New Science Building Named for Sr. Aquinas Weber, O.P.

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By: Gary Eberle

This fall, at the request of an anonymous donor and longtime friend of Sister Aquinas, the addition to Albertus Magnus Hall of Science will bear the name Sister Aquinas Weber Hall.

The lead donor for the new science building project did not want his own name on the building. Instead, he wished the new addition to bear the name of a woman he has known and admired for many years, and who, in many ways, has made Aquinas College what it is today.

With typical humility, Sister Aquinas says,

“I don’t need my name on a building. It’s more important what I’ve done here.”

For over 70 years, Sister Aquinas has been influential in the development of Aquinas College and West Michigan. Currently Chancellor Emerita, she has held an important role in fundraising for the College for many decades, developing professional and personal relationships with the Grand Rapids business community for the benefit of the College. Her philosophy is that “relationships are the foundation of fundraising. That has always been true and it remains true.” Sister takes a genuine interest in the families, children and even grandchildren of the people she associates with for the College.

“People ask me if I ever get tired of ‘begging’ on behalf of the College,” says Sister Aquinas. “I am never ‘begging,’ I am ‘selling’ a great product, an Aquinas College education. I am selling the teachers and the students. Our science students are accepted into graduate and medical schools, and are respected in area businesses. I am promoting the caliber of our teachers because the quality of our faculty is why our students succeed.”

Sister Aquinas Weber was born Lucille Weber and grew up on a farm in Kingsley, Michigan. The fifth of 11 children, young Lucille looked up to and competed with her older brothers. “If the boys were stilt-walking, I tried it, too. If the boys were climbing trees, I climbed as well. When my mother would say ‘I don’t know if you are ever going to grow up to be a girl,’ I laughed it off. I was having fun.”

Sister Aquinas did well in her classes under the tutelage of the Dominican Sisters who taught at the small parish school. The Sisters were tremendous role models for her, impressing upon her with the idea that women could learn and teach hard subjects, even the sciences.

After graduating from high school in 1940, she decided she needed to see more of the world. One of her school friends had left Kingsley to work at Parke-Davis pharmaceuticals in Detroit. Large quantities of penicillin were needed for the war effort, and Parke-Davis was hiring. At first, she worked in the chemistry laboratory labeling medicine bottles, but, after two years in the lab, she found she needed more intellectual stimulation. She began thinking more seriously of getting a college education and someday teaching. She was also open to considering a vocation to religious life.

After a visit to Marywood, the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, she entered the Congregation and found that her intellectual and spiritual lives finally came together. At first, she found religious life a bit restricting, but she soon fell into the rhythm of religious life and thrived. Eventually she completed her novitiate training and earned her degree at Aquinas College. She was named Sister Mary Aquinas in 1945 upon professing vows as a Dominican Sister of Grand Rapids. Interestingly, she did not choose the name “Aquinas” herself.

“I proposed three names and got none of them,” says Sister Aquinas. “The name was chosen by the prioress and governing council, after a sister in the congregation who had been a great educator.” Perhaps the name was prophetic, with her spending so much of her career at the College named after the great doctor of the Church.

Within ten years, Sister Aquinas’ leadership abilities were recognized, and she went on to become a principal at schools in Bay City and Detroit. In the early 1960s, the Sisters called her back to Marywood to serve as directress of Student Sisters, and then, in 1966, as prioress. It was a turbulent time in religious life as the Sisters struggled to enact the reforms of the Vatican II, but Sister Aquinas skillfully steered the community through changes big and small, revitalizing the Congregation and engaging it through the many changes that ensued.

After her term as prioress ended, she began graduate studies in sociology, and then, in 1973, she was called by Dr. Norbert Hruby, president of Aquinas College, to become director of what was then known as the Neighborhood Project, later Eastown Neighborhood Association and Eastown Business Association. In this new role, Sister Aquinas engaged area bankers and business leaders in revitalizing the struggling Eastown business district. This neighborhood stabilization program became a model for quality urban renewal, and her experience there led directly to her being asked to be the first woman to serve on the board of trustees of Old Kent Bank (now Fifth Third).

Meanwhile, she was serving on many other boards, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Aquinas College Board of Trustees and the Greater Grand Rapids Housing Authority. She also helped found Hospice of Greater Grand Rapids with Rabbi Albert Lewis and others.

In the 1980s, she directed Aquinas College’s Emeritus College, before becoming vice president for development. She was named chancellor of the College in 1983 and currently holds the title chancellor emerita. Sister Aquinas still comes to the office several days a week and maintains her many ties in the business and social network she has fostered over several decades.

She is modest about her accomplishments and the naming of the new science addition after her, but she remains acutely aware of the needs of the present and future as the College prepares to build this exciting new addition. She wants to do whatever it takes to enhance learning—including lending her name. “Today, students need to be trained in the sciences more than ever,” Sister Aquinas says. “We need facilities that are up to date to meet the needs of the times.”