This Was St. Thomas

St. Thomas opened its doors on Sept. 8 with a rector, a faculty of five priests and 62 students. It was located on what was called Finn’s Farm, 60 acres of woodland and meadow situated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. In its first decade, St. Thomas was a high school, college and seminary,…

St. Thomas opened its doors on Sept. 8 with a rector, a faculty of five priests and 62 students. It was located on what was called Finn’s Farm, 60 acres of woodland and meadow situated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.

In its first decade, St. Thomas was a high school, college and seminary, and students enrolled in classical, commercial or theological departments. Tuition, room and board was $200 a year and military training was required until becoming optional in 1922.

Part of St. Thomas archivist Ann Kenne’s job is keeping the history of St. Thomas as seen through photographs. Here are some photos she chose of the early St. Thomas that range from 1886 to 1914. This is the first in Kenne’s series on the history of St. Thomas.

On the Shores of Lake Mennith, circa 1905

Lake Mennith was created on the campus of the St. Thomas Seminary in 1887 when a dam was built across a small stream that flowed through the college grounds. It was named for former Archbishop Thomas Grace’s titular see. The St. Thomas students enjoyed the small lake by taking small sailboats on it in the spring and fall and using it as a skating rink in the winter months. As one student commented in the student newspaper, Purple and Gray:

“When we returned to school last September we found a pretty little lake where we had left an ugly swamp last June. Now every day a hundred skaters skimming with graceful swiftness in all directions testify to the exhilarating sport which the ice furnishes.”

The lake disappeared from the campus landscape before 1910 after the city of St. Paul built a sewer line across campus, draining away the water from the small stream. The lake covered a portion of the current O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library site, as well as part of O’Shaughnessy Educational Center, some of Murray-Herrick Campus Center and the portion of the quad east of the main north-south sidewalk.

Philomathic Literary and Debating Society, no date

Literary societies were one of the most popular types of student groups on college and university campuses in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These societies provided a wholesome social outlet for the students as well as an opportunity for them to hone their writing and public speaking skills. The Philomathic Literary and Debating Society was founded at the College of St. Thomas in 1900. Among other activities, the group sponsored debates on the hot topics of the day such as “Are the labor unions of America beneficial to the nation?” and “Should Chinese immigration be restricted?” The society disbanded in 1908 with the St. Thomas Debating Society continuing in its place.

Junior Class Banquet, 1908

One of the most eagerly anticipated traditions of the college was the Junior Class Banquet. Held in the basement of the Old Administration Building, the 1908 fete was described in the St. Thomas Collegian in this way:

“The Social Function of the last quarter was the annual banquet given by the Juniors in honor of the graduating class. Both classes spent an evening of perfect pleasure, the realization of the quotation that bound the class mottos together ‘Dum vivimus vivamus.’ The banquet itself was an elaborate affair. The toasts were rich with wit and reminiscence with just a twinge of regret stealing in now and then as some speech by a senior, having touched on the years spent at St. Thomas, would dwell on the parting of ways and wish the Juniors god-speed in carrying on the good work.

William Grace and Mike Powers in “Handy Andy,” January 1902

Farces and melodramas were the typical dramatic fare for students at St. Thomas at the turn of the 20th century. The students at the all-male College of St. Thomas followed the widely held practice at the time of males portraying the female parts of the play as well. Some students were more adept at this practice than others, as the The Purple and Gray observed one student acting in a female part “impersonated in such a way that called for much favorable comment.”

Annual Military Inspection, 1914

Dating from his own military service in the United States Civil War, Ireland believed in the maturing value that military training brought to the development of young men. It was at his behest that in 1903 the Rev. Humphrey Moynihan, then president of the College of St. Thomas, began the process of establishing a military training program on campus. In September 1905, the college had a contract with the U.S. War Department to place it on the footing of a military school with the government providing an officer to oversee training and furnishing the necessary equipment. St. Thomas was designated a military college in 1907 and by 1908 was ranked among the top 10 of such academies in the nation. Military training was at first mandatory for all students, but by 1922 the obligation was reduced to St. Thomas Academy students and optional for those enrolled in the college.

Old Administration Building, 1886

“Old Ad,” as it was affectionately nicknamed, was the first home of the St. Thomas Seminary when it opened in 1885. Originally built in 1874 by the Diocese of St. Paul as the Catholic Industrial School, this multipurpose building served as a space for classrooms, living quarters for professors, the dining hall, the library, a small chapel and several student dormitories. After surviving at least two fires and heavy use, the Old Ad was demolished in 1931 after Aquinas Hall (the new administration building) was constructed.

St. Thomas Baseball Team, 1900-01

Baseball was the dominant sport at St. Thomas at the turn of the 20th century. The first baseball team was fielded by the school in 1886 when the Shadow Falls Base Ball Club was organized. The school played other amateur clubs from the local area, until the Minnesota Athletic Conference was established in 1902. The school exhibited its prowess in the sport by winning the conference championship trophy in the initial three years of the conference.

The Old Chapel, 1907

The first free-standing chapel on the campus of St. Thomas was constructed in 1907. Previous to that time, church services and assemblies were held in a small chapel in the basement of the Old Administration Building. As the number of students and neighbors of the college wishing to attend services on campus grew, the pressing need for a separate chapel became apparent. The wood frame chapel had a short lifespan and quickly became too small to serve the needs of the growing campus population. It was torn down in 1917 and replaced by the current Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.

About the author

Ann Kenne, head of Special Collections at the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center, came to St. Thomas in 1998 as the university archivist and records manager. She received both her B.S. in political science and her M.A. in library and information science from the University of Iowa.

Kenne is especially interested in enhancing the collection of materials relating to student life held by the St. Thomas Archives. Scrapbooks, diaries and photographs of students documenting their years at St. Thomas provide a unique perspective to those interested in the history of the school. Persons wishing to give such materials to the archives can e-mail her at or write her at O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library, Mail# 4068, 2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105-1096.