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SHCJ Archives Project

SHCJ & Rosemont College: The First Years

By Sister Roseanne McDougall, SHCJ, and Margaret “Peg” Isselmann ‘64

It was the custom, among the Sisters of the Holy Child, to maintain a journal which recorded happenings of interest. Since the early sisters at Rosemont College kept such a journal, Peg Isselman, a chemistry major and later a professional researcher, whose mother was also a Rosemont alum, and Sister Roseanne McDougall, assistant academic dean during the 1990s, were asked to summarize the contents of the Sisters' Journal writings during the first ten years of the College. Their findings lend insight into the beginnings of the College and help us to become aware of the dedication and traditions which marked Rosemont from its inception. This account describes some of the heritage we share as graduates and friends of Rosemont College.

1. Establishment of Rosemont College and First Students

When the United States Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920, the right to vote was just the beginning of many new opportunities for women throughout the country. Importantly, with the right to vote came a greater need for women's higher education. It also became apparent that the establishment of colleges dedicated to the education of women would be required if women would truly contribute to society to the extent that the 19th Amendment provided. At the time, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) already had extensive experience in the education of Catholic high school girls. And so, just one year later, Rosemont College was founded on Sept. 26, 1921.

The College’s first catalog reads, in part:

“The Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus beg to announce the opening of Holy Child College for Young Women, on Sept. 26, 1921, at Rosemont, Pennsylvania.”

The Catholic Standard and Times also stated, as follows:

“The already well-developed educational system of the archdiocese will be further embellished this coming school year by the opening of a new and important seat of learning … Rosemont Hall, conducted by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, will throw open its doors to receive students of college age on Sept. 26.”

For some years, the SHCJ, its alumnae, and its devoted friends were planning to locate an additional high school on the Main Line, a section of Philadelphia suburbs long known for its convenience and beauty. Marie Laine Santa Maria, a graduate of Sharon Hill, knew that the Sinnott estate was on the market and insisted that the Sisters visit. From the initial visit, there was great enthusiasm about the property.

The Sinnott estate, covering 44 acres of rolling lawns, majestic trees, and flowering bushes, was comprised of two buildings: a gray stone country home — Rathalla — fashioned in the style of a French Renaissance-Revival house and the Stables. The home was named by Joseph Francis Sinnott, meaning: “the home of the head of the clan, a fortress or stronghold situated on the highest hill.” Of special interest is the historical irony of the Sinnott family motto emblazoned on the window of the main stairway: "AMA DEUM et SERVA MANDATA" (“Give God Your Love, and Do What He Asks of You”).  

Rathalla, later known as Rosemont College's Main Building

Built in 1891, Rathalla was unknowingly destined to become the “Main Building” of this new Catholic college for women, having engraved its own self-fulfilling prophecy in stunning clarity.

Cardinal Dougherty had recommended that the Sinnott estate be used as the site for a college and assisted Mother Mary Francis Tolhurst, SHCJ Superior General, in obtaining permission to borrow and spend the necessary sums to purchase the property. On June 28, 1921, permission was received from Cardinal Gasparri, Secretary of State at the Vatican. The $250,000 cost of the estate required $50,000 in cash, and the remainder being carried as a mortgage at 6%. Cardinal Dougherty then assisted by lending Reverend Mother provincial $30,000 at 6% so that Reverend Mother would not have to mortgage the SHCJ’s school in Suffern, NY, to  meet the $50,000 purchase requirement for settlement.

On Aug. 1, 1921, with the formal permission and blessing of the Cardinal, the Sisters negotiated the purchase of the property. In the next few months, the refurbishing and equipping of the many rooms transformed the large French Renaissance house into the Administration or Main Building housing the Chapel and Classroom space.

Mother Marie DaltonThe newly appointed faculty outlined the courses of study, basing them on the generally accepted curriculum. They made arrangements with Villanova College for a temporary transfer of credits, since Rosemont College was not yet chartered. The generous assistance given by Villanova faculty in these first days laid a basis for a firm friendship over the years.

