Throughout its ninety-five year history, Aquinas has again and again reinvented itself in response to the needs of its students. The dreams of its earliest years have been realized a hundredfold as successive waves of first-generation New Yorkers - Irish, Italian and other European, African-American, Latino, Asian- have found in Aquinas a welcoming community of faith and learning with a steadfast commitment to excellence. This is the Aquinas heritage, uniting Aquinites throughout the decades and across the miles, and offered in solidarity and hope to future generations of young women in the Bronx.
A century ago, when Frederick Grote owned large tracts of land extending from the Village of Tremont and including the Belmont area of the Bronx, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill purchased the land known as the Grote Estate from the Astoria Homestead Company. The estate consisted of an entire city block from East 182 Street to East 183 Street, and from Belmont Avenue to Cambreleng Avenue. A charming Victorian mansion occupied the center of this block, while a three-story frame house which had been a residence for the servants faced Belmont Avenue.
In February 1900, a day academy for the children of St. Martin of Tours Parish was opened in the frame house. This precursor of Aquinas was known as St. Martin's Academy. As the number of students increased, the Academy was transferred to the brick mansion. It remained a school for younger children until the early 1920's, when times were changing. The period of return to normalcy after World War I offered exceptional opportunities to commercially educated young women. With plans for building St. Martin of Tours Parochial School underway, and with improved transportation now available, the Sisters were able to respond to a new need by converting the Academy into a two-year business school.
In September 1923, Sr. Mary Joseph and her faculty of three Sisters welcomed 30 young women to Aquinas Hall, as the school was to be known for many years. Enrollment quickly grew, and expansion became a necessity. In 1929, a three-story brick building with limestone trim was erected on the Cambreleng Avenue side of the estate. The new unit contained six classrooms, an assembly room, kitchen and cafeteria. It was connected to the convent by a small, open brick bridge, which would soon give way to a "bridge" to the future.
During the early '30s, realization was dawning that two years of commercial education did not sufficiently prepare a young woman for the business world. Greater benefits would flow from a full four-year high school program. Therefore, in 1934, the Sisters applied to the Regents of the University of the State of New York for approval of Aquinas as a secondary school. In 1936, during a period of negotiation with the Board of Regents, Sr. Mary Concepta was appointed principal. Her vision and strength as an educator would bring a fledgling high school to full stature, and profoundly affect the solidification and growth of Aquinas High School over a period of three decades.
Full affiliation with the Board of Regents made no small demands. A separate library and spacious gymnasium, in addition to classrooms with a regulation number of cubic inches per student were required. The nation was still climbing out of the Great Depression, but the courage to risk was not wanting in the Council of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill. A mortgage of a quarter million dollars was taken on the property. Then in January 1939, the giant cranes moved in, the historic mansion was demolished, and work on a new building, and indeed a new era, for Aquinas High School was begun. When Sr. Concepta had been appointed Principal, there were 79 students on register. Now with the completion of the new building in September 1939, Aquinas welcomed 438 students to one of the best-equipped schools of its kind. There were 20 new classrooms, a combination gym-auditorium, music, art and science labs, and two cafeterias. Particularly noteworthy at the time was the secretarial practice room, which was described as one of the most modern in the country.
Twice more in the tenure of Sr. Concepta, ground would be broken to expand the capacity of Aquinas High School. In 1947, a convent of 42 rooms was added to house the growing number of Sisters needed for a student body of 800. This was followed in 1952 by an extension of the school providing 10 additional classrooms, including the unique "round rooms". The harmonious unity of the complex of successively "new" wings was an architectural feat, and continues to be an object of admiration today.
