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Founders Day: Julia McGroarty, Champion of Women’s Rights and Education


Sr. Julia McGroarty, Trinity Founder(Sister Julia McGroarty, SND, Trinity Founder)

Yesterday, Founders Day at Trinity, provided a wonderful opportunity for members of the Trinity campus community to celebrate, remember and express gratitude for the heroic women whose vision and courage made our lives at Trinity today possible.  Before the traditional Founders Day events of the picnic and maypole, we gathered in the Well of Main Hall to re-dedicate the newly restored portrait of our Founder Sr. Julia, McGroarty, SND.  We were so pleased to hear excellent remarks by Sr. Mary Johnson, Sr. Mary Hayes and Sr. Camilla Burns. Below is the text of the brief biography of Sr. Julia given by Sr. Mary Hayes. The blog immediately prior to this one includes the remarks of Sr. Mary Johnson.  Thank you to all Sisters of Notre Dame for your continuing vast commitment to Trinity’s mission!

Sister Julia McGroarty and the Founding of Trinity, 1897-1900

Historical Profile by Sister Mary Hayes, SND, Professor Emerita and Trinity Archivist

Given on Founders Day 2017

(I am pleased to turn over this blog to Sister Mary Hayes for the posting of her marvelous talk
on Founders Day
about Sr. Julia McGroarty)

Because we are celebrating Founders Day, I am limiting my comments to Julia McGroarty’s leadership as Trinity’s Founder from 1897 to 1900. She was a visionary who believed that girls and women should be educated to love learning. Always initially cautious, once committed to an idea she would not give up.

All her experience in educational administration prepared her for her role as Trinity’s founder. As Provincial Superior in the US from 1888 to 1901, she initiated several comprehensive reforms to strengthen the academic standards of the United States schools of the Congregation. These reforms provided a uniform curriculum from K through senior year of high school; she formalized the professional preparation if the sisters by opening two normal schools for teacher training and organized summer schools for in-service training.

She was fully attuned to the growing professionalization of education at all levels and anticipated the trends towards certification. Most of all she insisted that the teachers respect students and motivated them to love learning. Her commitment to love for learning and respect for students became the heart of Trinity’s founding process. She delegated to others the fund raising, PR, and brick and mortar functions, although she supervised these functions, and intervened when necessary.

But she reserved to herself the academic planning, driven by her conviction that women have a right to higher education and that higher education for women should be equal to that of men. To highlight this equal opportunity, the promotional literature for Trinity attributed to her authorship reads like a litany of educated women from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: the Liobas, Hildas, Marcellas, Paulas and Catherines.

When the founding process met with opposition from conservatives within the Church and reached Rome with the threat to discontinue the founding, she sent an incredible letter defending Trinity to all the Papal offices and to the leaders of men’s religious orders stating her commitment to Trinity and the vision that impelled it:

“It is a matter of deep grief to us that a project intended to advance so purely the glory of God, should meet with opposition on the part of a certain element in our country who are incapable themselves of appreciating the influence of woman in society and her power for good in the church whilst at the same time they are ignorant of the spirit of the country which demands an equal education for all . . .” (Excerpt from the Letter of Sr. Julia McGroarty)

That the higher education of women would be equal to that of men also meant that it would be as rigorous (if not more so). The entrance requirements for admission to Trinity underscore the assumption of this rigor. The requirements were listed in the form of subjects students would be tested in in examination centers located throughout the country. Translated into today’s understanding of course equivalents these requirements would Include four years of Latin, two of Greek, either French or German (preferably both-in order to earn a Trinity degree students had to take both French  and German ) algebra, geometry, history, and English. Students could substitute botany, chemistry, or physics for one of the languages. Students from the SND academies could meet these requirements, but apparently not too many students from other academies could do so. Colleagues whom I have met over these years at professional meetings have told me that Trinity’s entrance requirement, almost overnight, advanced the academic level of secondary school curriculum across the country and Canada.

As part of the preparation Sister Julia also sent the early faculty- in- training to visit Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr. She also sent two sisters to England and to Belgium to study the European way of higher education, in the case of both countries, SND teacher training colleges, which at the time offered teaching certificates.

Personally, I love reading her letters to the sisters in Europe. They are long handwritten letters, minimally four pages, frequently six, in which she asks them to find the best possible texts in Greek, Latin, and literature, to find out how the students live, and how they spend their free time. At least three times, she hoped they were not lonely for the stars and stripes and wished that they would be able to celebrate the Fourth of July.

The letters also reveal the practical application of her vision. In one letter she asks them to note whether the women are treated as pupils and not as children. In another she writes that she smiled in the Tablet about a British woman involved in politics. Of this incident Sister Julia wrote, “I hope we do not come to this,” an almost playful comment suggesting that it could happen.

On at least two occasions she observed that different countries have different usages and in this context warned them on their return from Liverpool to Namur not to talk about going to lectures when they were in England. “These are alright and necessary in themselves and for the work,” but they (the sisters in Namur) would not understand.

This morning we celebrate Sister Julia McGroarty and her gift of Trinity. She was flexible, open minded, big hearted, and above all, committed to inspiring women to love learning.

Sr. Mary Hayes speaks about Sr. Julia McGroarty(Sr. Mary Hayes delivers her remarks on Sr. Julia McGroarty on Founders Day, April 26, 2017)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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