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Students from Aquinas Institute of Theology, a seminary and graduate school formerly located on the campus of Saint Louis University, began the spring semester in a newly restored, century-old factory. The building is the first piece in a $50 million restoration project in this blighted block of Forest Park Avenue and a symbol of the dramatic growth this Catholic school has experienced in the last decade.

The move to the intersection of Spring and Forest Park avenues has more than doubled the amount of space at Aquinas Institute. It has created an environment for work and study that has stunned its new occupants.

“Nine months ago, this building was dark and filthy,” said Fr. Charles Bouchard, O.P., president of Aquinas Institute. “The windows were covered, and pigeons had made a mess of the floors. Today, it’s nominated for architectural awards.”

New 14-foot windows and a second set of windows built into the two-tiered roof are among the building’s most distinctive features. The renovation also combines the building’s industrial past —- exposed brick, duct work and wood beams -— with its 21st-century purpose. The chapel features low-hanging chandeliers. The library offers wireless internet access. A preaching laboratory is equipped with digital recording technology.

The $5 million project was funded in part through a capital campaign. Donations exceeded the initial $2 million goal set by the board of trustees. Fundraising continues to meet additional expenses related to construction.

Aquinas Institute, which is sponsored by the Order of Preachers, prepares priesthood candidates for ordination. They study alongside vowed religious women and laypeople who want to pursue careers in the Catholic Church or simply better understand their faith tradition.

The school moved to St. Louis in 1981 and had 55 students its first year. Today, enrollment has climbed to more than 300 as Aquinas Institute has responded to needs of the Church.

“Our success is linked to changes in the Church and changes among the faithful,” Bouchard said. “As laypeople have assumed more leadership roles in Catholic education, Catholic health care, and parishes, as people have taken a much more active role in understanding their own spiritual selves, Aquinas Institute has grown.”

The school offers master’s degrees and certificates to men and women who will become priests, sisters, administrators in parishes without resident priests, CEOs in Catholic health care, principals in Catholic high schools, campus ministers, hospital chaplains and theology teachers, among other things.

“This bold move to a bigger building reflects confidence in our mission,” Bouchard said. “We are fulfilling a critical need in the Catholic Church.”

Paric Corp. oversaw the development at 23 S. Spring Ave., which intersects with Forest Park Avenue a block west of Grand. Chiodini Associates was the architectural firm. Developers also are renovating neighboring buildings for use as residential and commercial space.

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