of 1904 is only one way to pinpoint the beginning of the College and to
understand its audacious heritage.
perspective, the history
of the College began in Brescia in the sixteenth century with Angela
and her Company of women, active in the cacophonous world of
Italy. Saint Angela's Company too was "somewhat ahead of its
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
under mutual supervision and guidance (especially of the younger by the
older women), and engage in works useful to society, particularly the
protection, and instruction of girls and young women.
counseled moving confidently
ahead in faith. "Act, bestir yourselves. You will certainly
see wonders." She also advised her Company of Saint Ursula to remain
open to the unexpected ways in which God's grace worked in the world.
with change of times and circumstances, it becomes necessary to make
rules, or to alter anything, then do it with prudence, after taking
advice." After her death in 1540, powerful currents in the
forced her beloved Company into the cloister and, by the seventeenth
restricted its work to a single area of service: the education of young
women. But the legacy of resolute action, of confident innovation, of
in the world, and of faithful adaptation to new times remained.
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
a venerable part of Christian history and culture, paradoxically, still
carried its challenge to accepted attitudes about women. The tension
dialogue between these two parts of the Ursuline legacy - tradition and
transformation - would shape the College of New Rochelle.
If this vigorous
to form the College of New Rochelle, so too did the American world of
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States
at that time was marked by extremely rapid social, cultural, and
changes, including the appearance - of new technologies, the
pace of industrialization and urbanization, the uncomfortable shift
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
possibilities of American women.
least, the early twentieth
century was the Age of the New Woman. The period offered many
women considerable promise of wider vocational options, of greater
independence, of increased political rights, and of more accessible
opportunities. Both this American sense of ferment and
and the much older Ursuline legacy of active engagement in the
of young women belong in the story of the College of New Rochelle.
of Saint Teresa
more focused perspective,
the history of the College began in 1855 when a small group of
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
also established a private academy which by 1877 had an enrollment of
involved at St. Teresa's
school and academy in the 1870s and 1880s were several individuals
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
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
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,
celebrated a centennial in 1981, had a quarter-century headstart. But
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
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
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
and in 1876 entered the novitiate. By the 1880s, she was already
recognized for her leadership skills, her commitment to the education
women, and her vision of educational innovations required to meet
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
With all her charming gentleness and suavity which helped to make her
easier, one got the impression that she had an underlying strength of
of a kind necessary to the furtherance or completion of great designs."
A recent biographical reflection describes her as a complex, even
woman of strong personality, thoroughly conventional in matters of
discipline, and proper social behavior, but visionary in the matter of
women's education which was her passion. For young women, from
time to now, she opened doors which had been closed; she offered them
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
uptown to Ninety-third Street and Park Avenue. The Ninety-third
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,
at the suggestion of Father O'Farrell, traveled to New Rochelle to
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
him that a wonderful potential site, Leland Castle,) owned by Adrian
Jr., might be available for purchase. This Gothic Revival
built in the 1850s, seemed ideal. Delays occurred, however, and
until the summer of 1897 did the Ursulines move into their new home on
Castle Place. In September 1897, ten boarders and sixty day
of the Ursuline Seminary for Girls joined them behind the heavy doors
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
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
Street; and from Manhattan to Leland Castle, still the landmark
of the College of New Rochelle nearly one hundred years later.
this path had migrated, after 1881, the Ursuline Community of Saint
and the successive educational enterprises for young women which the
established and directed: girls' departments of parochial schools,
for young women, and teacher preparation and certification programs for
in women’s education
over more than two decades would soon culminate in an even more
project. Mother Irene Gill had become persuaded that Catholic
women in New York needed the opportunity for collegiate
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
Folly"'), the coolness of at least one member of the New York State
of Regents, the absence - for the moment - of clear support from John
archbishop of New York, and the conflicting ambitions of other nearby
academies for young women. "There is no doubt... that there is a
jealous rivalry existing between your institution and other Catholic
for women', and while they cannot qualify as well as you can't still
dislike very much to have any greater honors conferred on your
We must not get mixed up in anything of this kind."
Buckley, of Albany, author
of these remarks and one of the ten men listed as the first Board of
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,
I have no doubt will prove to be one that will go down in history as
most prominent Catholic college for women in this country."
Cobb and Eugene
Philbin, two members of the Board of Regents; Dr. Augustus Downing,
commissioner of the State Education Department; and other friends in
successfully shepherded the application for incorporation through the
of Regents. By the end of June the Charter was granted and Mother
Irene's "design" was launched.