CNR and Ursulines worldwide are celebrating what St. Angela Merici started in 1535. Click here to view an article from Ursuline Bylines, Spring 2010, about the 475th anniversary of the Company of St. Ursula.
The Charter of 1904 is only one way to pinpoint the beginning of the College and to understand its audacious heritage.
From another perspective, the history of the College began in Brescia, Italy in the sixteenth century with Angela Merici and her Company of women, active in the cacophonous world of Renaissance Italy. Saint Angela's Company too was "somewhat ahead of its time." In 1535 she gathered a group of women dedicated to virtuous lives, but not under vows and not cloistered. They were to live in the world, under mutual supervision and guidance (especially of the younger by the older women), and engage in works useful to society, particularly the care, protection, and instruction of girls and young women.
Saint Angela counseled moving confidently ahead in faith. "Act, bestir yourselves. You will certainly see wonders." She also advised her Company of Saint Ursula to remain always open to the unexpected ways in which God's grace worked in the world. "If, with change of times and circumstances, it becomes necessary to make fresh rules, or to alter anything, then do it with prudence, after taking good advice." After her death in 1540, powerful currents in the Counter-Reformation forced her beloved Company into the cloister and, by the seventeenth century, restricted its work to a single area of service -- the education of young women. But the legacy of resolute action, of confident innovation, of service in the world, and of faithful adaptation to new times remained.
Nearly four hundred years later, the Ursuline heritage helped to inspire Mother Irene Gill's vision of a college for women
. The tradition of Saint Angela and her Company, by then a venerable part of Christian history and culture, paradoxically, still carried its challenge to accepted attitudes about women. The tension and dialogue between these two parts of the Ursuline legacy -- tradition and transformation -- would shape The College of New Rochelle.
The American Setting
If this vigorous heritage helped to form The College of New Rochelle, so too did the American world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States at that time was marked by extremely rapid social, cultural, and economic changes, including the appearance of new technologies, the accelerating pace of industrialization and urbanization, the uncomfortable shift toward more concentrated economic power, the rise of significant new cultural and educational institutions, the widening role of the United States on the world stage, and the struggle to transform the place and broaden the possibilities of American women.
Potentially at least, the early twentieth century was the Age of the New Woman. The period offered many American women considerable promise of wider vocational options, of greater economic independence, of increased political rights, and of more accessible educational opportunities. Both this American sense of ferment and possibility and the much older Ursuline legacy of active engagement in the education of young women belong in the story of The College of New Rochelle.
The Community of Saint Teresa
and Its Educational Enterprises
From another, more focused perspective, the history of the College began in 1855 when a small group of Ursulines arrived from St. Louis, Missouri, to open a school at the parish of the Immaculate Conception in the East Morrisania section of the Bronx (only a few blocks from the present site of the John Cardinal O’Connor Campus of the College). By 1873 this group, augmented by young immigrant women drawn to religious vocations with the Order sent nearly two dozen Ursulines to the new parish of St. Teresa on Henry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (less than two miles from the current campus at the New York Theological Seminary).
At the request of the pastor, these women came to teach the girls of the parish school. Very soon they also established a private academy which by 1877 had an enrollment of 130 students.
Among those involved at St. Teresa's school and academy in the 1870s and 1880s were several individuals central to the founding and early years of the College, including Mothers Irene Gill, Augustine Gill (Irene's sister), Seraphine Leonard, and Ignatius Wallace, as well as the Rev. Michael C. O'Farrell, parish priest, who greatly admired the Ursulines and offered advice and support for their work.
In 1881 the Ursulines of Father O'Farrell's parish established the autonomous Community of Saint Teresa. This event, the beginning of the particular Ursuline Community so closely associated with The College of New Rochelle, marked another significant moment in the origins of the College. The histories of Convent and College would be inextricably connected. The Community of Saint Teresa, which celebrated a centennial in 1981, had a quarter-century headstart. But the two stones are intertwined; they combine and diverge in many ways, from founding and intimate connection, through growth and formal separation, to the present and future quest for ways to uphold and honor the Ursuline heritage of the College.
