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  • Holy Teaching, Holy Preaching: Thomas, Thomists, and the Province of St. Joseph
  • Romanus Cessario O.P.1

I. Ardet et Lucet

IN 1658, Philip Howard, an English nobleman turned Dominican, purchased property in Flanders to accommodate the exiled English Province. Father Howard chose Bornhem, in part because of its proximity to the English Channel via the port of Antwerp.2 Edward Fenwick arrived at Bornhem in 1784, five years before the Parisian assault on the Bastille. The English Dominicans also maintained an educational institution in Louvain, some thirty-six miles southeast of Bornhem, at the College of Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose motto was Ardet et lucet.3 In all likelihood, Edward Dominic Fenwick did not [End Page 601] frequent this College.4 Still, whatever exposure to Thomist thought he received derived from the intellectual activity around Louvain, where a general study house of the Order, until its suppression under Josephism, flourished at the Flemish convent of Our Lady of the Annunciation—Onze–Lieve–Vrouw Boodschap.5

The founder of the Province of Saint Joseph, who was ordained a priest at Ghent in 1793, probably never mastered Le thomisme vengé by the erudite Belgian theologian, Charles René Billuart (d. 1757).6 Even so, the eighteenth-century Austrian Netherlands, under Habsburg-Lorraine rule, witnessed a flourishing of Thomist authors and teachers. Overall, Thomists of the period engaged issues that the Congregatio de auxiliis (1602–5) controversy had generated as well as the associated questions of predestination, sacramental causality, and moral theology.7 To avenge or to vindicate Thomas Aquinas generally meant Thomists getting the better of their Molinist adversaries. At Louvain, the English Dominicans joined ranks with other Thomists, as the published theses, including one on physical [End Page 602] premotion, of an early eighteenth-century English Dominican, Thomas Dominic Williams (1660–1740), illustrate.8

Given the Thomist publications circulating during the late eighteenth century, including Schola thomistica vindicata by the Provençal Dominican James Hyacinth Serry (1659–1738), the young Fenwick had to realize that Aquinas and his commentators occupied a central place in the normative instruction of Dominicans.9 In addition, Fenwick’s intellectual formation would have profited from the renewal that the Master of the Order, John Thomas Boxadors (d. 1780), gave to Thomist studies. His 1757 instruction to the entire Order, “De renovanda et defendenda doctrina sancti Thomae,” had been republished by the General Chapter of 1777.10 At the same time, one may forgive the founder of the Province of Saint Joseph for not making the vindication of Aquinas his lifetime project. In 1794, the French Revolutionary forces that occupied Holy Cross Priory and College at Bornhem took Fr. Fenwick captive.11 His American citizenship saved him from an uncertain fate.12

After his forced departure from the Continent, Fr. Fenwick spent about ten years in England as a missionary circuit rider. [End Page 603] From the letter he wrote to John Carroll in 1804, we know that the young Fenwick proposed to bring Dominicans to the United States in order “to execute in Miniature the plan of Bornhem College & Convent.”13 Fenwick’s proposal was first realized in the short-lived Saint Thomas’s College in Kentucky (1809–19). Other than by its patronage, however, this skeleton operation did little to promote the thought of Aquinas.14 The frontier school seems to have welcomed young men for training in the humanities and religion, though documentation remains scant, namely, a few crumbled, practically illegible pages from a register that had been used to stuff a rat hole.15 At the same time, the cofounders of the Province, Frs. Samuel Thomas Wilson (d. 1824) and William Raymund Tuite (d. 1833), each of whom had benefitted from studies at the English College in Louvain, provided the Province’s first members with instruction in the humanities, philosophy, and “whatever of the sacred sciences were taught.”16 Wilson’s own studies at Louvain were, on Fr. V. F. O’Daniel’s account, “thoroughly Thomistic.”17 For his part, Fr. Reginald Coffey acknowledges that Wilson and Tuite “both were much better educated than Fenwick.”18 Given the challenges of frontier life, however, neither Wilson nor Tuite enjoyed the leisure to pursue their...


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