August 20, 1897: Six Sisters of Notre Dame sign the Certificate of Incorporation that establishes Trinity College:
CERTIFICATE OF INCORPORATION
Know All Men By These Presents, That we, the undersigned, members of the congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, citizens of the United States, to wit:
Ella Taylor, Margaret Callahan, Mary O’Shea, Margaret Dempsey, Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, and Mary McHugh, known in the above-named Religious Order under and by the names, respectively, of Sister Euphrasia, Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart, Sister Saint Agnes, Sister Gertrude of the Blessed Sacrament, Sister Cornelia and Sister Ignatius Marie, have associated, and do hereby associate ourselves together the purpose of establishing an institution of learning in the District of Columbia for the higher education of young women; and in order to become a body corporate under the General Incorporation Act of Congress enacted for said District of Columbia we execute these presents, and we do hereby certify as follows:
The name by which the said institution of learning or body corporate shall be known in law is “Trinity College.”
Every time I read the opening sentence that records the secular as well as religious names of these women, I marvel at their courage and commitment to what was then only a bold idea. As part of their religious humility, an SND at that time normally did not identify herself in public except as “A Sister of Notre Dame.” These women felt so strongly about women’s right to have a higher education that they boldly signed their names, providing for just one critical historic moment a brief but revealing glimpse into the identities and personalities of Trinity’s Founders.
Trinity’s founding was not easy. The Sisters of Notre Dame believed that women had a right to as much education as they could achieve, and their decision to establish Trinity was in direct response to the fact that women at that time were denied admission to Catholic University, which even then-Cardinal James Gibbons acknowledged as “an embarassment” in a letter to Trinity’s Founder Sr. Julia McGroarty. Cardinal Gibbons and the priest leaders of Catholic University approved of the SND plans for Trinity. But as we learn in the late Sr. Columba Mullaly’s history of Trinity (available in the Library) and other sources, some right-wing factions in the Church felt that the whole idea of higher education for women was a scandal, perhaps even a heresy, and so they appealed to Rome to block Trinity’s founding.
In one of my favorite passages in Sr. Columba’s history, we read of the trip to Atlantic City that Sr. Mary Euphrasia and another sister took in August, 1897, to persuade the Papal Nuncio that Trinity should be established. Imagine taking a “day trip” to Atlantic City even today! But those sisters went round trip on a 19th century train — no air conditioning — wearing full habits! Imagine going to the “summer retreat” of the Pope’s ambassador (the modern idea of the Papal Nuncio) to argue personally, eyeball-to-eyeball, for a concept that was very strange to the Italian bishops who were the Pope’s representatives in those days! But these brave women were so motivated by the idea of women’s education that they got on the train and went straight to the Nuncio’s breezy house at the beach to argue the case for Trinity.
They won. A month after this visit, the Pope sent a message to Cardinal Gibbons that indicated that the Vatican would not interfere. If not a ringing endorsement, the message conveyed at least tacit approval. It took three more years to construct the first building, the South Hall of Main Hall, and to admit the first students. Classes began on November 6, 1900.
We are here today at Trinity because those SNDs who signed that document were bold, persistent and tenacious. I think they would be so proud of Trinity today in all of the marvelous ways we still live the mission they launched, now a university with many programs, welcoming men as well as women, welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds, but still promoting the education and advancement of women as a matter of social justice. Those Founders would also remind us not to be comfortable, not to relent in pursing Trinity’s mission, which also continues as the 200 year-old mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame, to work for justice, to serve those who do not share equally in the riches of the world.
Today and this week, as we open another academic year, let’s give thanks for the courage of our Founders, and let’s toast Trinity on the occasion of her 109th birthday!