically serve the most critical needs of those most at risk. In all of this Ireland exhibited the qualities characteristic of the entrepreneur. As O’Connell wrote:

His administrative style was always to press a project forward with what resources were available at the moment, to keep up always a bold public front, and then to deal later with problems as they emerged... To seize an opportunity seemed more important to him than any risk of failure.11

 Though I do not know whether those with expertise in the matter would conclude that Ireland fits the definition of a “social entrepreneur,” I do know that he addressed social challenges boldly and systematically.

What is social entrepreneurship? The term has been gaining popularity in recent years, and particularly since Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi professor-of-economics-turned-banker received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for having developed and put into practice the concept of microcredit.

I am grateful to Dr. Mel Gray, Professor of Business Economics, for introducing me to the work of J. Gregory Dees (no relation to this speaker) who describes social entrepreneurship as the art of “deliberately using business ventures to serve the public good” ... by creating “lasting social change.”12 To be more precise, according to Dees, “Social entrepreneurs are one species in the genus entrepreneur. They are entrepreneurs with a social mission.”13 David Bornstein, who authored the influential How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, and who will address the Vaclav Havel Symposium here on campus in October, describes social entrepreneurs as those working in the citizen sector who employ business techniques to bring about systemic social change.14

I am also indebted to Dr. Michael Naughton, holder of the Moss Endowed Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Dr. John McVea, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship, who, on the other hand, caution that in its enthusiasm for embracing the concept of social entrepreneurship society should not forget that “all forms of entrepreneurship should be seen as explicitly social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic …” They propose in a forthcoming article “to use the recent development of the term social entrepreneurship to re-emphasize the social dimensions that should be developed in all forms of entrepreneurship as well as in all organizations.”15

I would simply add two observations: first, I could hardly imagine a scholarly discussion on a topic of greater importance for the future advancement of human society – particularly in the developing world; and second, the employment of entrepreneurial strategies to improve the human condition, whether in the business sector or in the citizen sector, can readily find enthusiastic endorsement in the life and work of John Ireland as well as in the mission statement, curriculum and community engagement of the University of St. Thomas. 

The university begins its 125th year

 Our vision

 As the university looks back with gratitude in this its 125th year, it also looks forward with confidence. We know whence we have come. Now we must look to the future. We do not, of course, have in our possession a crystal ball; but we do have a statement of vision that was, thoughtfully crafted by the university community and approved in 2006 by our Board of Trustees. Our Vision Statement reads:

We seek to be a recognized leader in Catholic higher education that excels in effective teaching, active learning, scholarly research and responsible engagement with the local community as well as with the national and global communities in which we live.

In other words, it is the hope and expectation of this community that n the years ahead it will increasingly be distinguished by these four strengths: 

  1. Effective teaching,
  2. Active learning,
  3. Scholarly research and
  4. Responsible engagement with the community.                                                                                                                                                                                         

Opening Doors

To give life to this vision will require nothing less than the very best efforts of St. Thomas’ talented faculty and capable professional staff. It will also need qualified students who come here with a desire to learn. And it will necessitate the generous support of benefactors. Sr. Sally Furay, provost emerita of the University of San Diego, trustee emerita of St. Thomas and a founding member of the St. Thomas Law School Board of Governors, once told the Board of Trustees that her religious community serving in London in the early 1900s would every year select the same Jesuit priest to conduct their annual spiritual retreats. One of his admonitions, repeated year after year, became legendary among the nuns. He would bellow: “Sisters, we need two things to carry out our mission in this world: the grace of God and the English pound.” I’ve asked Mark Dienhart and his capable staff to do something about the latter, and for the former, well … I’ve turned to Father John Malone. So … let me say a word about the latter – not about Father. Malone, but about fundraising.

We have a little over three years remaining in the current capital fundraising effort we call, Opening Doors. This campaign is focused on three strategic priorities: access, excellence and Catholic identity. Thus far we have raised the remarkable sum of $373 million. Our goal is $500 million.


If our capital campaign achieves its goals, our future will be one of improved access for a broad range of qualified students. We will also be better able to serve a talented and diverse student body “by reducing financial barriers and improving the environment for under-represented groups on campus.”16


Our second priority is excellence. This lofty objective requires the total commitment of faculty, staff and administration. As the strategic plan states:

In our undergraduate and graduate programs, we cultivate life-long learning through the practice of active learning strategies that promote intellectual curiosity and combine the analytical skills of a liberal arts education with the practical skills that are part of career preparation. We acknowledge that development of the St. Thomas learning community requires students, faculty, staff and alumni/ae to be fully dedicated to the highest quality education at every level, and the creation of an educational experience at the undergraduate level that is infused with active learning techniques, and is integrative of campus and community.17

Catholic identity

Our third priority is our Catholic mission. Again I cite the strategic plan:

