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Photo Credit: St. Louis Mercantile Library photo

A bishop’s efforts led to origins of St. Louis University

St. Louis University grew from a few dozen students in a rented house to 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain.

Bishop Louis William DuBourg founded the university in 1818 as St. Louis Academy. It was considered the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi.

Housed in a private residence near the Mississippi River, it later was known as St. Louis College.

In volume one of "Saint Louis: The Story of Catholic Evangelization of America's Heartland," Msgr. Michael Witt wrote that in creating the Catholic college, Bishop Louis W.V. DuBourg pledged his personal library of 8,000 volumes. The president was to be Father Francois Neal and the faculty would be made up of three young priests. Bishop DuBourg opened the school to nonCatholics with a curriculum heavy in languages. Boarding was an option. Day tuition ran a then-pricey $48 a year.

Among the students at St. Louis College were the sons of explorer William Clark, Gov. Alexander McNair and the brother-in-law of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Also on the frontlines of Catholic education, Msgr. Witt wrote, "the three Brothers of the Christian Schools began the Academy of Sainte Genevieve and the Vincentians sunk deep roots into the Barrens in Perry County. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne and other sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart arrived in America" to serve as teachers.

In 1823, Bishop DuBourg, realizing he couldn't provide adequate faculty for the college among his clergy, offered the college to the Jesuits along with land on Washington Avenue. In 1829, the school opened on the site to 40 students, including 10 boarders. Father Peter J. Verhaegen was the first Jesuit president. The college received a formal charter from the state in 1832 under the name St. Louis University.

Later in the 1800s, SLU established the first medical school and law department west of the Mississippi River. It moved from Downtown St. Louis to its current location in Midtown St. Louis in 1888.

The St. Louis University School of Law admitted five female students in 1908, the first women to attend St. Louis University. The College of Arts and Sciences became co-educational in 1949.

St. Louis University was the first historically white university in 14 former slave states to admit black students. In January 1944, SLU President Father Patrick J. Holloran surveyed alumni and friends about enrolling black students. Days later, Jesuit Father Claude H. Heithaus, a professor of classical art and archaeology, spoke at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, challenging segregation in education. That summer, SLU admitted five African-American students.

While women had been allowed to attend graduate and select programs since 1908, undergraduate men and women weren't allowed to register and attend classes together until this time.

In 1967, St. Louis University became the first major Catholic university to give laymen and clergy combined legal responsibility for institutional policy and operations. Dan Schlafly was named as chairman of the board of trustees. He replaced Father Paul C. Reinert, who continued as president of the university and became known for his commitment to social justice and to the St. Louis community.

By the end of the decade, a 10-year, $53 million development program resulted in 22 buildings built, purchased or renovated and a campus expansion.

Forces that played out in society in the 1960s and 1970s were present at SLU. In 1969, members of the Association of Black Collegians seized a dean's office in Cardinal Ritter Hall on the Mill Creek campus and held it until the next day after negotiations with Father Reinert. A flap ensued when a French Communist philosopher came to speak on campus. The Vietnam War was hotly debated on campus.

During difficult financial times that followed, Jesuit Father Thomas Fitzgerald's presidency reversed a trend of deficits and included a construction and rehabilitation campaign. Under the leadership of Jesuit Father Lawrence Biondi, the university expanded and beautified the campuses.

The first late-night Sunday student Mass was celebrated at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church in 1990. Now a SLU tradition, particularly for undergraduates, the Mass is celebrated at 9 p.m.

Now led by lay men and women, St. Louis University carries on Bishop DuBourg's commitment to the Gospel, Father Mercier said.

Sources for this story included St. Louis University, St. Louis Review files and volume one of "Saint Louis: The Story of Catholic Evangelization of America's Heartland" by Msgr. Michael Witt. 

>> Timeline


SLU becomes the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River when St. Louis Academy (later known as St. Louis College) is founded in a private residence near the Mississippi River at the request of Bishop Louis William DuBourg of Louisiana. The history of SLU's College of Arts and Sciences dates back to the original St. Louis Academy. SLU's first classes were held Nov. 16, 1818, in a building rented from Madame Eugene Alvarez.


The Society of Jesus assumes control of the college, and Jesuit Father Peter J. Verhaegen becomes the school's first Jesuit president.


St. Louis College is located on Washington Avenue between Ninth and Tenth streets in a undeveloped, heavily wooded area of St. Louis. The college, now St. Louis University, receives a formal charter from the State of Missouri, becoming the first university west of the Mississippi River. SLU also begins offering the first graduate programs west of the Mississippi River.


St. Francis Xavier College Church, also known as College Church, is founded at Ninth Street and Washington Avenue. Construction on the current church building in Midtown begins in 1884 and is completed in 1914.


University authorities purchase a tract of land at Grand and Lindell boulevards in preparation for a move from Downtown to SLU's current location.


DuBourg Hall opens on July 31, the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Though now home to SLU's administration, the building at its opening contained the whole of the university's operations, including classrooms, laboratories, a museum and library, and dormitories for both students and the Jesuit faculty.


SLU acquires the Marion-Sims-Beaumont College of Medicine, located at Grand Boulevard and Caroline Street.


The St. Louis University School of Law admits five female students — the first women to attend St. Louis University.


Mother Marie Kernaghan, RSCJ, becomes the first woman to graduate from St. Louis University with a Ph.D. Her degree was in physics.


The College of Arts and Sciences becomes co-educational.


A gift from Harriet Frost Fordyce allows the university to purchase 22 acres east of Grand Boulevard, where Busch Student Center, lecture halls, classrooms and Ritter Hall are later built. The north end of SLU's Midtown campus becomes known as the Frost Campus in honor of her father, General Daniel M. Frost.


SLU establishes a campus in Madrid, Spain.


SLU holds its first Make A Difference Day. Now the university's single largest day of service, the event involves thousands of students, as well as faculty, staff and alumni, volunteering at more than 100 sites around the St. Louis metro area.


The $82 million Edward A. Doisy Research Center, with 80 research labs on 10 floors, opens.


The St. Louis University School of Law moves to Downtown St. Louis.


SLU's first permanent lay president, Fred P. Pestello, takes office. 

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