Related: Education, Social Issues, Students, Women, Women's Leadership

Julia and Euphrasia's Excellent Adventure

 
 

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They lived in an age when “twittering” was something done by birds and silly girls, and only the parakeets could “tweet.”  They didn’t have cell phones, or even those old fashioned communications devices we once called telephones with cords attached to them.   They had no fancy communications devices — not even that really quaint concept called email.   My goodness, they wrote actual letters on real paper with pens and real ink from pots on their desks.  With such primitive devices, delivered on foot or horse-drawn carriage, they started a revolution that we still experience today.   They were Trinity’s Founders, Julia and Euphrasia, more properly Sister Julia McGroarty, SND (photo above), American Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1897, and Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor, SND the “woman on the scene” in Washington who worked with Sister Julia to create Trinity.

Today is Founders Day, our traditional salute to the remarkable women who gave us this great gift we call Trinity.   We pass by their names every morning when we come into Main Hall — there’s a plaque on the wall behind the reception desk that memorializes the names of the SNDs and others who collaborated on the founding of Trinity.   Maybe you’ve never really seen that lovely plaque, focused as we all are on our next class, our immediate work demands, that final term paper, or the fashion of Adam Lambert (just seeing if you’re paying attention…)

Next time you’re in Main’s lobby:  take out your earbuds, turn off the iPod, and spend a minute contemplating that plaque and those names; think about what those great women, and the good men who helped them, made possible for all of us today.   Think  of the ten decades of students and faculty between today and that founding moment.   Whatever challenges we face today, surely nothing is so great as the considerable challenge of founding Trinity in 1897.   However progressive we think we are today, surely nothing we do is so radical, so revolutionary as the stunning work of those women in founding a college for women at a time when the idea was unusual, even considered to be a heresy in some Catholic circles.

Creating Trinity was a remarkable achievement back in 1897.  Women’s higher education was in its infancy.  On the east coast, colleges were mostly all restricted to men.  A few colleges for women had started up north — Mt. Holyoke was the first among a group of schools that became known as the “seven sisters” — Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, Radcliffe, Barnard, Bryn Mawr.   Other women’s colleges were starting in various towns across the nation, often beginning as academies for girls within different religious denominations.   For Catholic women, however, who were still somewhat radically segregated from other religious groups, the options for higher education simply did not exist.

In the remarkable trove of letters and manuscripts that they created by hand in 1897 and later years, Sisters Julia and Euphrasia left a stunning record of penetrating vision about the rights of women to receive a higher education.   They saw the then-new Catholic University rejecting women who sought admission there — something that the bishop who was then in charge of this diocese (the Baltimore diocese, Washington being part of that back in the day) termed “an embarrassment” in a letter that he wrote to Sister Julia.

That bishop, Cardinal James Gibbons, was one of the great forces behind the creation of the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.   You can see his portrait on the north wing of the Marble Corridor right next to the Campus Ministry office.   Cardinal Gibbons support for the founding of Trinity was vital, especially when some right-wing clerics opposed to women’s rights (!!) created a storm of negative publicity, even appealing to the Vatican at one point in their effort to prevent the Sisters of Notre Dame from establishing Trinity.

Sisters Julia and Euphrasia persisted in spite of the opposition.   At one point, when the rumblings from the Vatican were loud, in August of 1897 Euphrasia and another sister boarded a train at Union Station to go see the Papal Nuncio who was vacationing in Atlantic City.   This was no ordinary trip to the beach.  These two nuns wore full habits, heavy woolen affairs with veils and traveling cloaks as well.   No Acelas glided the tracks back then — this was good old-fashioned steam train technology with open windows for air conditioning.   Even more amazing, they made this round trip from DC to Atlantic City in one day — yes, up and back, would you do that even today?  To Atlantic City?   They met the Archbishop, pled their case for Trinity, and even though he invited them to relax, they returned to Washington that same night.   Being religious women in that day meant that they could not sleep overnight, or even remove their veils.  No Motel 6 for Euphrasia!  Personal discomfort was not going to stop her from making Trinity a reality.   Think of that trip the next time it seems too hot in Main Hall!

Another important trip took Sister Euphrasia to Bryn Mawr College, which had only recently welcomed its first woman president, the famous M. Carey Thomas.   President Thomas was quite helpful to the SNDs in conceptualizing Trinity’s early design, and she later attended the dedication of Trinity in 1900.

You can read all about the many adventures that Julia and Euphrasia had while trying to get Trinity up and running in Sister Columba Mullaly’s comprehensive history of Trinity, available in our library.   Numerous scholars are also beginning to focus on this remarkable story as well as the critically important histories of the other Catholic women’s colleges and women’s colleges in general.   Trinity Archivist Sr. Mary Hayes has provided significant support to many researchers who are writing books and dissertations on the great progressive era of the late 19th Century that laid the foundation for women’s advancement today.

Some of the recent notable books that include a focus on Trinity’s founding:

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith:  Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era, (2009:  University of North Carolina Press)

Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett, editors, Catholic Women’s Colleges in America, (2002:  Johns Hopkins University Press)

On this Founders Day, please take a minute to salute the great women who made our lives at Trinity today possible.   Then, let’s get on with our work of teaching and learning, since the best tribute we can pay to Julia and Euphrasia is to keep sending students forth into the world that needs the best possible results of a Trinity education.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu