Board of Trustees  
 

 

The History of Aquinas College and The Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids

 
Challenging conventional thinking may not be a practice one typically associates with a small Catholic college, but at Aquinas College, it is a way of life. At Aquinas, critical thinking plays a vital role in every classroom and is woven into every subject. Aquinas is a place where students of every age, nationality and religion are welcomed, yet feel challenged, and learn that the only limits to success are those they place upon themselves.
 
To truly appreciate Aquinas' rich heritage, one must know something of the Dominican Sisters who laid the solid foundation on which the College is built. Their history dates back to a cloister founded by St. Dominic de Guzman in Bavaria in 1206, but their story in the United States begins with the arrival of four Dominican nuns in New York City on August 28, 1853. The sisters were on the first leg of a mission to establish an education ministry in America. The school they founded that year in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, grew to 400 students, nearly all immigrants, by 1857.
 
In 1877, five choir nuns and one lay sister from the New York order, ranging in age from 16 to 29, arrived in Traverse City, Michigan. Led by 29-year-old Sister Mary Aquinata, they opened a school for six pupils the following day. Their hard and courageous beginning was repeated throughout the state of Michigan in the ensuing years.
 
They arrived in Grand Rapids in 1883, incorporated as the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, and unanimously elected Sister Mary Aquinata to lead them as Mother Superior. In 1886, they established the novitiate normal school to which Aquinas College traces its beginnings. Despite difficult early years, the school flourished, and the sisters expanded their education ministry throughout the area. When Mother Mary Aquinata died of cancer on April 30, 1915, The Grand Rapids Herald wrote that her legacy to the community included "forty-two schools, three academies, the Grand Rapids orphanage, and two Catholic Central high schools...(she) was one of the most beloved members of Catholic sisterhood throughout the country."
 
In 1917, under the leadership of Mother Superior Mary Gonsalva Bankstahl, the Dominicans purchased the land for the current motherhouse, known as Marywood. In 1922, the sisters' newly created college for lay women merged with the normal school. The new college received a charter from the state of Michigan to grant degrees in 1923.
 
In 1931, the school became the first Catholic college in America to introduce coeducation and was reorganized as Catholic Junior College. The same year, the College was moved to Ransom Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids. Monsignor Arthur F. Bukowski came to the College as dean in 1934 and was named president in 1937.
 
The College began to operate as a four-year institution in 1941. It was renamed in honor of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican scholar and teacher considered to be one of the most brilliant minds of the 13th century and one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the Catholic church. St. Thomas stressed the importance of having an open mind and an open heart, and continuously learning from our life experiences. Throughout the years, the Aquinas community has continued to foster a learning environment centered on these principles.
 
In the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, considered by many to be ahead of his time, Aquinas established a reputation for innovation. It created one of the first degree-completion programs for adults, offering courses on weekends and evenings. Aquinas also was one of the first institutions to offer a master of management degree. The program, developed in collaboration with area business leaders to meet the community's workforce requirements, develops management skills such as leadership, team building and problem-solving.
 
Students are drawn to Aquinas because it offers a diverse but inclusive learning community, one that enables them to increase their knowledge, hone their competencies, develop their character, and use their God-given talents to make a difference in our world though their lives, work and service to others.