Today is Founders Day at Trinity. After the endless waves of bad news about higher education in recent weeks, let’s step back to reflect and remember the grander visions and loftier purposes that made our lives at Trinity today possible.
110 years ago, Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor, the “woman on the scene” in Washington in 1897, did not have email. Nor did she have a telephone. But she was a prolific communicator. She wrote many passionate letters about the absolute need to have a Catholic college for women in Washington that would rival the great men’s universities of that day, including the then-new Catholic University that was refusing to admit women. Sr. Euphrasia wrote this about her vision and determination to establish Trinity: “The project is so grand…the incentives so great…we shall succeed!”
Sister Julia McGroarty, the provincial superior in Massachusetts, did not have an automobile. She never saw an airplane. But she made it back and forth to Washington to direct Sister Mary Euphrasia in the work of founding Trinity. She was not daunted by severe criticism that arose from the Catholic right-wing protesting against the idea of higher education for women. She persisted in her belief, rooted in the work of St. Julie Billiart who founded the Sisters of Notre Dame, that women had every right to be educated to the highest level they could attain intellectually, and that such an education would reap many spiritual benefits as well.
These courageous and visionary women, and their sisters, had nothing that we would recognize as modern tools to organize and launch an entirely new institution. Euphrasia borrowed a horse and buggy to ride up North Capitol Street (she lived in the convent at the then-Academy of Notre Dame on K Street, where Gonzaga High School is today) to see the property she wanted to buy — a parcel on the east side of Glenwood Cemetery. North Capitol Street stopped at “boundary line” then, what we know as Florida Avenue today, and the road through Glenwood continued as Lincoln Road to Fourth Street.
Sister Julia was not quite happy with the reports about this parcel of land. She was skeptical of buying land that had so many hills and a ravine down through the middle. But Sister Euphrasia convinced her that this was a good deal, and the purchase went through.
On August 20, 1897, Sr. Euphrasia and four of her sisters went to the governmental office responsible for establishing corporations in the District, and they signed the first Articles of Incorporation establishing Trinity College. Their secular as well as religious names are captured forever on the charter: “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;” This was revolutionary, the establishment of the very first Catholic college for women in the nation that was founded specifically as a college, not a high school.
Three years later, on November 6, 1900, Trinity welcomed her first students and classes began.
We all experience times in our daily lives at Trinity when things seem hard, when we wonder if we can really do all that we are called to do to fulfill our various responsibilities in education. Whenever I’m having one of those moments — yes, I do have moments when I wonder if I can get it all done! — I think of those incredible women of 1897. The great visionaries who also knew how to take a grand idea and put it into practice. The leaders who did not need email, voicemail, telephones, airplanes or automobiles to do the very hard job of creating a brand new institution of higher education. All they needed was their faith, their courage, and their willingness to work very, very hard to make it real — and their ability to persuade others to invest in this grand cause.
Today, the Trinity community can shout it out to Sr. Julia McGroarty and Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor and all of the Sisters of Notre Dame: you did succeed! The project called Trinity is even grander, the incentives ever greater, and we will continue to succeed with their inspiration. All of us who share Trinity in common owe a huge debt of gratitude to those women who made our education and work here possible.
Let us give thanks to our Founders today, and let us honor them by renewing our resolve to continue the unfinished work of building Trinity for future generations.