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Aquinas College High School History


From its earliest days in the United States, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, under the leadership of its charismatic American born founder, Edward Dominic Fenwick, sought to establish schools for the education of young men.  Fenwick built the first institution, the College of St. Thomas of Aquin, in Springfield, Kentucky, which was in operation from 1806 until 1828.  A second institution, St. Joseph's College, functioned near Somerset, Ohio for a dozen years prior to the Civil War. Another college had a short-lived existence in southwest Wisconsin. The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed the next attempt by the Dominicans in the arena of secular education with the foundation in Columbus of what became Aquinas College High School.

In two classrooms of St. Patrick's School at Grant and Mt. Vernon Avenues in September 1905, the first classes met at what was called originally St. Patrick's College. Sixty-two young men enrolled in those beginning classes taught by the white-robed friars of the Dominican Order.  This institution began through the joint undertaking of Bishop James J. Hartley, then in the second year of his forty-year tenure as bishop, and the Dominican Provincial, the energetic and dynamic Father Lawrence Francis Kearney. The Dominicans sought and absorbed most of the costs for the establishment of this school of secular and religious learning. While plans for a school for young men had been on the drawing boards since the early days of Bishop Rosecrans in the 1870's, it was Father Kearney and his Dominican friars who got this project off the ground and kept it going for sixty years.

In February 1906, classes were moved from St. Patrick's School to a new building freshly constructed two blocks east at Mt. Vernon and Washington Avenues on the grounds of what had been the original Catholic burial ground.  The original building, often referred to as 'The Meaney Building,' was named after its architect and construction superintendent, the Dominican Father Richard J. Meaney.  Meaney, a well-respected architect, had just completed the construction of the large Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. From 1940 through the closing of the school, this venerable first building served as a study hall and cafeteria on the first floor, an industrial arts shop in the basement, and a chapel and auditorium on the second floor.

Success came early to this institution. Enrollment grew substantially in the first years, thus demanding the construction of a major addition to the school.  With this expanded physical plant in 1911 came a college charter, granted to the fledgling institution by the State of Ohio, enabling degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to be awarded.  Great plans were in store for this institution on Mt. Vernon Avenue. At this time, the school's name was changed to Aquinas College.  The plan called for the development of a four-year college, but this project in Columbus never reached fruition, and the Dominicans in 1918 established Providence College in Rhode Island, which still functions today.

Enrollment flourished through the 1920's, and a third building, again funded by the Dominicans, was constructed in a modified gothic style and dedicated on November 1, 1925. This building still stands as Aquinas Hall on the campus of Columbus State Community College.  Enrollment continued to grow until the Great Depression, when the number of students attending Aquinas dropped drastically.  Financial hard times came to the institution during the Depression, a state of affairs from which Aquinas never extricated itself.  The ledgers of the school contained pages of tuition due from families who could not pay even the reduced fees during that time.  

Following the Second World War, enrollment once again grew and reached the levels attained twenty years earlier.  The average school size hovered around five hundred students with nearly twenty-five Dominican friars serving as instructors. Graduating classes resembled the numbers of the large mid 1920 classes too.

The Dominican Order sponsored a pre-ecclesiastical program at Aquinas College High School for nearly thirty years. Many Dominican friars of the Province of St. Joseph received their beginning classical education in the classrooms of Aquinas. Three Aquinas alumni became college presidents and one a bishop; former Aquinas faculty include two bishops and another the founding president of Providence College.  One former faculty member, Fr. Peter Craig, was killed in the Korean War while administering the last rites to a fallen comrade. Many Aquinas instructors possessed graduate degrees and advanced theological degrees, a rare event in the middle part of the twentieth century for faculty in most secondary schools. Future Providence College faculty often received early assignments teaching at Aquinas, and many at this time pursued graduate studies at the Ohio State University.

The early 1960's witnessed strong pulls on the stretched fabric that held Aquinas together.  New diocesan high schools were constructed in each direction from central Columbus.  A feasibility study determined sadly that Columbus Roman Catholics appeared not interested in funding substantially a renewed and renovated Aquinas College High School.  The Dominican provincial received instructions from Rome to provide priests for the rapidly growing Catholic populations in Latin America.  Fewer young Dominicans seemed interested in secondary school teaching, and the calls for Dominicans to staff college positions in Theology and Philosophy Departments increased dramatically.

Given the confluence of the above events, it was inevitable that the days of Aquinas were numbered. The then president of Aquinas, Fr. James G. Crombie, tried valiantly to keep the doors open at Aquinas, but to no avail. Bishop Clarence Issenmann offered to place some of the financial needs of Aquinas on the list for the Diocesan Development Fund, but this sadly was too little too late. The institution was forced to close its doors in 1965, with an accelerated class graduating in August of that summer. 

Aquinas alumni have served the central Ohio area and beyond with distinction. The professions are lined with Aquinas graduates, and the record of public servants and police and fire-fighters is outstanding for any institution.  Business leaders and teachers abound in the Columbus area, and skilled craftsmen dominated their respective fields for most of the twentieth century.  

Athletics were always of keen interest to the faculty and students of Aquinas.  The original nickname was the Saints, which later became the Dragons, and then the Terriers in the 1930's.  City League championships, either shared or solo, were attained in the three major sports, and five Columbus city champion swim teams splashed to victory for Aquinas in the 1940's.  Four state championships were garnered by Aquinas men; the 1928 baseball state award and three consecutive state golf trophies in the early 1950's. The most famous former Aquinas coach was George Steinbrenner, who was the mentor for the Aquinas basketball team in 1954-55 before attaining future fame as the owner of the New York Yankees.

A lasting record of educational success became the heritage of the school. Over six thousand young men walked the halls and studied in the classrooms of this venerable institution. A vibrant Alumni Association still meets regularly. Aquinas College High School served an admirable place in the religious education history of the City of Columbus, a city that in the end probably did not understand the educational gift that it had in its midst.

The 1963 Aquinian put the matter succinctly:  "We are determined that, so long as we are, Aquinas will be!"

Anthony J. Lisska
Class of 1958
Denison University