Students returning to Northfield is a reason to celebrate

Published: 2/13/2017 3:55:33 PM

It may be a bit premature to pop the cork over news that a small California college plans to open a New England branch in the former Northfield campus of Northfield Mount Hermon School.

But local leaders and those at Thomas Aquinas College should at least be pulling Champagne bottles off their shelves.

It will be wonderful for the town and the county if the small Catholic college can establish itself on a campus whose roots reach back to the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies — wlhich was established by popular Protestant evangelist Dwight L. Moody in 1879, but has lain vacant for the past 12 years.

The empty campus in the heart of Northfield had rent the fabric of the community that Thomas Aquinas now is likely to repair.

The liberal arts college in Santa Paula, Calif., is to be given the core campus on May 2, changing hands from the National Christian Foundation, which has overseen the property since 2012. The rest of the campus will be given to the Moody Center, a nonprofit that will promote the religious ideals of the preacher who founded two schools for young men and women that evolved into today’s Northfield Mount Hermon School.

On the West Coast, the 400-student Thomas Aquinas is happily touting its plans to expand in New England. The college’s leaders have not wanted to expand their intimate 46-year-old California campus beyond its current 400 students, but couldn’t afford to build a new campus, so donation of the Northfield property was, well, a godsend.

The foundation has vetted Thomas Aquinas both for its commitment to continuing Moody’s legacy of Christian-based education but also, more practically, its financial ability to maintain a second campus — something that nixed an earlier proposal to establish at college in Northfield.

Emmitt Mitchell, a spokesman for the National Christian Foundation, said he found Thomas Aquinas to be a “highly credible group” that would carry on Moody’s legacy at the Northfield campus.

The college estimates it will cost about $20 million over several years to renovate the 22 buildings it will receive, but the foundation has concluded the college has the leadership and backing needed. Also, on top of donating the 217-acre campus, the foundation has pledged $5 million toward renovations and startup costs if the college can match that. It has reported being roughly half way there already. A good sign.

The plan is to open in the fall of 2018 and gradually grow enrollment to no more than 400. NMH housed 500 there at its peak. The college consists of classes of about 18 students who 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.

All this means renewed vigor for Northfield, where the students, parents, faculty and staff on the NMH campus had for generations brought energy, money and spirit to the town, especially downtown.

“This means jobs, it means economic stimulus, and we’re just really pleased,” said Steve Stoia, a community leader in Northfield who also owns Centennial House Bed and Breakfast with his wife, Joan.

Stoia recalled that when the Northfield campus was part of Northfield Mount Hermon School, and before that the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies, it helped to provide employment, support tourism and support vibrant small businesses on Main Street.

For Northfielders, fall of 2018 probably can’t come soon enough, but they are right to be thrilled to see the promise of life returning as the campus is filled again with eager young learners.

The foundation’s Mitchell expressed immense satisfaction to have found a recipient for the vacant campus, telling The Recorder, “NCF feels like it’s work is done, and done well, with these recipients.”

For Franklin County, which has a long tradition of supporting quality education — through its public schools, community college, small private and internationally known preparatory schools — becoming home to a college of this caliber can only enhance its reputation as a rural center for educational excellence.


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