St. Joseph College History

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Legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, a widowed mother of five young children, came from a prominent family in New York City. In the early 1800s, she was ostracized from her family and friends after converting to Catholicism.

Elizabeth Ann SetonElizabeth moved to Baltimore, and under the protection of the Sulpician Fathers of St. Mary’s Seminary, she opened a school for the education of girls, a concept relatively unheard of at the time. Shortly thereafter, with Bishop John Carroll’s approval, she and her small group of women took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In 1809 Bishop Carroll, who had designated her “Mother” Seton of the little community of sisters, encouraged her to expand their efforts and to devote themselves to educating young girls in the arts, sciences and Christian living.

With a generous gift from Samuel Cooper, property was purchased in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809. That same year Elizabeth and her band of sisters moved to Emmitsburg and opened Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, which eventually evolved into St. Joseph College.

Elizabeth Ann Seton died on January 4, 1821. Her legacy included laying the foundation for Catholic school education in the United States; establishing a community of religious women, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph; and in 1975, being canonized as the first native-born saint for the United States. More about Mother Seton >>

As registration increased at the Academy, the curriculum expanded to meet the needs of the changing world. Professors from nearby Mount Saint Mary’s and visiting instructors from Baltimore were added to the sister faculty. In the prospectus of 1879-80 there is an announcement of a postgraduate department, especially designed for the graduates of the Academy, or graduates of other institutions. It consisted of a thorough course in reading, belles lettres, or time devoted to the attainment of greater skill and proficiency in art or music.

An amendment of the original charter was sought and obtained in 1902. This enabled “the Sisters of Charity, the faculty and teachers of said corporation, Saint Joseph’s, to confer degrees, collegiate and academic.” The program offered by the school at this time was equivalent to that of a junior college.

The catalog issued in 1902-03 lists primary, preparatory, academic and postgraduate courses, noting that those who completed postgraduate work were entitled to a baccalaureate degree in arts or sciences. It was not until 1907-08 that a distinction was made between the collegiate and academic departments. In the collegiate course, two electives were required. Choices were Latin, Greek, Allegra PhotoFrench, Spanish or German. At the end of the third or junior year, a gold medal and certificate of graduation were offered to women who did not intend to take a degree, but those hardy students who persevered to complete the fourth year received a baccalaureate degree, an uncommon and extraordinary event for a woman in the early part of the twentieth century.

Should the recipient of the degree wish to return to Saint Joseph’s for a fifth year of college work, she might do so, thus becoming eligible for a master’s degree in the arts. The certificate and gold medal, which culminated the three-year course, were discontinued in 1912, and the first class to complete a four-year program together and graduate as full-fledged “bachelors” was the Class of 1914.

Credit for the development of Saint Joseph’s from Academy to college belongs to Sister Francis Lawler. She had come to Saint Joseph’s in 1898 as “senior teacher” and was made directress of the Academy in 1906. Keenly aware of the renaissance of education in the early twentieth century, Sister Francis worked tirelessly to develop the curriculum and to meet the requirements necessary to make Saint Joseph’s a first-class liberal arts college. When the separation of the collegiate and academic departments was completed in 1907, Sister Francis became “Dean of the College,” but she was at the same time “Directress of the Academy” and principal of the elementary school. Sister Francis Lawler retired as dean of Saint Joseph College in 1929.

Two Centuries of Women Learners

More than 38 years after the closing of St. Joseph College, its Alumnae Association, comprised of approximately 2,500 living alumnae is a strong, vibrant, philanthropic organization financially supported by 800 active members who contribute annually to the Association and its philanthropies. In 2009, we celebrated two centuries of women learners!

A Commemoration of Two Centuries of Women Learners!

The St. Joseph College Alumnae Association is an anchor and a pivotal part of the 200 continuous years of education of female students in St. Joseph’s Valley. We began to commemorate this connection when we gathered at the April 2009 SJC reunion to celebrate “Two Centuries of Women Learners” and the arrival of Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg.

Memorial Sconce Dedicated during the 2009 Bicentennial ReunionTo mark this historic year the SJCAA established a Bicentennial Women Learners Fund, the purposes of which were three-fold:

  • To help sustain the vitality of the Alumnae Association and its financial well-being,
  • To enable the association’s philanthropic outreach, which includes Vincentian charities and other groups that help meet the needs of the poor, and
  • To provide a special memorial gift to the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The Association’s gift, funded by generous donations from our members, is a symbol of the traditional candle-lighting ceremony during our Reunion Memorial Mass. It represents all the women whose lives were both illuminated and inspired by what they learned in St. Joseph’s Valley. As a permanent memorial, we arranged for an antique brass sconce with an electrified candle to be installed in the museum area of the Seton Shrine. The sconce, along with a special plaque noting that the gift is from the SJCAA, was dedicated during our 2009 Reunion Weekend.

The plaque reads:

This light honors all women and girls whose education
was guided by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her Sisters of Charity.

Presented by St. Joseph College Alumnae Association, Inc.  April 17, 2009

Read remarks made during the 2009 Sconce Dedication Service>>

Visit the SJCAA Memorial

Anyone may visit and view the sconce and plaque at the Museum of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Please take a few moments to share your memories by commenting on our We Remember stories or sending comments via email. Be sure to check out all of our latest news and consider joining us this year at the Annual Reunion. Help preserve the memory of St. Joseph's!

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