Reverend Mother General had recommended that Reverend Mother Provincial (Mother Marie Joseph Dalton) would reside at Rosemont during the first year and be its Local Superior. The records show that the first SHCJ community consisted of: Mother Mary Francis; Mother Mary Sebastian, Clothing Sister; Mother Mary Edward, Econome; Mother Mary de Sales, Sacristan; Mother Mary Dismas; and Sister Helen, Cook. According to the College archives: “Mother Mary Joseph was heart and soul in the Rosemont venture, and she lived there during its first year, assuming all responsibility for the undertaking.”

First Students

Work on the new college continued throughout the summer of 1921, until everything was ready to welcome Rosemont’s first students. During the first year, Mother Mary Dismas was in charge of the students. The first students to arrive were Annie Sweeney, Helen McCarthy, Mary Lembach, and Helen Blake, from the School of the Holy Child at Suffern. Next came Pauline Horstmann and Mary Kerrigan, from St. Leonard’s Academy. The Misses de la Chapelle arrived from Cuba, but they did not follow regular classes. Lastly, Catherine Wolff, also a student from the School of the Holy Child at Sharon Hill, PA, arrived. Four of the students had college classes accredited by Villanova and three students were college preparatory. 

Life on campus centered around the Main Building, which served as both classroom and dormitory. History and English were the most popular majors; French, Mathematics, and Chemistry were offered later. Since the hockey field was not completed until the following year, student sports were hosted at the Holy Child Academy at Sharon Hill’s. Annual retreats were held at St. Leonard’s Academy.

SHCJ & Rosemont College: The First Years

2. The Charter Process and Rosemont's Second Year

The charter of Rosemont College of the Holy Child Jesus was applied for on March 18, 1922, with Mother Mary Joseph Dalton, Mother Mary Delores Brady, and Mother Mary Felix Tighe as witnesses. On June 22, Mr. Clothier, Professor Smith, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Ernest LaPlace, who worked for the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, conducted the charter inspection. They were all impressed with the campus and pleased to see the Science Hall and a Library of 3,000 books, which the Mercantile Library of Philadelphia helped to catalog. They were also impressed that the Dean had her PhD from Fordham.

The charter inspectors explained that the charter would be approved, but that it would take time to arrive. The charter was officially granted on Sept. 25, 1922, just in time for the start of the fall semester.

Rosemont's Second Year

On Sept. 25, 1922, the opening of Rosemont’s second year, the College was incorporated and received its official charter, enabling the College to grant degrees in Arts, Sciences, and Letters.  The faculty in 1922 included: Mother Mary Delores, President; Mother Mary Gonzaga, Dean; Mother Mary St. Luke, Assistant and Warden; Mother Mary Sebastian; Mother Mary St. Thomas; Mother Mary St. Bernard; Mother Mary Lawrence; Mother Mary Gregory; Sister Helen, and Sister Eulalia. The students arrived to commence their studies, including two students returning from 1921 (Helen Blake and Pauline Horstmann) and 11 freshmen.

Hayloft, formerly on Rosemont College's campusThis year found the stable, known as the old “Hayloft,” utilized as an additional classroom building. Its harness room became the science department; the stalls, after considerable remodeling, were converted into lecture rooms. Six rooms for students were painted an attractive green and an art studio completed the transformation.

At this time, Reverend Mother Mary Dolores became President and Superior, with Mother Mary St. Luke serving as her assistant. Several traditions were initiated by the 11 members of the charter class. Many of these students had attended Holy Child academies. They began the Corn Roasts, gave the first Baby Party, and celebrated the first Class Day. Although they did not start the Drama Club, they did produce two shows - “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” and “Dear Brutus.”  The college year closed with the Rose Carnival, which took the place of a Commencement Program.

