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 Mother Irene Gill

 Foundress of CNR


By Sister Martha Counihan, OSU, College Archivist

Gill Lucy Gill was born March 25, 1856, in Aughrim, County Galway Ireland, one of the younger children of Joshua and Catherine (nee Fox) Gill. A small property owner in Ireland, Joshua Gill followed the way of many of his countrymen and immigrated to New York around 1868. At the time of the 1870 census, the Gills were living on MacDougal Street (in what is now known as Greenwich Village) and Mr. Gill was “Overseer of Streets.” Older brother John, was a clerk, and Lucy’s three older sisters were working, while Lucy, Thomas, and Lizzie, the youngest, were in school.

In 1876, Lucy entered the Ursuline community in East Morrisania, the Bronx, and received the religious name, Irene. Early in her religious life, Mother Irene showed excellent organizational and administrative skills. By 1880 she was teaching at the new Ursuline foundation in St. Teresa’s parish on Henry Street on New York’s Lower East Side, and, just one yar later, on August 21, 1881, she was named one of the trustees of the newly incorporated Community of St. Teresa. Following a long Ursuline tradition of educating poor as well as paying students, the Ursulines taught the girls in the St. Teresa’s parochial school and also conducted a private academy for young women in an adjacent building.

Contemporaries describe Mother Irene as soft-spoken, gentle, and kind, as well as firm and broad-minded, especially in matters pertaining to women’s education. Seeing a great need for helping young women become teachers, in 1883 the Ursulines added a normal school department to the Henry Street academy. Many of its graduates became public school teachers. It was the success of the normal school classes, later called “Board classes” (of Education), which purportedly inspired Mother Irene to found the College of St. Angela. 

In 1896, St. Teresa’s received its charter from New York State and moved its academy uptown to Park Avenue and 93rd Street. St. Teresa’s was one of the few New York City academies chartered to conduct both an academic high school and teacher training classes.

The pastor of St. Teresa’s, Rev. Michael O’Farrell, also an Irish immigrant, was a great supporter of education and of Mother Irene (he had founded a high school for boys and one for girls in his previous parish). Destined to become CNR’s first President, Father O’Farrell encouraged Mother Irene to consider New Rochelle as a location for another foundation.

The pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in New Rochelle suggested that Mother Irene look at Leland Castle, a large building on the former estate of hotel executive Simeon Leland, which had been bought by the wealthy Iselin family for investment and development purposes. The estate had been divided into Residence Park, but the Castle, now on just two and a half acres, had been rented by various schools in fifteen years since Adrian Iselin Jr. had purchased the forty-acre estate.

Unfortunately, the Castle had just been rented to a Miss Morse for a school, so Mother Irene purchased a house on Locust Avenue and opened a private school there in September 1896. A stroke of misfortune brought the Ursulines to the Castle, when a year later, in January 1897, a fire broke out in the upper floors of the Castle, and Miss Morse, uninsured, was forced to vacate the building. Approached by Iselin, Mother Irene agreed to purchase the damaged building if it was repaired.

During the spring of 1897, Mother Irene, accompanied by Sister Clement Eggers, prepared the building for occupancy. In her old age, Sister Clement recalled Mother Irene’s kindness and indefatigable spirit as she cleaned and Mother Irene prepared to open the new convent and school. In September, the heavy lion-studded doors swung open to admit ten boarders and sixty day students. The Ursuline Seminary, also called the Castle School, had both elementary and high school levels. To accommodate the growing school, the parlor was enlarged in 1899, and in 1902, a large wing was added to the Library and Art Gallery side of Leland Castle. The additions followed the Gothic Revival design of the original building.

 Although a cloistered nun, she was in touch with the ferment of the day over the desperate need for qualified teachers, particularly in New York City, the desire and need for women to have equal access to higher education, and the exclusion or quotas which limited Catholics’ access to many private colleges. The New Rochelle Ursulines were now part of the international Roman Union of Ursulines and had regular contact with the currents of education in Europe.  Mother Irene had also won the notice and support of a growing number of Catholic laymen, often sons of immigrants themselves, who supported her educational goals.
    
