Today is Founders Day at Trinity, and as is our tradition, we will salute those great women with a festive picnic luncheon, a maypole twirl or two, and in a special event for this year, the dedication of a newly restored portrait (above) of Founder Sr. Julia McGroarty, SND, on the Marble Corridor.
Beyond these simple but joyous festivities, Founders Day is also an important moment to reflect upon the lessons of Trinity’s founding. The events, challenges, setbacks and triumphs of 1897 continue to influence Trinity today, and in many ways they also inform choices for our future.
(Above: Original artist’s rendering for Main Hall in 1898; the gothic chapel on the south wing of Main Hall was not built after the donor Mrs. O’Leary withdrew her support for the project; but the arched windows of the chapel concept are visible even today on the south end of the south wing where the faculty lounge is located.)
120 years is a long time to sustain a relatively small special mission institution of higher education in this country. Today there are just about 8 Catholic institutions still operating with women’s colleges as part of the enterprise; in 1960 there were close to 190 such colleges, and nearly 300 women’s colleges generally (just 38 women’s colleges remain today). In 1897, when Sr. Julia McGroarty and her colleague Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor undertook this great work, there were no Catholic women’s colleges established specifically as colleges (several had emerged from girls’ schools), and there were few opportunities for women of any faith to attend college. Notable women’s institutions like Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith and Radcliffe were relatively new — the SNDs studied those schools and envied the deep pockets that supported their foundings. President M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr was especially gracious in lending advice to the Sisters of Notre Dame and she even attended Trinity’s dedication.
Trinity was the first Catholic women’s college founded specifically as a college. But from the start, Trinity was very different from those institutions even though the Founders (and subsequent generations of SNDs and alumnae) sought to emulate Wellesley, Vassar and the other elite women’s colleges. The primary difference was the Catholic faith that was and is Trinity’s animating spirit, along with the spirit and reality of poverty that has always limited Trinity’s resources compared to the “seven sister” schools. Unlike those famous colleges, Trinity had no great endowment to get started — but for eight decades Trinity had the “living endowment” of the generous contributed services of the Sisters of Notre Dame (“contributed services” is a nice way of saying that the sisters worked without taking salaries, thus keeping the cost of operation down).
Srs. Julia and Mary Euphrasia faced even more serious problems than just a lack of money. Some conservative clerics claimed that the higher education of women was a heresy (“Americanism” was considered a grave sin by some in the 19th Century… and perhaps even today!). Rumors abounded that the SNDs were creating a coeducational university (coeducation was forbidden for Catholic institutions back then) and that their plans would undermine marriage and the family (criticisms of women’s education that continue in some quarters even today). Far from being intimidated by the storm of controversy, these intrepid women stood up to the opposition, writing to the Pope and traveling in very uncomfortable conditions to plead the cause of Trinity to the Apostolic Nuncio who was vacationing in Atlantic City. The SNDs had the great Cardinal Gibbons on their side, as well as the leadership of Catholic University, and in the end, Srs. Julia and Mary Euphrasia prevailed and started their great work in building Main Hall.
Main Hall took ten years to build, from 1899 to 1909, and the task was difficult. In the photo above, it’s clear that Michigan Avenue was still a dirt road, and the neighborhood was largely undeveloped. The SNDs hired the architect Edwin Durang to design Main Hall. Durang designed numerous Catholic institutional buildings on the east coast, and all have similar features — impressive granite edifice, central well or gathering space, long corridors. Very solid buildings.
More to come on today’s Founders Day celebration…