Throughout the Years: Six Major Milestones in Holy Cross History

From the very beginning in 1843 to the present day, catch some historic highlights that have made Holy Cross what it is today

There are many ways to mark the evolution of an institution with the kind of storied history of College of the Holy Cross. On the occasion of the College’s 175th anniversary, we’ve highlighted six milestones that have shaped the school throughout its history.

Laying the Foundation

Fenwick Hall in the 1840s. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

The dream to start College of the Holy Cross began at the very beginning of the tenure of Rev. Benedict Joseph Fenwick of the Society of Jesus, the second Bishop of Boston, who longed to establish a Catholic college within the boundaries of his all-New England diocese. The need was great. Catholics in large numbers, fleeing religious persecution and seeking economic opportunity, were pouring into the region. Bishop Fenwick, an alumnus of Georgetown College who twice served as president of his alma mater, recognized the need to educate area Catholics and to provide priests for his growing number of parishes.

The location in Worcester was fortuitous. In 1836, Rev. James Fitton had purchased 52 acres of land and begun an academy for boys. While the academy prospered, Fr. Fitton’s pastoral responsibilities left him little time nor energy to manage a boarding school, and he gladly conveyed the property and buildings to Bishop Fenwick for his college.

The Bishop’s letters note his keen interest in the project. "Next May I shall lay the foundation of a splendid College in Worcester…It is calculated to contain 100 boys and I shall take them for $125 per an. and supply them with everything but clothes. Will not this be a bold undertaking? Nevertheless, I will try it. It will stand on a beautiful eminence and will command the view of the whole town of Worcester..." As for the College’s name, the Bishop looked to his own cathedral church, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy, S.J., a former Provincial of the Maryland Province Jesuits and, like Bishop Fenwick, a former president of Georgetown, took charge of the project. He was named the first president of Holy Cross after returning to the U.S. following his censure for the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved persons.

The cornerstone of the College was officially laid on June 21, 1843, and that fall, six students, aged 9 to 19, began attending classes. By the end of the first academic year, 26 students were enrolled.

Fenwick Goes Up in Flames

A burned wall from the Fenwick fire in 1852. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

The blaze on The Hill flared the afternoon of July 14, 1852, just eight years and eight months after Holy Cross first welcomed students. A fire started on the third floor of the main building, Fenwick Hall, where students and Jesuits lived and studied, and spread quickly. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, but the fire put the future of the young college in question. Damage was estimated at a $40,000 — equal to about $1.3 million today — and there was no insurance. The next morning, as students, many of whom had lost everything but the clothes on their back, were sent home, the question came down to a simple but daunting decision: Rebuild and send the Jesuit province into crippling debt or abandon this "bold undertaking" that Bishop Fenwick had initiated just a few years before?

It wasn't until the fall of the following year that rebuilding plans fell into place — a fundraising campaign was started and an architect hired. President Rev. Anthony F. Ciampi, S.J. led the charge to re-establish Holy Cross, writing: "Those who come to Worcester must make up their minds that they come for God — and to help a house that is still bearing either a punishment or a trial." By that October, the school reopened with 14 students and four Jesuit teachers in an undamaged section of the building, and rebuilding began in earnest using funds both raised by the Jesuits and from donations. The largest donation of $2,300 was made by Patrick F. Healy, S.J. — Jesuit scholar and brother of Holy Cross' first valedictorian, Bishop James A. Healy, S.J. — from the sale of his father's estate, which included 49 enslaved persons.

The College Catalog Marks Curriculum's Evolution

The cover of the 1932 College Catalog. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

The educational foundation of Holy Cross has a long and illustrious history dating back to 1599 when the Society of Jesus approved the "Ratio Studiorum" (plan of studies), a highly structured curricular and pedagogical system for the growing network of Jesuit-run schools that combined Renaissance humanism with Jesuit spirituality. The "Ratio" featured progressively more difficult material focused on ancient Greek and Latin as well as classic literature, English literature and grammar, mathematics, geography, vernacular languages, physics, chemistry and history. The Ratio also used memorization and competition as tools for learning and emphasized mentor relationships between students and faculty members.

Yet over time it became a challenge to maintain the College's reputation as a leader in higher education as the American pattern of education — high school to college to graduate or professional schools — set new standards that the Ratio struggled to meet. With Harvard leading the charge, American colleges evolved to offer more specialized education through elective courses, moving further and further away from resembling the strict tradition of the Ratio. By 1930, only sixteen Catholic schools, including Holy Cross, stood on the approved list of the prestigious Association of American Universities, which accredited schools nationally. For fear that our accreditation was becoming increasingly precarious, the Jesuit general at the time, Rev. Wlodimir Ledochowski, urged a serious assessment of the College's curriculum, which up until then had seen periodic adjustments.

In 1938, the College moved away from using the Ratio program units (First, Second, and Third Grammar, Humanities and Rhetoric) to organize the curriculum. For the first time in Holy Cross history and in recognition of the developments of the broader world of higher education, the College catalog listed 14 academic departments, representing 14 academic disciplines and the beginnings of a curriculum that mirrors that of today's Holy Cross. The 14 departments were listed as follows: ten in the Division of Liberal Arts (religion, philosophy, English, classics-Greek, classics-Latin, modern languages, economics, education, history and sociology and political science), and four in the Division of Science (biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics). These days, the College's academic landscape has grown in both depth and breadth, with Holy Cross now being home to 59 academic departments and programs, ranging from Africana Studies to Engineering to Visual Arts.