To improve the preparation of teachers for public and parochial schools in New York City, the Ursulines of St. Teresa's added a normal school department to their Henry Street academy in 1883. The program worked well and drew the attention of New York City educators. As a result, the Henry Street endeavor became the first Catholic high school accredited for teacher training by the City Board of Education. Within a few years, this creative enterprise came under the directorship of Mother Irene Gill. This remarkable woman, born in Ireland in 1856, emigrated at age twelve to the United States and in 1876 entered the novitiate. By the 1880s, she was already recognized for her leadership skills, her commitment to the education of women, and her vision of educational innovations required to meet rapidly changing circumstances in America.
Some of those who knew her best remembered that she "was slight in figure and in manner most modest and even retiring.... With all her charming gentleness and suavity which helped to make her pathway easier, one got the impression that she had an underlying strength of will of a kind necessary to the furtherance or completion of great designs." A recent biographical reflection describes her as a complex, even paradoxical woman of strong personality, thoroughly conventional in matters of morality, discipline, and proper social behavior, but visionary in the matter of women's education which was her passion. For young women, from her time to now, she opened doors which had been closed. She offered them the opportunity to learn, to develop talents, and to be active in the world with new confidence, self-awareness, and independence.
In 1896, partly in response to shifting immigrant populations, the Ursulines of Henry Street moved their academy uptown to Ninety-third Street and Park Avenue. The Ninety-third Street school continued to operate for some years and would play a role in the early history of the College. In the same year, Mother Irene, apparently at the suggestion of Father O'Farrell, traveled to New Rochelle to explore the possibility of establishing a seminary there for young women. She spoke with the Rev. Thomas McLoughlin, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church and friend of Father O'Farrell, about her plans and learned from him that a wonderful potential site, Leland Castle, owned by Adrian Iselin Jr., might be available for purchase.
This Gothic Revival structure, built in the 1850s, seemed ideal. Delays occurred, however, and not until the summer of 1897 did the Ursulines move into their new home on Castle Place. In September 1897, ten boarders and 60 day students of the Ursuline Seminary for Girls joined them behind the heavy doors decorated with the lion heads. This enterprise marked the beginning of what is now The Ursuline School on North Avenue, for many years an intrinsic part of the College with facilities in or near the Castle.
So the series of geographical steps that prepared the way for The College of New Rochelle was now complete: from St. Louis to the Bronx, from the Bronx to Henry Street and Ninety-third Street, and from Manhattan to Leland Castle, still the landmark building of The College of New Rochelle nearly one hundred years later. Along this path had migrated, after 1881, the Ursuline Community of Saint Teresa, and the successive educational enterprises for young women which the Ursulines established and directed -- girls' departments of parochial schools, academies for young women, and teacher preparation and certification programs for working women.
These endeavors in women’s education over more than two decades would soon culminate in an even more audacious project. Mother Irene Gill had become persuaded that Catholic young women in New York needed the opportunity for collegiate education. She had set her mind and will to the great design of the first Catholic college for women in New York State.
Her college first needed a charter. But various obstacles threatened to intervene. Beyond the newness of such a venture and the complete lack of any funds, friends of Mother Irene's vision faced the skepticism of some clerics (who spoke of "Irene's Folly"'), the coolness of at least one member of the New York State Board of Regents, the absence -- for the moment -- of clear support from John Farley, archbishop of New York, and the conflicting ambitions of other nearby Catholic academies for young women. "There is no doubt... that there is a jealous rivalry existing between your institution and other Catholic institutions for women, and while they cannot qualify as well as you can't still they dislike very much to have any greater honors conferred on your institution. We must not get mixed up in anything of this kind."
William H. Buckley, of Albany, author of these remarks and one of the ten men listed as the first Board of Trustees in the Charter of 1904, played a crucial role in advising Mother Irene during these first stages. "I shall do everything in my power he assured Mother Irene, "to promote the welfare of your institution, which I have no doubt will prove to be one that will go down in history as the most prominent Catholic college for women in this country."
Buckley; Charles Cobb, and Eugene Philbin, two members of the Board of Regents, Dr. Augustus Downing, deputy commissioner of the State Education Department, and other friends in Albany successfully shepherded the application for incorporation through the Board of Regents. By the end of June the Charter was granted and Mother Irene's "design" was launched.