The Influential Women Who Founded Trinity

The Influential Women Who Founded Trinity

Sr. Julia McGroarty, Founder of Trinity

Last week we celebrated another delightful Founders Day, paying tribute to Sr. Julia McGroarty and the Sisters of Notre Dame whose courage and vision made today’s Trinity possible.

On April 15, Trinity Campus Minister Sr. Ann Howard, SNDdeN, (photo below) gave a wonderful talk on the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity.  This presentation followed an earlier talk by Fr. Stephen Thorne on Trinity’s Catholic identity.  Sr. Ann gave me permission to publish her talk on my blog.  Enjoy!

Sr. Ann Howard on The Influential Founders of Trinity

Good noontime, everyone!  Welcome to Breaking Bread with the Sisters, an event sponsored by the Billiart Center for Social Justice at Trinity Washington University.

Look around, everyone is welcome!  This event is open to students, staff and faculty and alumnae alike… and includes three parts- nibbling, listening, and socializing.  FYI, the homemade whole wheat bread is baked by Sr. Camilla Burns, and the water provided by Sr. Mary Hayes.

Today, our topic is “the beginnings of Trinity: Who were the three most influential founders and their peers?

How Trinity began and who were the main protagonists, and how and why we are here today. Following this presentation on the founders of Trinity you will be sharing thoughts at your tables with your table-mates.  Today, Rose Parlor looks like the Synod in Rome!  We begin with the Trinity Prayer:

  The Trinity Prayer

May the Power of the good God govern and protect us.

May the wisdom of the son teach and enlighten us.

May the love of the Holy Spirit renew and quicken us.

May the Blessing of the All Holy Trinity:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with us now and forever.  Amen.

The last time we gathered, Fr. Thorne (photo below) spoke about the Catholic Identity that Trinity Washington University enjoys.  He named four pillars—Sacred Encounter (how we say hello to each other and learn each others’ names), Catholic Social Teaching, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), and having an Open Mindset , on which Trinity, as a Catholic institute of higher learning rests.  Trinity’s beginnings are very interesting, now celebrating 125 years.

I am referencing four sources for this presentation:  Sr. Mary Hayes’s article on the Founding of Trinity College and the Design of a Program for the Higher Education of Women, which she presented in 1982 before the American Catholic Historical Association. Three Against the Wind, by Sr. Angela Elizabeth Keenan, Christian Classics, 1973, and Trinity College, The First 80 Years, 1897- 1977, the purple book, by Sr. Columba Mullally, in Christian Classics 1987. I also draw from President Patricia McGuire’s blogs.

In the late 1800’s the Catholic orders of Sisters in the United States were coming from Europe as missionaries.  Many of them were charged with starting schools for Catholic children. The Sisters of Mercy, the Daughters of Charity, The Blessed Sacrament Sisters, and so many other religious orders worked basically for free to educate the children across the US.  Why education? Because education offers a person a chance to realize herself.  The gospel mandate, spoken in John’s gospel by Jesus, says, “I have come that you may have life to the full.”  Education can lead one to fullness of life. (John10:10)

In cities and in rural areas, Catholic Sisters took it upon themselves, with the invitation of various local bishops, to establish schools for children, many of whom were immigrants.

In 1840, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur came from Belgium to Ohio as missionaries, to begin the US ‘mission’ which today extends—in the US– from the west coast to the east coast.

Fast-forward fifty years to 1889, when Catholic University was being built in DC, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were situated in this region, and taught at Notre Dame Academy for Girls where North Capitol meets K St.

Most Catholic colleges have a founding order, a Religious Congregation that imbues their own ‘spirit’, their charism, onto the school they build.  For example, Jesuit college prep schools, and universities teach St. Ignatius’s charism with the words, “Men and women for others,” and, “Seeing God in all things.”

Because the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have a charism to make known the “Goodness of God in all of life’s circumstances,” Notre Dame Academies celebrate God’s Goodness.  Even today, in California, Ohio, Maryland and Massachusetts, Notre Dame Hallmarks affirm how to “Live the Good” by helping others.  They relate to the story of how the spark of Goodness—that fell from the heart of God to St. Julie, the founder of the order, and to all of us—is present within a Notre Dame institution.  The institution’s charism offers this message to the world.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur founded Trinity College, now Trinity Washington University, so we are graced, in spirit, with attention to the Goodness of God.

