The Augustinian Order became engaged in education almost from the beginning of its establishment in North America in 1796. Its first foundation, Saint Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia, opened a parish school in 1811 for the education of the largely immigrant Catholic community. This was followed in 1841 by the purchase of the Belle Air estate at what is now Villanova University, for the purpose of establishing a school for boys. In all, the Order was to found four institutions of higher education in North America: Villanova University (1842); Universidad de Santo Tomás de Villanueva, Havana, Cuba (1945), which was declared a pontifical university in 1957 but was closed in 1961 by the Cuban government; Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts (1947); and Biscayne College (1962), now Saint Thomas University, the sponsorship of which was relinquished in 1987 to the Archdiocese of Miami, Florida. In addition, the Order co-sponsors the Washington Theological Union, a graduate school of theology founded in 1968 by several members of the Province in cooperation with the members of other religious orders in the Washington DC area, to provide initial and continuing theological education for its members.
As these schools grew and expanded, they took on the distinctively American model of the university. Although the schools were incorporated independently and governed by boards of trustees not under its jurisdiction and direct control, the Order sustained them with its own resources in personnel, property and financial support. The overwhelming majority of the teachers and administrators of these institutions, moreover, came to be comprised of lay persons, a situation that has afforded the Order the challenge of redefining its corporate relationship to the schools more in terms of collaboration than of proprietorship.