Archbishop John Ireland, who pushed Catholic education in the Twin Cities, created St. Thomas Academy in 1885 as a school where students would become leaders.
Now, 125 years later, educators are still teaching his mission at the school, which has become the only all-boys, Catholic, military, college preparatory school in Minnesota.
But its modest beginnings have changed.
Students gathered for the first classes on an old farm on the shores of Lake Mennith in St. Paul, which later became the corner of Cleveland and Summit avenues. Today, nearly 700 students in grades seven through 12 attend school in four buildings and play sports in state-of-the-art facilities on a 72-acre campus in Mendota Heights.
School headmaster Thomas Mich said the secret to the academy's survival has been maintaining its four pillars: all-boys, college preparatory, Catholic and military. Though, he admits, those features can be hard for some to swallow.
"I think it's a challenge for us to have people recognize we don't have students goose-stepping along the way," Mich said. "I think if people aren't familiar with the school and they run all those titles together, it can be kind of offsetting."
But students and school supporters say the school's four aspects work together.
"From 1885 to the present, the academy has produced men who become leaders in industry, in the professions, in commerce and in the church," said Archbishop John Nien-stedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "In so many ways, they bring the voice of compassion and the witness of truth to their everyday lives. I can only imagine that in so doing, the academy has responded faithfully to Archbishop Ireland's courageous vision and his greatest hopes."
Since September, students, staff and alumni classes dating to the 1940s have been meeting during breakfasts to celebrate the academy's present and past.
A SMART MOVE
St. Thomas Academy was one of many Catholic schools founded by Ireland, the first St. Paul archbishop, in an effort to teach students Catholicism but also to educate them for the broader world, said Ann Girres, the academy's media specialist and historian.
The school, known as St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, started with 66 boys. It featured a theological department for students entering priesthood and a collegiate department for students going to a university.
Ireland, a chaplain in the Civil War, also was patriotic.
Five years after the school opened, the academy added a Military Battalion program. The academy later became a military school under the supervision of the U.S. Army.
The school also incorporated St. Thomas College into its academic department. But by 1965, the college separated and later became the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The academy moved to its current campus in Mendota Heights.
Typically, colleges swallow up preparatory schools, Mich said. Instead, the academy moved to the suburbs, where development was extremely scarce — but expected.
"It was a very insightful move to come here," he said.
At the new campus, the Army changed the school's military curriculum and students no longer trained with weapons, Girres said. The military program also scaled back because of the Vietnam War. At that time, the school was an easy target for war protesters.
In 1971, the academy transformed again when it added a middle school. It also eliminated a boarding program, which attracted students from other states and countries.
Former Spanish teacher George Schnell remembers when students used to live at the school. Schnell, 89, of St. Paul worked at the academy for 38 years — his whole career.
"I loved the environment," he said.
Schnell is one of four retired teachers known as "the old guard." Alumni remember them as teachers who taught several generations of the same families at the school.
Rick Battis, of the class of 1979, said 27 of his family members have graduated from the academy. The first was his late uncle George Battis, who graduated in 1936.
Rick Battis remembers being an "awkward" kid in school. Although he admits he didn't appreciate the academy until he left, he's now president of the alumni
"There's a tremendous sense of community you feel when you're there," Battis said. "You wander the halls over there, and there's a lot that hasn't changed."
'LIKE A FAMILY'
Today at St. Thomas Academy, pieces of tradition and history can be found everywhere — even with the addition of a new artificial-turf field at its stadium and a new track.
Every school day, students wear button-up, light-blue shirts decorated with their military school rankings, dress pants and shiny black shoes. Every morning, they meet in the main lobby of the school for "formation," where they salute each other and seniors read a speech.
Speaking in front of the whole school was no small feat Wednesday for Madison Whalen, 17. Whalen said that he was nervous at first but that having his classmates around helped.
"It's almost like a family," he said.
Most students say not having girls at the school helps keep them focused. However, the boys sometimes share classes and programs, like band and choir, with girls from Convent of the Visitation School, an all-girls high school that neighbors the academy.
But sometimes, the all-boys school becomes the butt of jokes.
They hear it all, students say. Kids from other schools chant "We got girls" during sporting events. And there are jokes about academy students being rich.
"People think we're snobs," said Thomas Sjoberg, 16, a junior at the school. "But really, a lot of the kids aren't rich. A lot of the kids get financial aid."
This year, 40 percent of students will receive financial aid to help pay for some or all of the school's $16,600 annual tuition, Mich said. Five years ago, 28 percent received help.
"We've had to increase financial aid because of the economy," Mich said.
The school receives aid from its endowment, tuition and donations.
While Catholic schools continue to close because of declining enrollments, budget cuts and changing demographics, the academy has maintained its enrollment the past three years. This year, however, enrollment dropped by 22 students.
Mich doesn't consider the decrease a sign, he said.
"The school is highly valued by its parents, alumni and friends," Mich said. "There has been a great tradition at this school, great loyalty." Pioneer Press