The life of St. Thomas of Villanova was characterized by the love of learning, a desire for church renewal and service to the poor and disadvantaged.
He was born in 1486, the son of a miller and raised in the village of Villanueva de los Infantes, Castile, Spain. He studied at the famous University of Alcala where he received his master’s and doctorate degrees, and in 1512 at the age of 26 he became a professor of philosophy at the university. He was a popular lecturer and was praised by his students and colleagues for always being friendly and helpful.
After four years Thomas left the university and joined the Augustinian friars. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1520.
He assumed several leadership positions in the community, and when elected provincial of Andalusia and Castile, he sent the first Augustinian missionaries to the New World where they helped evangelize what is now modern Mexico and, from there, the Philippines.
He was eventually appointed archbishop of Valencia in 1544. Thomas’ episcopal ministry was marked by personal austerity, devotion to the care of orphans, the sick, and the poor. He came to be known as the “father of the poor.” He established social programs, a soup kitchen in the bishop’s palace, and for the homeless a place to sleep. He was also called the “Almsgiver” because of the many people who came up to his door every day for a meal and a little money. He insisted that the material resources of the church be shared with those in the greatest need and he challenged church leaders to serve the least powerful.
It has been said that Thomas’ scholarship and stewardship of the poor were motivated by a desire to practice the teachings of the Beatitudes. He believed that all learning should be inspired by a genuine desire to know God and that learning ought to lead a person to make a difference in the community and in the world.
He taught that the image of God is in every human being and that love and wisdom are discovered in the service of others.
St. Thomas of Villanova died of heart disease on September 8, 1555. He was beatified in 1618 and canonized in 1658. Villanova University, just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is one of a number of universities around the world named after him.