The Charter Process and Rosemont's 2nd Year

3. Financial Support of Rosemont College

Newspaper clipping of Lillian Duffy and Frances Cronin, of Orange, NJ, on the Cunard Berengaria ship.From the beginning, the alumnae of the Holy Child Schools were enthusiastic supporters of Rosemont. They ran a Fair in October 1921 that raised $750. Parishes staffed by the Holy Child sisters held Card Parties to raise funds.

On Jan. 29, 1922, Sharon Hill alumnae from New York held a Benefit Party for Rosemont on the Cunard Line Ship, the Berengaria. More than 1,000 guests danced, played bridge, drank tea, or tried their luck at bazaar booths. All the guests had a wonderful evening.

These independent efforts certainly helped the financial needs of Rosemont, but in 1923 the establishment of the Rosemont Association helped reduce existing debts and raise funds for additional buildings. Articles began to appear in newspapers with such headlines as: “$250,000 Campaign for a Catholic Institution,” “Alumnae of Holy Child Schools form Ten Groups Each Pledging $10,000 for Rosemont College,” “Cardinal Dougherty will attend the Rose Carnival,” and “Carnival of Roses will be a Brilliant Function.” Well-known community members were listed as supporters of the College: James M. Wilcox, Judge Harry S. McDevitt, Judge John Monaghan, Philip A. Collins, James Considine, and others.  In reaching out to potential donors, the Association called attention to the service of the Holy Child Sisters. The Rosemont Association published a brochure to educate benefactors about the purpose and potential of Rosemont College for women.

Programs from the Rosemont Association

The brochure highlights the early history of the SHCJ and the Philadelphia roots of Foundress Cornelia Peacock Connelly. It also shares a view of Rosemont in 1923 and what the future will bring.

The Rosemont Association members are a voluntary company. They have as their purpose to associate with as large a number of other men and women who would support Rosemont College as co-partners in work. The brochure invites the reader to join the Rosemont Association and to make a choice of membership in one of the following classes:

  • Each of whom will enlist the services of 10 Members (including themselves as one of the 10).
  • Each of whom will enlist the services of 10 Associate Members (including themselves as one of the 10).
  • ASSOCIATE MEMBERS. Each of whom will be pledged to raise the sum of one hundred dollars ($100.00).

Teams were formed to push a 60-day campaign and an appeal was made to all interested in the education of young women. Groups of Holy Child alumnae and friends were formed. Each pledged to raise $10,000 in honor of the following schools: St. Edward’s, Visitation BVM, Assumption BVM, St. James, St. Agatha’s, St. Michael’s, Chester, St. Leonard’s Academy, Sharon, Rosemont College, and Holy Child Alumnae of Catholic Girls High School. Additionally, Sharon alumnae Mary Kelly and Mary Angela Lynch pledged to raise $10,000 each, as did Helen Blake from Suffern and Winifred Quennell from St. Leonard’s Academy, both current students at Rosemont College. The names of these first benefactors were engraved on memorial tablets unveiled on Holy Saturday, 1923, and are still mounted in the entrance to the Main Building.  Following the first meeting of the Rosemont Association on Jan. 7, 1923, a second meeting of the Association was held on Jan. 21 to enlist the support of the men.

The College itself was striving to offer programs that would be a source of funds as well as enrichment to the community. A series of illustrated lectures were offered by members of the faculty. They included:

Jan. 17, 1923: Marie Antoinette at Versailles, Mother St. Luke (120 attended and the newspapers noted that this was “the first time in the history of the institution a nun had ever spoken at a public meeting”).

Feb. 17, 1923: Art of J. M. Barrie, Mother Mary Lawrence Swinburne.

