Heresy or Legacy? SNDs at the Founding of Trinity

Heresy or Legacy? SNDs at the Founding of Trinity

(by today’s Google map, it would take 4 1/2 hours to get to Atlantic City by train…)

Learn more about Trinity’s 125th anniversary celebration!

How far would you go to defend the right of women to have a great college education?  Would you argue with a bishop? The Pope?  Would you take a round-trip in one day on a hot train to Atlantic City to plead your case to the Pope’s ambassador to the United States?

The Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity were fearless.  So determined were they to start the nation’s first Catholic college for women in 1897 that they pursued their case vigorously in letters and meetings with Cardinal James Gibbons, and upon his advice, they made that daring August trip to Atlantic City to meet with Apostolic Delegate Martinelli.  That trip was no Acela breeze… there was no air conditioning in 1897, no wifi, and certainly no cafe car for the sisters.  The SNDs, bound by their religious rules, wore not only full habits but “traveling cloaks” made of wool.  They got on the train at 10 am, arrived at Atlantic City at 3:30 pm, met with the Apostolic Delegate for about half an hour, and were back on the train to Washington at 4:45 pm, arriving home at 10:45 pm.  Whew!

(Pennsylvania Railroad “fast” train in 1897)

WHY did Sr. Mary Euprhasia and her colleague Sr. Teresa of the Sacred Heart make that difficult, hot, wearisome day trip to Atlantic City?  Because some right-wing clerics were spreading rumors about the plans for Trinity College; the rumors had reached the Pope and he was about to pull the plug on the entire project!  The rumors were all “fake news” for that day — but the political opposition to women’s rights has a certain currency even today.

Sr. Mary Euphrasia wrote an almost contemporaneous account of the meeting in New Jersey.  Apostolic Delegate Martinelli told the sisters:

“I had a letter from the Holy Father [Pope Leo XIII, photo left], in which he said that he had heard that the Sisters of Notre Dame had bought a place near Catholic University, and were going to build there a university for women.  He was informed that the Professors of the Catholic University would be the teachers, and that the students of both places would attend the classes of the professors.  As he expressed it, there would be an amalgamation of the sexes — coeducation.”  (From the manuscript A Sketch of the Foundation of Trinity College)

Coeducation was forbidden in Catholic circles, a “near occasion of sin” that the Church hierarchy would not abide.  The priests who opposed the founding of Trinity implied that the location of Trinity near Catholic University would lead to coeducation — and sin!  They spread the lie that the SNDs were possibly guilty of the heresy of “Americanism” which, to the old European ears of the Pope and Curia, meant the kind of liberalism that pervaded American culture.

Following that trip to Atlantic City, Sister Superior Julia McGroarty, SND, wrote a letter to Cardinal Rampolla, the Vatican Secretary of State, setting forth the rationale for Trinity College:

“Education, as Your Eminence doubtless knows, is the cry of the age in America.  Parents desire their daughters to be equally well informed with their sons, and with the independence characteristic of the country, when a lawful avenue of knowledge is closed to their daughters, seek it for them through another plainly showing that if the Church does not supply this want of the age for our American Girls, the latter will continue to frequent Godless schools, and the charge will be repeated that the Church is opposed to the Higher Education of Women!”  (From the manuscript A Sketch of the Foundation of Trinity College)

By raising the spectre of Catholic women attending “Godless schools” Sr. Julia was referring to the fact that many Catholic women at the end of the 19th Century were enrolling in Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, Bryn Mawr and other women’s colleges founded in the latter half of the 19th Century.  Even more interesting, she had data showing that Catholic women were enrolling at Columbian College which is the historic precursor to George Washington University and continues to this day as GWU’s undergraduate College of Arts & Sciences.  Sr. Julia knew that while the men in Rome might not be moved by a general plea for women’s higher education, they surely would sit up and take notice at the thought that Catholic women were in “Godless schools.”

The SNDs persisted — and they won! Cardinal Gibbons wrote to Sr. Julia McGroarty a congratulatory letter thanking the SNDs for founding Trinity, saying that, “It will relieve the University [Catholic University] authorities from the embarrassment of refusing women admission…”

Trinity today is celebrating her 125th Anniversary because those brave women were willing to go to great lengths to plead the case for a women’s college in an era when women’s higher education was considered exotic if not downright sinful by Catholic leaders.  The SNDs set aside personal discomfort and inconvenience, and were not intimidated by the accusation of heresy.  Their persistence created a great legacy in women’s education across 12 decades.

As we gather this week to celebrate Trinity’s 125th Anniversary, let us raise up our thanks and gratitude to the Sisters of Notre Dame who made our lives and work in and through Trinity’s great mission possible.  Their legacy is a great gift to all of us who share Trinity’s mission.  The best way we can express our gratitude to them is to be sure that Trinity is thriving into the future — let’s aim for her 200th Anniversary!!

(Pioneer Trinity Women, Class of 1904)

Next:  Ok, that was 1897, but why a women’s college in 2022?