Shifting the Scales of Diversity on Campus

Ted Wells announces the walkout of 60 black and 50 white students, one of the largest protests in Holy Cross history. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

The politically turbulent 1960s rocked Holy Cross, as it did many other colleges and universities across the country. As the United States wrestled with civil rights and desegregation, Holy Cross sought to reach a new level of racial diversity. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 inspired Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. '49 to dramatically step up diversity efforts at Holy Cross, which had only nine minority students enrolled at the time. Fr. Brooks traveled up and down the East coast recruiting African-American students to Holy Cross, and successfully recruited 19 men to join an overwhelmingly white campus in the fall of 1968.

Among these students are some of the College's most prominent alumni: Clarence Thomas '71, the future Supreme Court justice; Edward P. Jones '72, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature; Theodore Wells '72, who would become one of the nation’s most successful defense attorneys; and Stanley Grayson '72, future New York City deputy mayor who would break the color barrier on Wall Street.

Over the course of the late '60s and early '70s, after hearing directly from its African American students, the College made efforts to hire more faculty of color, recruit more minority students, change the curriculum to include more courses in African American literature, art and history, and officially recognize the Black Student Union. Other changes, while smaller, were important steps forward: the College respected petitions to rid the school song, "Mamie Reilly," of its mention of Old Black Joe and the desire to set up a separate corridor in Healy Hall for African-American students.

While the College made strides, they didn't come without immense conflict. In December of 1969, the College saw the largest and most serious student protest in its history, when around 60 black and 50 white students walked out of campus after a disproportionately high number of black students were suspended following a protest against General Electric recruiters on campus. Activism and protests were common fixtures of Holy Cross student life at the time, but this particular confrontation raised serious concerns of racism and the limits of political protests on campus going forward.

Embracing Coeducation

Two women sit in front of a Holy Cross banner. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

Among the debates leading up to Holy Cross' decision to admit women were the added cost of mirrors, bathtubs, and shampoo sinks in the residence halls. The preparation for the decision was thorough: administrators conducted studies of women's colleges to better understand projected changes to the physical campus and the curriculum, coeducation events were held where women (referred to as "girls" in the event materials) were welcomed to campus to share in classes and meals, a special committee was established to study the topic and draft a report, and votes and polls were taken of the student and faculty bodies — all favoring coeducation.

While interest and buy-in were strong by 1969, the estimated $2 million it would cost to prepare campus for female students (from new bathrooms to additional residence-life staff), along with other pressing issues facing the College, led to Holy Cross deferring the coeducation discussion until 1971. With a new report showing that the initial estimated costs were grossly inflated — with actual costs being closer to $500,000 — and at the urging of then-president Fr. Brooks, the Board agreed to the change.

When the men of Holy Cross returned from their holiday break in 1971, they were told women would be joining them as classmates in 1972. Although the faculty already included a handful of women (the first female faculty member, Psychology Professor Maureen Begley Zlody, was hired in 1963), the pressing question became how many women to admit. Rather than increasing the size of the student body (a route taken by other institutions), Holy Cross made the bold decision to keep the class size steady at 600 and strive for a 50/50 gender balance over the next few years. In 1974, 14 pioneering women who had transferred to Holy Cross after their sophomore years at other schools became the first women to cross the commencement stage. The first full coeducational class graduated in 1976, with Jane M. Hawkins as the first female valedictorian. And with it, came the first-ever singing of the non-sexist version of the Holy Cross alma mater at commencement.

A Mission Given New Words

Fenwick Hall as seen from the Kimball Quad, with a 175th anniversary crest painted onto the lawn. Photo by Tom Rettig

Defining and refining a mission statement is no small feat, and from 1988 to 1991, the drafting and approval of a modern mission statement for the College was led by Professor David O’Brien, with Professors Rev. John MacDonnell, S.J., Theresa McBride, Maurice Géracht and James Kee. The challenge was to articulate both Holy Cross’ mission to pursue excellence in the liberal arts with its "longstanding dedication of the Society of Jesus to the intellectual life and its commitment to the service of faith and promotion of justice," as the mission statement reads.

Like any iterative process, the series of meetings necessary to hone the statement were often arduous and sometimes impassioned. "The mission process was intended to guide Holy Cross into the future," explains McBride, adding that the committee worked to make sure that the statement reflected the "profound transformations" that had taken Holy Cross into the top tier of American liberal arts colleges over the previous 25 years. The hard work paid off: Today, the 462-word statement adopted in 1992 is the foundation for the oft-used phrase "live the mission." Students, faculty, staff and alumni personify the mission in a litany of ways, from volunteering for Student Programs for Urban Development, the largest student organization on campus, to dedicating their life's work to helping others.

Twenty-six years later, the mission of the college is unchanged, and yet as new milestones are reached, the Holy Cross community continues to support and expand its historic calling of faith and service and the promotion of justice.

For more photos, history and events celebrating Holy Cross’ 175th anniversary, visit the anniversary website.