Archbishop Joseph Alemany had been dispatched to the West Coast in the mid-19th century by Pope Pius IX with the words: “You must go to California. Others go there to seek gold; you go there to carry the Cross.”
Alemany soon saw the need for education and religious instruction for the working class youth of a burgeoning San Francisco. Determined to open a school, he sent the intrepid Irish priest, Father James Croke, to seek donations from farmers, ranchers, merchants and the gold miners in the Sierra Nevada. He came back after two years with cash and gold dust to the tune of $37,166.50, a princely sum for the time.
Alemany threw open the doors of Saint Mary’s College in 1863. After five years of struggle, he made a difficult journey to Rome to ask for help from Christian Brothers, whose superior sent nine mostly Irish Brothers in 1868 to travel from New York by sea to San Francisco to manage the new school. Soon the Brothers were able to increase enrollment, stabilize the College’s finances and establish Saint Mary’s as the largest institute of higher education in California at the time. The first bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 1872.
For more than 150 years, Saint Mary’s has survived the rugged challenges that closed many other such institutions and remains one of the oldest universities in the West.
The College moved from its cold, windswept campus in San Francisco to Oakland in 1889. Damaged by a devastating fire in 1894 and the famous 1906 earthquake, Saint Mary’s decided to move to the Moraga Valley in 1928, building in the distinctive Spanish Renaissance-California Mission-style of architecture that distinguishes the campus today. Eleven of the original buildings, including the Chapel, Dante and Galileo Halls, are still in use today.
In 1936, "La Cruz de la Victoria," the Cross of Victory, was added to the hill overlooking the campus. It is a familiar landmark for the Saint Mary's community and a popular hiking destination that affords a stunning view of Saint Mary’s nestled below.
Notable events in the ensuing years include a radical curriculum change in the early 1940s—the introduction of “The Great Books of the World.” Philosophy Professor James Hagerty and others lead a movement on the West Coast to transform higher education from vocational preparation to a focus on the liberal arts, the great texts and important ideas. At the same time, Academic Seminar brought the great literature of western civilization to the round table for shared inquiry, where students, with faculty as peers, asked big questions: What is goodness? What is death? Does evil have to exist?
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Saint Mary’s was one of four colleges in the nation where the United States Navy conducted pilot training. The Navy’s tenure here resulted in some significant changes, including moving the main entrance to the front of campus, providing a clear view of the Chapel from the lane leading in from the main road. The Navy also built Assumption Hall (now a freshman residence hall) and the world’s largest indoor pool (which no longer exists, although we built a pretty impressive pool to replace it).
In 1970 the previously all male school began admitting women, with the first degrees awarded in 1971. Today the student population is 60 percent women and 40 percent men.
Saint Mary’s has a strong tradition of service, that is built upon the solid rock of Catholic social justice and the pioneering work of John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers, who insisted on education for all, regardless of their ability to pay. From those early days of educating the sons of California’s working class to engaging in the California labor movement, to guiding students to serve the needy here and abroad, Saint Mary’s has cultivated a distinctive approach to doing good—engaging critical social issues through intellect, spirituality and action. The College today is a powerhouse of community service, with students logging more than 40,000 hours a year in service to others, while integrating their experiences into their academics.
This rich history, writ large by visionaries and spirited explorers, is the foundation for today’s exceptional Saint Mary’s education, at a university that is distinctly and historically not elitist. Our diverse enrollment of talented young people, exceptional faculty and successful alumni are a testament to the vision and persistence of a bold 19th century archbishop and a band of stalwart Brothers who read the signs of the times and determined to do something bold. The tradition continues.