While some Religious congregations spring from a Diocese, answering to the local ordinary, or Bishop, and exercising their ministries in a geographic area called a diocese; the SNDdeN were founded in 1804, in France, and are a Pontifical Institute, meaning we relate to the Pope and our mission extends to many places – on five continents–throughout the world.  Julie Billiart, an intelligent peasant woman, and Francoise Blin de Bourdon, an aristocrat who experienced imprisonment during the French Revolution, believed in God’s goodness and they sought to educate women and girls.  Founded in 1804, in France, just after the French Revolution had traumatized their society, the Sisters of Notre Dame started with a ‘spark from the heart of God onto the heart’ of Julie and Francoise.  It is poetic language, yes, and that was 1804.

In 1904, one hundred years later, the first graduating class of Trinity College received their degrees and went on to live lives of promise, endowed with education.  How did this come about when popular belief was that girls did not need to be educated?

In 1889, the Catholic University of America opened its doors to men from across the country.  CUA is a Pontifical university that does not have the charism of one religious foundation, but that draws support from all the US Catholic Bishops. In the beginning, most students were seminarians, studying theology and religious studies.  Today, CUA educates men and women with a variety of majors.

According to Sr. Hayes’ paper on this topic, there were women who applied to CUA at the start, and some at CUA were anxious to respond to these women and others who sought to be educated in a Catholic environment.  In 1897, the Sisters of Notre Dame, namely Sr. Julia McGroarty and Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor believed it was time for women to enjoy higher education in DC.

They thought of founding an elite academy, and were encouraged, instead, to build a college, a free-standing Catholic university for women, and this, they did!

Who were these key players, known as the founders of Trinity College? Some of their pictures hang in the first floor marble corridor of Trinity’s Main Hall.  In addition to Srs. Julia McGroarty and Mary Euphrasia Taylor (photos elsewhere on this blog), the founders included some important priests and bishops who supported the founding of Trinity despite a great deal of criticism from those who believed that women should not go to college.  Some of the supporting clerics included:

Left to right:

James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore
Fr. Philip Garrigan, Vice Rector of Catholic University
Monsignor William Kerby, Professor of Sociology at Catholic University
Fr. Thomas Conaty, Rector of Catholic University

From March, 1897 until October of 1900, these key players and many besides them, worked diligently to make Trinity College a reality.

Let’s take a look at the founding Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur; there are three who are illustrated beautifully in this book called, Three Against the Wind, by Sr. Keenan.

Sr. Julia McGroarty, born Susan McGroarty, was born 1827. She was about 4 years old when her family migrated from Ireland to Cincinnati, Ohio with 5 children and then they had 5 more children. They were seeking to join their relatives who had already come, and to enhance their children’s prospects for education and work in this country.  In 1838 her father died when Susan was 11 years old. She relied heavily on the teachers she knew, namely, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Susan joined the Sisters and pronounced her vows in 1848.  We must mention her dear teacher and life-long friend and mentor, Sr. Louise, who was one of the original Sisters to set sail from Belgium and arrive in Cincinnati in 1840.

Sr. Julia had a strong intellect and was recognized as a leader.  She became Superior of the missions of SNDdeN in California and across the US to New England and the Mid-Atlantic.  She was well acquainted with the educational platforms here, and was instrumental in securing the documentation, physical plant, and curriculum that developed over the course of the last 4 years of her life, in collaboration with Sr. Euphrasia and other founders of Trinity. Sr. Julia , according to Sr. Hayes, had, “the insight, the experience, and the scholarly instincts to provide the leadership for founding the college.”  (The Founding of Trinity, Mary Hayes, SND 1982)

Sr. Julia died in 1901, just one year after Trinity College was opened.

Sr. Mary Euphrasia, born Ella Taylor, was born 1851, in her beloved Richmond, Virginia. When she was 9 years old the Civil War was enacted on her family’s doorsteps.  Her beloved Virginia seceded to the Confederacy. It sounds like they had servant-slavepersons in their home, and soldiers on their streets, as the war began.  They were Episcopalian.  Her father died of typhoid fever when Ella was just 10, a casualty of the War.  He left her with these words, “Wisdom is better than Gold”.  Ella’s education included time at boarding school and Patapsco Academy in Maryland as she studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, German and Italian as well as courses in Physical Sciences, Math, and Philosophy.  In 1867, at age 16, Ella chose to be baptized Catholic by Cardinal Gibbons (p.58, Three), and, after graduating, she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1873 in Philadelphia, moving to Cincinnati, and eventually in Washington, DC.

In Philadelphia, Ella Taylor took the religious name of Sr. Mary Euphrasia (together, Euphrasia!).  According to Keenan, Sr. Euphrasia was drawn to the study of botany, claiming that the study of plants led to the discovery of God’s goodness, truth and beauty all around her.  Once the documentation for Trinity College was initiated, and land was purchased on Michigan Ave., Sr. Euphrasia envisioned and enlisted work for the building of Main Hall at Trinity… a beautiful building, indeed- hiring the same architect, E.F. Durang, who build the Sisters’ house in Philadelphia.