Programs for lectures held at Rosemont College

These initial lectures launched a series through which Mother Mary Lawrence made Rosemont well known. The following year, the College offered a series of Extension Lectures on the first Sunday of each month, with approximately 100 people attending

A different kind of fund-raiser was organized and proved highly successful. More than 5,000 spectators witnessed two games at the Arena at 46th and Market Streets for the benefit of Rosemont. Leading female basketball players of the city, The Daughters of Columbus, played the All Stars Team. Following this game, the McNichol Brothers, all former members of the University of Pennsylvania Quintets, played an All Star team composed of past and present Captains of the Red and Blue Fives. Several vaudeville acts, along with music by St. Monica’s Boys Band and Dave Stamper’s Orchestra, completed the bill. All proceeds for the evening went to Rosemont College.

SHCJ & Rosemont College: The First Years

4. Seeds of the College's Growth

In addition to these fundraising activities, Rosemont enriched the educational program of the archdiocese and became a spiritual resource for Catholic women. Rosemont decided to offer the College’s facilities for Weekend Retreats. In the archdiocesan newspaper, it was stated that Rosemont was offering retreats for women for spiritual rest and refreshment. The women were welcomed to Rosemont and experienced a warm environment for retreat time thoughtfully planned by the Sisters to give each one an opportunity to enrich her faith. The first retreat was given Labor Day Weekend 1924, and the 29 women who attended this retreat given by Father Stinson thought it was a wonderful experience.

The year 1924 is remembered as the year in which Father John M. Sparrow came to Rosemont as Chaplain, a position he filled for 16 years. During these years at the College, his wisdom and kindly humor endeared him to everyone.

The recognition of Rosemont by other local colleges was an important boost to Rosemont’s reputation. Of course, there was already a good relationship with Villanova. Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College also expressed their support for Rosemont and welcomed them to the local academic community.

Mother Mary Ignatious CarrollIn 1924, Mother Mary Ignatius Carroll was appointed President and Superior of the religious community. The most powerful force in meeting the financial needs of the young college was the power of prayer, especially under her inspiration. One afternoon, when the Sisters were gathered in Chapel, Mother Mary Ignatius added a petition to the prayers that were usually said “For money!” Then, she began a favorite prayer, “Oh great Saint Joseph,” and that prayer became the prayer of the College community.

Registration had doubled by 1924, with 26 students enrolled. The greatest need was for more space. Classes were conducted on the porch and under the trees in fair weather, and would adjourn to the staircase inside when it rained. The first plans for new Dormitories and for a Classroom Building were not approved by the Board of Trustees . The necessity for increased accommodations confronted Mother Mary Ignatius upon her arrival. Immediately, she began to draw up new plans for a Residence Hall better suited to the needs of the College.

While this planning was underway, the Gymnasium, the first new building constructed on the campus, was finished. Although the students previously had no gym, they did have five holes of golf on campus. In December 1924, when the gymnasium was completed, basketball made its initial bow at Rosemont.

Rosemont College's basketball teamThis picture (at right) of the 1927 Basketball team includes Rosalind Russell, who later became a famous actress. Holding the basketball is Pauline Horstmann.

The gym performed triple duty: it acted as the scene for gym classes and basketball games, dramatic productions, and many Rosemont proms.  Intended as a temporary building, the old gym served the College well until it was replaced in 1961 by Alumnae Hall.

When spring came in 1925, ground was broken for the new Dormitory, with the hope that it would be completed by fall.  May saw the first Tree Day and the first May Day Dance.

A group of Rosemont College studentsThe first Commencement took place in June. Helen Blake and Patricia Stevenson (pictured at left) received their degrees. Graduates and students wore Oxford gowns because the academic caps and gowns of the day were not yet at Rosemont. The number of graduates quadrupled to eight for the next year and reached 14 the following year.

Mrs. Gertrude Kistler, a former student of Sharon, took an active interest in Rosemont College following the death of her daughter, Gertrude, in a drowning accident in 1920. Gertrude had attended St. Leonard’s Academy and now several of her classmates were students at Rosemont. Mr. and Mrs. Sedgwick Kistler sought a fitting memorial for Gertrude. And so, the Gertrude Kistler Memorial Library was dedicated by Cardinal Dougherty on June 7, 1926. The College’s Honor Society was named the Kistler Club in honor of Rosemont’s generous donors. The library basement was used as a chapel until the Immaculate Conception Chapel was built in 1939.