The Catholic identity of the University of St. Thomas is manifested in various ways. It can be seen through the University’s continuing examination and engagement with the Catholic intellectual, social and spiritual tradition; through its embracing of the richness and complexity of the meaning of Catholicism; through the dedication of all members of the University to active exploration of the contributions they might make to the education of morally responsible leaders who are committed to the advancement of the common good; and through its unique mission as a university in and of the city.18

Our vision assumes the fundamental compatibility – indeed, complementarity – of faith and reason. It also takes as a starting point, the commitment articulated by Archbishop Michael Miller, former secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education: “Essential to a [university’s] genuine catholicity . . . is the promotion of justice and the Gospel’s 'option of preference for the poor’."19

Details regarding each of these priorities – access, excellence and Catholic identity – and how we will achieve them can be found on the Web site for the university’s Office for Mission.


Thomas Edison once observed: “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” St. Thomas has accomplished much in its nearly 125-year history. It is well positioned to accomplish ever so much more. I have no doubt that historians will look back on this stage in the life of the institution – on our watch, as it were – and observe that the university was steadily taking many small steps that over time became giant strides. We know who we are. We know what makes us unique. We know our strengths. We know our challenges. We know where we want to go. We have generous trustees and benefactors who do their part to help us get there. And, lastly and by no means least importantly, we are graced with the strongest, most qualified faculty in the history of the institution – scholars and master teachers. Our professional staff members are expert and proficient. Our students are bright and capable, the average ACT scores of entering classes have risen steadily and the Carnegie Classification now designates the university as “more selective,” meaning that it falls within the top fifth of institutions in its category: doctoral research institutions. Finally, we can be grateful in this quasquicentennial year that we have been blessed with one of the strongest and most generous boards of trustees of any university in the country.

We will continue to work to construct and maintain high quality and up-to-date physical facilities. We will nurture our endowment. We will foster university’s strong standing regionally and its growing reputation nationally.

The University of St. Thomas is a community that cares. It cares about students. It cares about the communities it serves. It cares about contributing to a better world. Pope Benedict has written: “Love – caritas – is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.”20 If our Catholic mission means anything it means that this force should be alive and well within our walls. It should also mean that this is a community that does not bury its talents – but instead strives to do nothing less than all that of which it is capable. In a word, we have every intention of getting even better at what we do.

We have been “opening doors” for 125 years, and with the successful conclusion of our current capital campaign, we will be doing so for many years to come.

John Ireland would be proud.

 End notes

1Marvin R. O’Connell, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church (1988), p. 202.

2Marvin R. O’Connell, ”Meximieux and Mr. Hill: John Ireland’s Dream Come True,” Centennial Address, The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas, Sept. 8, 1994, p. 5. Quoted in Mary Christine Athans, To Work for the Whole People: John Ireland’s Seminary in St. Paul (2002), p. 31. 

3In fact, only about 25 percent of the first graduating class went on to post-baccalaureate theological study.

4Jim Winterer. For a crash course on how St. Thomas made it from 1885 to 2009, visit the university's quasquicentennial timeline that goes live for the first time today.  The timeline offers a guided tour of some of the most fascinating materials found in the St. Thomas Archives.

5 I assume the lake had been named in honor of retired Bishop Thomas Grace. Mennith was the name of the suppressed see in Arabia to which Grace had been symbolically assigned when in 1884 he retired early as Bishop of the Diocese of Saint Paul to allow his designated successor, John Ireland, to take part in an historic council of United States Catholic bishops in Baltimore. The Catholic Church requires that every bishop be associated, at least titularly, with a particular diocese.

6 Mary Christine Athans, To Work for the Whole People: John Ireland’s Seminary in St. Paul (2002), pp. 56 ff.

7Jim Winterer,

8To read more about the Opus Prize, go to or

9John Ireland, The Mission of Catholics in America, p. 96.

10Marvin R. O'Connell, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church (1988), p. 200.

11 Marvin R. O’Connell, John Ireland, p. 201.

12 J. Gregory Dees, “Philanthropy and Enterprise: Harnessing the Power of Business and Entrepreneurship for Social Change,"  presented at the 2007 Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty  , p. 1.

13J. Gregory Dees, "The Meaning of 'Social Entrepreneurship,'" (May 30, 2001), p. 2.

14David Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2007). See also: The Price of a Dream: the Story of the Grameen Bank (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

15Letter from Michael Naughton and John McVea to Dennis Dease, July 2009. Their working draft is titled: “The Damage Social Entrepreneurship Can do to Entrepreneurship Rethinking the Meaning of the Good Entrepreneur.”

16University of St. Thomas Strategic Priorities (Approved by Board of Trustees May 4, 2006), “Access,” Priority 2.

17“Excellence,” Priorities 1-4.

18“Catholic Identity.”

19Archbishop J. Michael Miller, Secretary, Congregation for Catholic Education, “Catholic Universities and Their Catholic Identity,” 35:27 (Dec. 15, 2005), p. 451.

20Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter (2009), 1.