Sister Julia McGroarty had her doubts about the project. The most likely site for the new college that the SNDs would call “Trinity” was on a plot of land with many hills and a steep ravine, a difficult building site. Some clerical men over at the new Catholic University were making a public fuss about the “heresy” of a college education for women. And most of all, there was no money. That scared her the most. “There is no reason to fear but want of money,” she wrote to her “woman on the scene” Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor in April 1897.
Steep slopes, conservative critics, essential poverty — among all of Trinity’s grand traditions, these may be the oldest!
Great faith, undaunted courage and steely fortitude — these, too, were the unyielding values of the Founders, triumphant over all of the threats and fears to the idea of founding the nation’s first Catholic college for women in the nation’s capital. The Sisters of Notre Dame founded Trinity College in 1897 in a climate of challenge and controversy. They proved that women with great ideas and serious resolve could achieve enduring results.
Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor was not afraid to argue with anyone — her superior, city officials, even the pope, himself. She wrote back to Sister Julia, describing the fund raising effort she intended to launch, “We must seek every assistance that those in high station can afford us!… the project is so grand, the incentives so great… we shall succeed!”
Euphrasia set about raising money, surveying properties, and incorporating Trinity College on August 20, 1897. But even as she was busy about all of the details of establishing the college, negative critics came forward to try to stop the work, going so far as to involve the Vatican and superior of the SNDs in Belgium. The critics were conservative clerics who believed that the whole idea of higher education for women was a scandal, potentially part of the heresy called “Americanism” (meaning too liberal), and likely to destroy women’s role in the family. Their arguments a century ago sound like so many screeds we hear even today from right-wing ideologues who believe that women’s advanced education and right to work is a threat to the family and culture.
Fortunately, the Sisters of Notre Dame had the progressive Cardinal James Gibbons on their side, along with Bishop John Lancaster Spaulding who was a proponent of women’s education. These two Church leaders helped the sisters organize strategies to keep moving forward with their plans for Trinity. Eventually, with the fortitude of the sisters and the prudent decision of the pope to stay out of the controversies, the SNDs prevailed and Trinity College was able to welcome the first nine students in November 1900.
On this Founders Day, our best tribute to the courage, wisdom and fortitude of our founders can be found in the continuing achievements of our faculty and students. Trinity today is a remarkably different institution from that small, austere place that opened with just the south hall of Main Hall standing in 1900. Yet, despite the obvious differences between this diversified university and that very small college, the mission remains steadfast: to ensure the education and advancement of women in society, and today that mission includes men in many of our programs. To educate all Trinity students as servant leaders imbued with the commitment to social justice as a force for good in this world. To ensure that every Trinity graduate has the knowledge, skills and values necessary to succeed at work, in the civic arena, and in family life —- in short, in the words of St. Julie Billiart who founded the Sisters of Notre Dame, to “teach them what they need to know” for success and ultimately for salvation.