The yearly increase in enrollment made additional classroom space imperative. Ground was broken in 1928 for the first Classroom Building, Good Counsel Hall, dedicated by Cardinal Dougherty on Nov. 28.

Rosemont was not yet an accredited college and had not reached the 100 students required for this rating. Yearly increases in registration promised that the goal would be reached in the near future, but brought with it a new problem.

Cornelia Connelly Hall on Rosemont College's campusEvery room in Connolly Connelly Hall was already occupied. There was simply no space to accommodate a larger student body. The only answer, as Mother Mary Ignatius saw it, was another Residence Hall. Since the building of Good Counsel, the Hayloft was no longer used; but the foundation was to serve as a new senior dormitory, Mayfield Hall. It provided a large Dining Hall on the first floor and Student Rooms on the second and third floors. Mayfield Hall was ready for the opening of classes in 1929, when 115 resident students were registered. The circle of grey stone buildings was now nearly complete.

Curriculum Development and Student Extracurricular Activities

The curriculum reviewed as part of the accreditation process demonstrated clear theological and philosophical grounding in courses such as Freshman and Sophomore Religion, Scripture, Natural Theology, Ontology, Logic, and Ethics.

Solid, in-depth Mathematics and Science courses included three levels of Math, as well as a variety of Sciences (Biology, Botany, Chemistry II and III), each of which included a lab component. The Social Sciences course offerings were Economics and Psychology.

English Literature was offered at several levels, both basic and advanced; there were also courses in Old English and Middle English. Two courses in English Composition were offered as well. The diverse Eurocentric Foreign Language curriculum was comprised of four levels of French, Second-Year German, two levels each of Greek, Italian, and Latin, Advanced Latin composition, and two levels of Spanish. One gets the impression that the language courses, including English, were offered at the level compatible with the students’ academic backgrounds, so that while there were some basic courses there were also advanced levels, for example, both First-Year and Fourth-year Greek.

Having submitted descriptions of its curricular and extracurricular offerings, the College was by this time accredited by the National Catholic Education Association. The next year, on Jan. 1, 1930, came the recognition from the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Middle States and Maryland. Receipt of these two citations demonstrated that Rosemont had successfully integrated the educational principles of Cornelia Connelly’s Book of the Order of Studies with the standards of American Catholic and Higher Education. Rosemont College now assumed its place among the early Catholic institutions of higher learning in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The year 1929, etched into the cornerstone of Mayfield Hall, was significant: the Stock Market Crash. Money would not come easily now. As Rosemont entered the 1930s, the country faced the worst years of the Depression and the parents who believed in Rosemont continued to send their daughters to this young college. Even in those difficult financial days, the College went on with hope and trust.

In the fall semester of 1931, Rosemont celebrated its 10th birthday. The accomplishments of those first 10 years had been tremendous. The original student body of seven students had grown to 160. The faculty had expanded from 15 to 27. The number of buildings on campus had increased to six.

Within the first 10 years, many important student organizations appeared on campus. The Student Government was organized under the leadership of the Student Council in 1926. As was true with all other phases of life at Rosemont, the honor system was the basis for the Council strength. The Athletic Association was started at this time and reported a successful basketball season for the first year. Helen Blake was elected President of the Rosemont Alumnae Association at the initial meeting on June 6, 1926. In 1930, the Sodality the Children of Mary was formally established to stimulate and coordinate religious life on campus.

Two early issues of Rosemont College newspaper The Rambler

A short time after Rosemont first offered Journalism courses, there was interest in publishing a College Newspaper. Accordingly, in March 1931, after much editorial effort, the first monthly issue of The Rambler appeared on campus.

Annual plays were inaugurated when the Dramatic Society reorganized in 1929 and became the Jest & Gesture Club. The first play was Yates’ “Hour Glass.”  Mentioned in an article in the first volume of The Rambler was the play “Beau Brummel.”

