The Phoenix: Rising From The Ashes

by By Teresa Castle | October 29, 2012

Looking at the campus of Saint Mary’s College today, with its peaceful green vistas and graceful architecture, it’s hard to imagine that this idyllic scene could hide a tumultuous history brimming with near-escapes from financial ruin and natural disaster. But this is the hidden story of Saint Mary’s — a tale conjured up by visionaries, dreamers and risk-takers, often decked out in clerical garb.

“We’re standing on some pretty broad shoulders when we look at our history,” says current president Brother Ronald Gallagher.

The College began as a gleam in the eye of one such visionary, Archbishop Joseph Alemany, who had been dispatched to the wild West 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.” When he arrived in San Francisco in 1853, he took over an archdiocese that stretched from the vice-ridden Barbary Coast to the bawdy Gold Rush towns of the Sierra and beyond, to Nevada and Utah.

Clearly, there was a need for religious instruction, and Alemany set out to provide it. In the early 1850s, he helped to found Santa Clara College and Saint Ignatius College, which later became the University of San Francisco. But he soon grew disenchanted with the two Jesuit schools, especially with their high tuition and rather elitist “classical curriculum.”

“I invited the Fathers here years ago for establishing a college, but they have not come up to expectations,” he wrote. What Alemany wanted was a new kind of college — a college for the masses — where students would pay just $150 a year rather than the exorbitant $400 Santa Clara charged.

On July 9, 1863, in the heady afterglow of the California Gold Rush and in the midst of the Civil War, this bold, new experiment opened its doors in San Francisco and was christened Saint Mary’s College.

To raise funds for the College, Alemany had sent a young Irish priest named Father James Croke on a two-year barnstorming campaign through California. Miners, ranchers, farmers and merchants alike contributed cash — and even gold dust — amounting to $37,166.50, a princely sum at the time.

Unfortunately, it cost more than $150,000 to build the College. To complete the project, Alemany was forced to take out huge loans — a move that would soon force the College to the brink of bankruptcy. On top of that, the cut-rate tuition proved far too low, and qualified teachers were nowhere to be found.

By 1868, just five years after its founding, “Saint Mary’s College had reached the point of no return,” writes Professor Emeritus of History Ronald Isetti, who is writing a book about Saint Mary’s, adding that “only a religious order of teachers could hope to bring some order out of the chaos and set the institution, at long last, on a solid academic and financial footing.”

1863 - Christian Brothers to the Rescue

To save the fledgling school — and his dream of education for the masses — Alemany sought the help of the Christian Brothers. In fact, for more than a decade he had begged their superior in Europe to send some Brothers; he finally succeeded only after a bold and arduous journey to Rome to plead his case to the pope himself.

“Alemany’s vision of a Saint Mary’s College open to the less affluent reflected a nineteenthcentury preoccupation, reaching back to the Jacksonian era, with democratizing American higher education, once largely the exclusive preserve of the wealthy upper classes,” says Isetti. “It was also very much in the Lasallian spirit, set out by the founder of the Christian Brothers, Saint John Baptist de La Salle, when he challenged the elitist ideas of the day and began establishing schools for poor children in France in 1679.”

So it was that on July 16, 1868, nine Christian Brothers left New York on the Ocean Queen, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, boarded the Pacific Mail sidewheeler, and steamed up the coast of Alta California, arriving in San Francisco on August 10.

On the following Sunday, Alemany told his congregation at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, “I made a journey of twenty thousand miles to get the Brothers. I have at last succeeded. Let us give thanks to God!”

When the Brothers arrived they found a college with 34 students and two professors.

Within four months, under the leadership of another charismatic and energetic visionary, Brother Justin McMahon, they had raised enrollment to 80, and a year later to 225. Soon, Saint Mary’s was the largest institute of higher education in the state.

But it was still saddled in debt, a predicament that came to a head in the Crisis of 1879, when Archbishop Alemany, who had been propping up the College financially, delivered an ultimatum: The Brothers would have to pay $75,000 to buy the College outright or $25,000 with interest to lease it.

“I am too embarrassed and oppressed by debts,” Alemany wrote plaintively to the Brothers. “Their load is too heavy for me to carry.” He even hinted at eviction if they did not comply.

Brother Justin scrambled to come up with a plan to buy the College, but the order’s superiors in Paris refused to go along. Just as the Brothers resigned themselves to the death of Saint Mary’s, Alemany capitulated, reducing his demands to annual rent which was set at $1,000 a year. The school’s second crisis was over, but Saint Mary’s roller-coaster history was just beginning.

1889 - Trouble at “The Brickpile”

Brother Justin’s successor, Brother Bettelin McMahon, decided to move Saint Mary’s from its cold and blustery San Francisco location to sunny Oakland, which was touted as the “Athens of the Pacific.” The new campus opened on Broadway in Oakland on August 11, 1889, and soon became known, somewhat affectionately but also quite appropriately, as “The Brickpile.”

The move to Oakland would not be auspicious. In 1894 a fire gutted most of the building, and it was later discovered that the short-sighted Brother Bettelin had taken out only $20,500 in fire insurance on a building worth $350,000. Twelve years later, it suffered $20,000 in damage during the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. And 12 years after that, in 1918, a more devastating fire caused $250,000 in damage. Incredibly, the college’s fire insurance had been increased to only $50,000.

