Past St. Thomas presidents.

Tales from the Archives: Interesting Facts About Past St. Thomas Presidents

As the St. Thomas community prepares to celebrate the inauguration of President Robert Vischer May 12, take a moment to review some other interesting facts about former St. Thomas presidents.

The oak desk in the President’s Office has been used by every St. Thomas president since 1933.

Father Thomas O’Gorman, ca. 1882.

Father Thomas O’Gorman, the first rector of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, was a childhood friend of Archbishop Ireland. They were both chosen by Bishop Cretin to be educated at seminaries in France and later returned to the Diocese of Saint Paul to serve as priests.

Father Edward F.X. McSweeny is known as the St. Thomas president with the shortest tenure, serving for just over nine months (September 1887 to June 1888). Unfortunately, McSweeny’s health suffered during what became known as the harshest winter in Minnesota history, and he resigned to return to Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Father James Keane was the youngest person appointed to lead St. Thomas. Keane was only 32 years old when he was tapped by Archbishop Ireland to become the third rector of the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in 1888.

Father James Byrne was the last rector of the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (1892-94) and the first president of the College of St. Thomas (1894-99).

Father John Dolphin at his desk in the old Administration Building, 1903.

Although Father John Dolphin served as the president of St. Thomas for only four years, his impact on the school was significant. By admitting I.A. O’Shaughnessy to St. Thomas after his expulsion from St. John’s, Dolphin sowed the seeds of gratitude in one of the most influential donors in St. Thomas’ history.

Four of St. Thomas’ 16 presidents have been immigrants to the U.S. Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan and Monsignor James Moynihan were born in Ireland; Father Thomas Cullen and Father John Foley hailed from Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan and Monsignor James Moynihan are the only two siblings to have served as St. Thomas presidents. Humphrey served as president from 1903-21, while his brother James served from 1933-43.

Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan was the only person to have been both president of St. Thomas (1903-21) and rector of The Saint Paul Seminary (1921-33).

Father Matthew Schumacher C.S.C. was the only member of a religious order to have led St. Thomas. Schumacher served as president from 1928-33, during which time the Holy Cross Fathers were under contract by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul to administer the school. It was during his tenure that the school’s first campus plan was created, leading to the construction of the first Kasota stone-clad building, now known as Aquinas Hall, which has since become a distinctive feature of St. Thomas’ campus.

Monsignor Vincent Flynn was the only leader of St. Thomas to meet with a sitting U.S. president on campus. Harry S. Truman made a brief stop at the Arches on Nov. 11, 1949, on his way to a speaking engagement in St. Paul.

Monsignor Vincent Flynn (l) greeting President Harry Truman, 1949.

Monsignor Vincent Flynn and Monsignor James Shannon were the only graduates of the College of St. Thomas to serve as presidents of St. Thomas. In 1941, Shannon was the winner of the Tommie Award (then the Mr. Tommy Award), the only person who has received this honor to serve as president of St. Thomas.

Father James Shannon standing on the steps of Aquinas Hall, 1956.

While president of St. Thomas, Monsignor James Shannon was invited by Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at a memorial service in Selma, Alabama, on March 15, 1965, for slain civil rights leader Reverend James Reeb.

Monsignor Terrence Murphy, 1976.

Monsignor Terrence Murphy holds the distinction as the longest-serving St. Thomas president, having led the institution for an impressive 25 years, from 1966-91. During his tenure, he transformed the college into a comprehensive university, led the establishment of campuses in Minneapolis and Owatonna, and oversaw the school’s transition to full coeducation.

Father Dennis Dease standing in his office in Aquinas Hall, 1991.

Father Dennis Dease was one of six St. Thomas presidents who were graduates of The Saint Paul Seminary. (Others include Father Thomas Cullen, Father John Foley, Monsignor Vincent Flynn, Monsignor James Shannon and Monsignor Terrence Murphy.) During his 22-year tenure, Dease saw the establishment of the Bernardi Campus, the reopening of the School of Law and the construction of no fewer than 12 new campus buildings.

Dr. Julie Sullivan was the first woman and the first lay Catholic appointed president of the University of St. Thomas when she became St. Thomas’ 15th president in 2013. She served for nine years. During her tenure, St. Thomas launched the Morrison Family College of Health and Dougherty Family College, established a two-year residency requirement and oversaw the historic move from Division III to Division I athletics. 

President Julie Sullivan and Father Chris Collins.
University President Julie Sullivan and Vice President for Mission Father Christopher Collins speak together during the broadcast of the State of the University in February 2022.
Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas