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Calif. college plans to move into former NMH campus in Northfield

First classes planned for Fall 2018

  • The Stone Hall and other buildings on the former Northfield Mount Hermon campus in Northfield may be used again in the near future. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Thomas Aquinas College of Santa Paula, Calif., aims to enroll between 350 to 400 students at the former campus of Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, shown above. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, February 07, 2017

NORTHFIELD — The former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus may finally have a new purpose.

Thomas Aquinas College, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college in Santa Paula, Calif., will be given the core campus on May 2, Emmitt Mitchell, a member of the National Christian Foundation Heartland’s board of directors, announced Tuesday. The foundation has overseen the former prep school campus since 2012.

Mitchell said the college, founded in 1971, has administrative staff with a high level of management skill to take care of the “complicated” Northfield property, has financial stability and would carry on the education that Northfield Mount Hermon School founder, evangelist Dwight L. Moody, began in 1879.

“We (looked) at the mission of the organization — will it fit the legacy of D.L. Moody?” Mitchell explained. “We’re very careful in vetting organizations, not only financially, but their leadership, their fit.”

After visiting the California campus, Mitchell said, he found Thomas Aquinas College to be a “highly credible group” that would carry on the Christian tradition at the Northfield campus.

Part of Northfield

Moody founded Northfield Mount Hermon School as two institutions: the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in 1879 and Mount Hermon School for Boys in 1881. In 1971, the Northfield and Mount Hermon campuses became a single coeducational school.

The school consolidated its two campuses to the Mount Hermon campus in Gill in September 2005 and the Northfield campus was sold in 2009 to Hobby Lobby. At the end of 2012, Hobby Lobby transferred ownership of the campus to the National Christian Foundation, which has planned to give the campus to an institution that honors Moody’s legacy. The campus has been vacant for more than 12 years.

Mitchell first met Thomas Aquinas College President Michael McLean and Vice President for Development Paul O’Reilly in March of 2015, when they toured the campus. Encouraged by David Dowdy, an English teacher and Catholic students’ adviser at Northfield Mount Hermon School, who is also a parent of a Thomas Aquinas College student, McLean and O’Reilly submitted an application to be given the campus in the summer of 2015.

An attractive campus

“Our first impression is this would be a great place for a Thomas Aquinas College campus,” McLean said. “We’ve been thinking for a number of years about trying to replicate what we have in California.”

McLean was attracted by the rural environment, ample dorm space, classroom space and having a chapel and library on campus. Northfield, he said, would also present students with “a multitude of recreational opportunities.”

“We think the beauty and location of the campus would be a great attraction for young people,” McLean added.

McLean said he feels a strong sense of stewardship over the Northfield campus. As more than 70 percent of Thomas Aquinas College’s students receive financial aid, he sees the college’s work in education as “a natural extension of what Moody started out doing” in Northfield.

“He was deeply concerned with the education of economically disadvantaged young women,” McLean said of Moody. “We at Thomas Aquinas College believe in making education possible no matter what their economic circumstances.”

The plans ahead

The college’s Santa Paula campus enrolls 385 students from across the country, including 27 from New England, leading McLean to believe a Northfield campus would attract students from the East Coast and beyond.

McLean described the college as consisting of classes of about 18 students that all take the same required list of discussion-based language, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, theology, natural science, history and social science courses, earning bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts.

McLean said he plans for the first classes on the Northfield campus to begin in the fall of 2018, and hopes eventually to enroll between 350 and 400 students, close to the 500 students enrolled during the campus’ peak.

The college will inherit 22 buildings in all, but McLean plans to start off using around 10. He intends to introduce four faculty to oversee two classes of 18 students each in the Northfield campus’ first year. By enrolling 36 more students each year, enrollment after four years would reach nearly 150 students, growing gradually. McLean said an admissions representative will come to Northfield as early as this summer to begin recruitment.

McLean added that the college submitted an application to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education more than a month ago, needing approval before it can begin teaching students. He expects the approval process to take between eight and 10 months.

Between now and when the new campus opens, McLean said he plans to build relationships with the Northfield community and the local Christian community.

Some buildings will also need renovating. O’Reilly estimated renovation costs to be around $20 million, to be done over time.

“We expect to be here for a long time,” McLean noted.

A matching $5 million grant the National Christian Foundation is offering Thomas Aquinas College could help with renovation costs, as well as initial operating costs. McLean said the college has raised $3.65 million thus far.

Mitchell and Larry Edge, manager of the Northfield Campus LLC, expressed their immense satisfaction to have found a recipient for the vacant campus. Northfield Campus LLC is the name of the organization owned by the National Christian Foundation.

“It’s exciting for us after a lengthy, arduous process to see this coming together,” Edge said.

“NCF feels like it’s work is done, and done well, with these recipients,” Mitchell added.