Through these early years, there was discussion of one great project: the building of the College Chapel. It was the dream of Mother Mary Ignatius, who worked, planned, and prayed for it. It was not to become a reality until after her sudden death in July 1939.

SHCJ & Rosemont College: The First Years

5. Some Early Sisters of the College

The Society sent talented, dedicated women to be the pioneer “founding Mothers” of Rosemont College. Among them were skilled domestic workers, wise administrators, and gifted educators - Sisters from both the United States and Europe.

Sister Eulalia Bevan (1875-1954) shared in the hidden labors of the early years of the College, and followed its growth up to the end of her life; for years she cared for the many guests who came, expending such kindness and thoughtfulness that they continued to inquire for her long after she retired. She served at the College for 32 years.

Born in Scotland and raised in Ireland, Sister Helen McHugh (1875-1951) was at the College in its early years. The foundational years at Rosemont bear witness to the sacrifice Sister Helen McHugh made and fulfilled so abundantly. She gave the work of her hands.

Mother Francis Xavier Darlington (1855-1935) enjoyed the beauty of God’s house and adorned His altars with her artistic needlework.

Reverend Mother Mary Joseph Dalton (1867-1935), in her service as Provincial Superior of the American Province, purchased the buildings and the land that became Rosemont College. After her death someone wrote, “Mother’s wisdom in taking this step has been amply justified by the success the College has attained.”

Reverend Mother Mary Dolores Brady (1869-1932), having experience in establishing new beginnings on a firm footing, both in the Philadelphia and Chicago, was well known for her thoroughness and quiet energy in all that she undertook. She served as an early Religious Superior at the College.

Mother Mary St. Luke Lynch (1882-1956) was known for her exceptional organizing power and was appointed at Rosemont to help in the foundation of the College. She had a genius for contact with people; there was always time to spare for acts of kindness done with a gracious spontaneity.

Irish-born Mother Mary Dismas Shannon (1869-1946), having been educated at Mayfield in Sussex, England, and having served as School Principal at Neuilly in France and at four Holy Child secondary schools in different parts of the United States, served as Dean at Rosemont during the pioneer years of its foundation. She labored untiringly and devotedly in an ever-widening apostolate of education.

Mother Mary Gonzaga Beck (1891-1966), born in Luxemburg and an early Dean, was known for her dedication and warmth. Students found in her an inspiration and a friend who gave them a love of languages and literature that lasted through the years.

Irish Mother Mary Ignatius Carroll (1882-1939) was born in 1882 in Dromkeen, County Limerick, Ireland. She was one of five children and was educated in Ireland and England. In 1902, she entered the novitiate of the SHCJ. Her leadership skills were demonstrated by the remarkable development of Rosemont College under her leadership from 1924 until 1939.

Although her focus was on History, English-born Mother Mary Lawrence Swinburne’s (1885-1968) courses and lecture topics were characterized by an interdisciplinary approach, breadth of vision, attention to detail, and a love of learning that she imparted to her students. Along with Mother Mary St. Luke, Mother Mary Lawrence gave public lectures and brought other distinguished local scholars to lecture at the College. She established the Kistler Honor Society and, in honor of her remarkable accomplishments, was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 1953 by the Governor, based on the recommendation of the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania (established in 1948).

The commitment of these Sisters reflected in every way what is expressed in this quote from Mother Mary Anthony Weinig, SHCJ, in 1940: “The reality of the College is the reality of the depth and quality of the commitment of the people who make the College. This reality is expressed in many voices and appears in many styles. It is also implicit in the ways of being and doing of each of the generations that give something distinctive to the College. All we know of the future is that we are building it now. And that our forward thrust is as strong and as true as our integrity at this moment of awareness.”

SHCJ & Rosemont College: The First Years

Elena Sisti, former Reference and Archives Librarian, and Joe Darrah '11, former Director of Alumni and Community Relations, contributed to this article.