So in June 1904, at the age of forty-eight, Mother Irene applied to the New York State Board of Regents for a charter to open a college for women. In founding a college, rather than limiting her students to just teacher-training (though obligatory teacher-training classes were part of the College curriculum until the 1920’s—thus allowing CNR graduates to qualify to teach in NYC public schools), Mother Irene drew up a broad and rigorous liberal arts program. The first descriptive brochure of the fledgling college stated: “The object of this institution is to train and develop harmoniously all the faculties of young women by means of a four years’ course of advanced studies leading to the attainment of the degree of A.B….The idea of education which is accepted in this college insists strongly upon the general moral and intellectual training of its students; it seeks to obtain order and balance in emotional results; it requires that every human faculty be made the subject of education, that none be slighted. None disproportionately and abnormally developed.”

On September 12, 1904, the first students were welcomed to the College of St. Angela, some graduates of the Ursulines’ 93rd Street academy, and some from public schools. Nine of the original twelve students were graduated in 1908.
  
Mother Irene served as the first dean and as “Directress of Discipline and Study.” (In 1919, the Board of Trustees elected Mother Irene vice president of the College.) Most of the College faculty’s first were laymen and women with advanced degrees Father O’Farrell was President, largely a titular role though he maintained close and frequent ties with the Ursulines. Elsewhere, the Ursulines were ubiquitous: in administration, building maintenance, supervision of students in and out of classes, in chapel.

In 1907, in response to the need for prepared teachers, the College of St. Angela opened its first Summer School. These classes were held in conjunction with extension courses given throughout the New York metropolitan area, and gave public and parochial school teachers (both men and women) the opportunity to prepare for city teachers’ and principals’ qualifying examinations or work towards a B.A. from St. Angela. Courses were held at various NYC locations and as far away as Albany. The extension courses were often given at convents of cloistered nuns who were unable to go out to study in public institutions. In 1910, a request to change the name of The College of St. Angela to the College of New Rochelle was granted by the Regents.

In addition to overseeing the Ursuline Seminary’s elementary and secondary schools and the new College, Mother Irene had the responsibility as prioress of the Community for many years.  As Council member and later as Provincial of the Northern Province of the Ursulines, Mother Irene was frequently on the road, attending meetings in Rome, and visiting the convents in Montana and California. She served in one of these capacities or the other until 1930. Implicit in the listing of such great responsibilities is Mother Irene’s gift of delegating responsibility; she trusted her Sisters and lay colleagues and knew how to call forth their gifts and best efforts.

Irene Wightwick, a member of the class of 1918, recalled her interview with Mother Irene who, upon offering her a scholarship, “gently and firmly” remarked that since they shared the same name, she hoped that the young lady would make her proud.  Irene received a doctorate in Psychology from Columbia University, worked in industry for a number of years, then returned to CNR as Director of Institutional Research. 

Mother Irene’s younger sister, Elizabeth, known as Mother Augustine, was also deeply involved in the development of the College. Large, vigorous, and humorous, Mother Augustine, who supervised the erection of the College buildings and those of The Ursuline School, is credited with the physical beauty and integrity of the New Rochelle campus; it is from her older sister, Mother Irene, foundress and unassuming genius, that the spirit of the College springs forth.

Since 1911, it became customary each year on Founder’s Day for Mother Irene to receive and greet the assembled students. At the last one she attended a few months before her death on December 22, 1933, Mother Irene, now frail and old, said a few words to the more than eight hundred students: “You are my daughters. I love you and I pray for you.” It is a message which still rings true.

As an Ursuline, Mother Irene was firmly grounded in the centuries-old tradition of Ursuline education, yet her knowledge of the foundress of the Ursulines, St. Angela Merici, would have been based on less-than-scholarly biographies of the 16th century northern Italian saint. Looking at both women from a 21st  century vantage point, it is amazing to see the congruence of wise and innovative thought and practice in these two women who both lived in hierarchical, clericalized worlds where women’s roles were limited to the subservient or decorative. Without a clear historical knowledge of her own foundress’s innovative spirit, Mother Irene “caught” it. And with this infused knowledge, she founded The College of New Rochelle.

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College Archivist, Sister Martha Counihan, OSU has deep roots here at CNR. Her grandmother and great-aunt were graduates of CNR in 1911. Her mother, several aunts and cousins, are also alumnae. Sr. Martha herself is a graduate of CNR, Class of 1967; she has a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Delaware and did her thesis on the architectural history of Leland Castle, which led her back to CNR as Archivist in 1976. Several years after receiving her M.S. in Library Service from Columbia University, Sr. Martha went to Latin America and engaged in pastoral ministry there. She returned to the United States in 1993 and served as a chaplain in the NYC area. In 2001, Sr. Martha returned to CNR as Archivist and Special Collections Librarian.

 


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