Sr. Euphrasia worked tirelessly, traveling by train to points north to secure permissions for building. Her wealthy contacts provided the needed financial resources to begin Trinity College.

Wisdom is better than Gold was in her mind and heart as she secured a foundation in Trinity’s earliest, and fledgling days.

Shortly after Trinity opened, Sr. Euphrasia was missioned to California, where she practiced detachment and began a new ministry there on the west coast, keeping minimal contacts with her DC friends and colleagues.

It was Srs. Julia and Euphrasia who collaborated with the local academic establishments and drew up the curriculum for the new Catholic College for women.  One of the Sisters selected to teach on the original faculty was Sr. Raphael of the Sacred Heart.  Sr. Raphael, aka Lucy Johnson Pike, was born in 1858 in Brooklyn, NY.  Her mother died from childbirth, was heard to say, “I return my soul and my baby to the God who created me.”  She was obviously a woman of faith, and her husband moved to Newburyport, MA, to be with the extended family who would help to raise his son and his new daughter.

The Pike family were Universalists, and Lucy’s schooling included time in MA and Detroit.  She thrived on learning with the Concord School of Philosophy and the Ipswich Seminary while in Boston, and was instructed by Cardinal Gibbons in the Catholic faith and became Catholic. In 1881, Lucy attended Medical School in Boston, graduating in 1885.

In 1890, Lucy Pike became Sr. Raphael of the Sacred Heart, entering the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in MA.

Note:  Lucy was engaged to marry a young man from Detroit which in those days was commitment with legal bonds, so her turning towards Catholicism and religious profession was a process that required adjustments to her plans in life.  Interesting?!

Sr. Raphael came to Trinity College to teach; she taught Greek and other languages, organized the infirmary during a pandemic, and established relationships with other religious in DC, the Redemptorists, the Medical Mission Sisters, and she had an impact on her students and so many others.  Her notebooks remain in the archives, as are details of the building of Notre Dame Chapel.
Sr Raphael served as President of Trinity College from 1921-1930, fortifying the early days by establishing an Alumni Association, landscaping the campus, building the chapel, launching the Trinity Times and overseeing essential student-focused experiences as the semesters rolled by.

This brief reminder of our early beginnings at Trinity reveal that we have a lasting relationship with Catholic University of America, if not in legal or official terms, yet in our founding stories.  Yet, we are so different!  When asked why she applied here and not to CUA, one student replied, “I am a strong woman and I came to Trinity to be surrounded by strong women!”  CUA’s motto states, “Faithfully Catholic”, while ours states, “Education for Justice”.  Let’s say that together:  Education for Justice!

Today, Trinityeducate s a majority 55 % DC -based, African American undergraduate population, 25 % Hispanic, all women from various parts of the US with some born internationally, many of whom are DACA-Dreamers and undocumented.  Now is a most exciting time to matriculate at Trinity, as all our students have opportunities to research and present learnings, achieve leadership qualities, practice public speaking, athletics, artistic expressions and grow in emotional and spiritual maturity while accomplishing their academic goals.  The founders of Trinity would be so proud to know that the mission -for education of young women and the vision for higher learning and leadership, love of God and neighbor, confidence and knowledge- is strong, here at Trinity Washington University!

I am referencing three sources for this presentation:  Sr. Mary Hayes’s article on the Founding of Trinity College and the Design of a Program for the Higher Education of Women, which she presented in 1982 before the American Catholic Historical Association. Three Against the Wind, by Sr. Angela Elizabeth Keenan, Christian Classics, 1973, and Trinity College, The First 80 Years, 1897- 1977, -the purple book, by Sr. Columba Mullally, in Christian Classics 1987.


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  • Great article on the history of Trinity University

  • Nice job Ann. I learned a lot

    Anne Malone SNdde N
  • Outstanding article! The Founders of Trinity were true visionaries! Grateful for my Trinity education, and experience!

    Laurie J. Drazek
  • Fantastic history and spotlight on leaders with a vision for women’s education. #TrinityProud

    Deborah Kane
  • Thank you for this rich history. I always wished that I had gone to Trinity! But I am ever so grateful for the SND’s who came to ND High School , Bridgeport, in 1956

    Virginia Day
  • I loved reading this history of Trinity – what amazing women those early ones were! And what fidelity to the charism of St. Julie that Trinity University has evolved the way it has: truly ministry that is empowering women who without this educational opportunity would not be the leaders they are becoming! How wonderful the evolution of this educational enterprise!

    julie m murray

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