Women Building Civilization
In April 1897, just one month after she started plotting the establishment of Trinity College — encouraged by Dr. Philip Garrigan who was then the vice-rector of Catholic University — Sister Julia McGroarty, SND, began to admit doubts. The money — where would she find the money? — a refrain echoed across the last 120 years. But from the start, the persistence and fortitude of Trinity’s leaders led them to figure it out. Julia and her co-conspirator Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor were trying to do something extremely unusual, start a college for Catholic women that would be an institution of higher education for women from the very beginning, not growing out of a high school. Dr. Garrigan proposed the idea because Catholic University, founded in 1887, could not admit women back then. Hence, Catholic women who wanted to go to college were going to (scandale!) the “new” women’s colleges like Vassar, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Bryn Mawr, none of them Catholic.
Euphrasia wrote back to Julia with an impassioned plea to keep going, outlining an ambitious fund raising campaign and declaring, “The project is so grand… the incentives so great… We shall succeed!”
Succeed they did, and on November 22, 1900, the new Trinity community of students, SNDs and several hundred friends gathered to dedicate the new college in a building that was decidedly unfinished — only the south wing of Main Hall existed at that time.
Along the way, the SNDs encountered many challenges, not the least of which was opposition from right wingers in the Church who declared that the idea of a college education for Catholic women was tantamount to a heresy (specifically, “Americanism”). But after entreaties that went all the way to Pope Leo XIII, the sisters secured the permission of the hierarchy to proceed. James Cardinal Gibbons gave his approval:
The SNDs secured Trinity’s articles of incorporation on August 20, 1897. That same summer, they bought the property, a plot of land that was formerly part of Glenwood Cemetery on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. They drew up plans for the building and the curriculum, recruited students and faculty, and set about the heroic work of raising up a great college from scratch. The first students arrived on November 3, 1900 and classes began on November 8, 1900.
At the dedication of the new Trinity College, on November 22, 1900, Catholic University Rector Monsignor Thomas J. Conaty underscored the importance of education for women at the highest levels — see his quote above. He also paid a great tribute to the Sisters of Notre Dame and other religious women whose work in education truly changed society:
“The Catholic nun as an educational force is not a result of modern civilization, nor of modern educational demands; she is rather one of the forces which have made modern civilization possible…”
Across the twelve decades of Trinity’s history, many heroic Sisters of Notre Dame continued to build the college, each one making Trinity new and fresh for the times in which they lived. As the Trinity community gathers again on November 22, 2020, we salute all of the heroic SNDs whose selfless devotion to the education of the women of Trinity changed so many lives for the better. Trinity has grown and changed over the years, adding graduate and professional degrees, welcoming men into some programs, and becoming Trinity Washington University. But the essence of Trinity’s founding vision and commitment remains the same, to educate students with the intellectual capacity and talents to make significant contributions to our society in each generation.
Today, November 22, 2020, we also remember one of the greatest leaders of Trinity, Sister Margaret Claydon, SND, Class of 1945, President from 1959 to 1975 and Professor of English. In her many speeches and essays, as well as through her own powerful example, Sister Margaret continuously reminded students, faculty and alumnae of the reasons why Trinity must persist in our mission. She never hesitated to remind us of our constant duty to act as “inheritors of a revolution,” to be ready and willing to work for change and improvement in society:
“We, the inheritors of a revolution… must gird ourselves with the expertise and knowledge of the latest technology to become leaders of the revolution. Ours is a demanding and challenging task, but with faith and trust, courage and boldness and knowledge, we can…believe and live by the belief that indeed one person can make a difference.”
Thank you, Sisters of Notre Dame, and congratulations to Trinity on the occasion of our 120th Anniversary of the dedication of the College!