Time passed and the solidification and expansion of the '50s moved into the rapid social change of the '60s. In 1968, Sr. Marie Kennedy was appointed Principal of Aquinas. Brick-and-mortar growth had reached the boundaries of the property, but new horizons beckoned in social and academic spheres. With Vatican II, concepts of collegiality and co-responsibility had emerged. With her past experience as Dean of Faculty at St. Thomas Aquinas College, Sr. Marie was able to strengthen departmental structures at Aquinas, and promote the educational leadership of chairpersons working with the principal. To this end, renovations were made to provide departmental offices. Space was also remodeled for expanded guidance services.
The effects of social change were still at their peak when, in 1974, Sr. Margaret Ryan was appointed Principal. Hers would be the admirable accomplishment of taking a school well-established in the city and bringing it to national recognition. Accreditation by the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges was a significant achievement; this, at a time when urban blight had spread throughout the southern sector of the Bronx. As students traveled from and through neighborhoods more and more devastated by the effects of poverty and violence, Aquinas became truly an oasis of enduring beauty and confident vision. The strength of the program and provisioning of the complex not only did not decline, but continued to improve as Sr. Margaret had windows and furniture replaced, computers installed, and space renovated for the best possible educational opportunities for students.
The material improvements were outward signs of an extraordinary commitment to excellence. This was recognized by the United States Department of Education when Aquinas was one of the first high schools in New York City to be named an Exemplary School in 1985.
The '90s became a decade of record growth and extraordinary recognition for Aquinas. State-of-the-art science labs were constructed, the library computerized and granted "Electronic Doorway" status by New York State, and the entire building wired, providing Internet and database access to all classrooms. AP courses multiplied and college scholarships and grants to Aquinas graduates reached several million dollars annually. The Glee Club performed on the "Today Show". The first fully endowed scholarship was established, and soon there were a dozen. Aquinas celebrated its 75th Anniversary Year with unprecedented national acclaim, featured by U.S. News & World Report as the cover story for its special issue on outstanding American high schools.
An apparent seal of confirmation on all of the above was the naming of Aquinas as a Blue Ribbon School 2000 by the U.S. Department of Education. A total of 198 public and private schools received this prestigious national award. The new millennium also brought to Aquinas a new model of administration with Sr. Margaret Ryan moving into the role of President and Sr. Catherine Rose Quigley collaborating as Principal. These two extraordinary leaders, both graduates of Aquinas, sustained the excellence of their Alma Mater, leading it to ever greater heights.
In 2002, First Lady Laura Bush visited Aquinas on the first anniversary of 9/11, finding hope for the healing of America in the prayer and action of youth. 2004 brought to the school its largest-ever pledge, $300,000 for complete renovation of the science labs. Academic success continued to soar as graduates reached stellar annual totals in college scholarships and grants, exceeding $24 million in 2012.
Extra-curricular activities also brought recognition. The basketball varsity team won the New York State Federation championship in 2006. In 2013, its 90th Anniversary Year, Aquinas staged the first high school production of In the Heights, aptly celebration community, culture, and a history of excellence in musical performance.
The recognition of Aquinas by the wider community comes as no surprise to alumnae, who know the tremendous difference that their high school education has made in their lives. And today the reverse is true as well: alumnae talent and resources are making a tremendous difference in the life and future of Aquinas
At a time when inner-city education is a compelling challenge of national scale, Aquinas is an example of the quality that Catholic schools can provide. As consciousness of the advantages for young women in single-sex schools has grown, Aquinas graduates are realizing these advantages in widespread arenas of professional and civic life.
With almost 100 years of Aquinas history in their minds and hearts, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill assembled a representative group of constituents in 2016 to develop a strategic plan for the future of Aquinas. At this time of many challenges for Catholic education, the plan will be launched under the leadership of Ms. Anna Parra who began her tenure as President in July, 2017. As the first Latina at the helm, Ms. Parra comes to Aquinas, identifying with the culture of its students, and possessing a wealth of experience in non-profit fundraising and marketing. For a school with a magnificent history, she envisions a long future, continuing its mission of educating young women for a lifetime of faith, learning, and compassionate action for a more just world.