The Oakland Tribune reported that Brother Gregory Mallon gathered the students after the 1918 conflagration and told them: “Twice we have been knocked down before, but we have come up smiling and we will meet this blow with renewed determination to go on.” His words were greeted with a “wild cheer” from the students.

The Phoenix Rises

Luckily, a new decade ushered in the Roaring Twenties and with it, an audacious new era for Saint Mary’s. The successful baseball team, appropriately named the Phoenix, was eclipsed by the football team, which rose to national prominence under Edward “Slip” Madigan, a brilliant coach and consummate showman hired in 1921. Academically, too, the school was flourishing. In 1927, it became the first Catholic men’s college to win accreditation from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges.

With all its success, the school was outgrowing “The Brickpile” and a search began for a new site. One plan called for a move to San Leandro, near Lake Chabot. In 1926, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce offered a site, possibly in Beverly Hills, and a million dollars to lure Saint Mary’s there, but Brother Gregory rejected it because he disliked the idea of moving the campus to Southern California. It’s amusing to imagine how different Saint Mary’s might be today if it were nestled in Beverly Hills rather than its present home.

Just then, in 1927, real estate developer James Irvine dangled 100 free acres in front of the Brothers for a new campus, which he hoped would become the centerpiece in a grand scheme to build 13,000 homes in the Moraga Valley. The setting seemed perfect to Brother Joseph Fenlon, the district’s provincial and another of the great dreamers in the history of the College, who envisioned “a veritable thing of beauty, even of grandeur” that would inspire students for generations to come.

But when he brought the Brothers to the site by train, what they found was “a veritable swamp,” Isetti says. Several of the dismayed Brothers refused to even leave the rail car to inspect the property, and the College president took the first train car back to Oakland.

1928 - The Move to Moraga

Despite strong opposition, Brother Joseph prevailed, and the campus, with its distinctive Spanish Renaissance- California Mission style of architecture chosen by Brother Joseph, rose in the Moraga Valley — but at a cost of $2 million. By the time it opened on August 5, 1928, the District had taken on $1.37 million in debt.

“Brother Joseph’s plan to build the new school without going into debt proved to be a pipe dream,” Isetti says. “The thread that links the history of Saint Mary’s College in San Francisco, Oakland, and…Moraga is that the school, no matter its location, was always burdened with a heavy mortgage, at least until recent decades.”

In its new location, Saint Mary’s flourished. The renowned orator Brother Leo Meehan took over as chancellor and shaped the College, which had moved toward technical and professional education, into a classical liberal arts mold, even naming the buildings on either side of the Chapel for Dante and Galileo. Soon, the College was recognized as one of the most distinguished Catholic liberal arts schools in the West.

The noted California historian Kevin Starr wrote, “Brother Leo dreamed of fashioning St. Mary’s College into, as he put it, a white-walled academic city, a cathedral campus of European civilization in the Moraga Valley.”

Saint Mary’s Sold for a Pittance

But trouble was brewing beneath this glistening surface. The stock market crashed in 1929, and the nation’s economy and social fabric were torn apart by the Great Depression. Colleges all across America were closing their doors. From 1931 to 1937, Saint Mary’s enrollment was cut in half, from 691 to 343 students.

Finally, in the summer of 1937, when the College could no longer hold the debt collectors from its door, the unthinkable happened: Saint Mary’s was sold at auction. (See “Black Friday.”) It looked as if the College had finally reached the end of the line.

But just before the new school year was to begin, Archbishop John J. Mitty “marched into the bondholders’ office” and bought back the College, along with Saint Mary’s High School, which had been sold with it, for $715,000, Time magazine reported. As luck would have it, the doors swung open again just in time for its 75th anniversary. Time magazine reported that when Mitty visited the campus in 1938 to celebrate its diamond jubilee, the “bells of St. Mary’s rang loud and clear” once more.

Never again would Saint Mary’s come so close to extinction, but there were still a few more brushes with death in its future.

The Navy to the Rescue

When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it looked like the final nail in the coffin for the school, as most of the all-male student body went off to battle. But on Feb. 27, 1942, the U.S. Navy took over most of the College as a pre-flight school, paying to train 2,000 cadets a year through May 1946.

A now-famous instructor of those cadets during 1945 was former president and honorary Saint Mary’s College alumnus, Gerald R. Ford. Paradoxically, it was at this time, when the campus had turned into a military encampment, that the seeds of Saint Mary’s signature Great Books program were planted.

Four years later, the Korean War threatened to drain the student  body again, and a succession of lackluster seasons slashed football profits. It was only through the good graces of the new provincial, Brother Alfred Brousseau, that the school survived. Drawing on profits from the Brothers’ flourishing winery business, he gave the College more than a million dollars, and in 1955, he paid off the last of the mortgage from the Black Friday debacle. The Christian Brothers  finally owned Saint Mary’s College.

In the 1970s, in wake of the Vietnam War and campus protests, enrollment dipped again, but new academic programs for professionals and successful fund-raising efforts managed to erase a $1.3 million deficit. In the years when Brother Mel Anderson was president, from 1969 to 1997, enrollment grew from 950 to more than 4,500.

Today, under Brother Ronald Gallagher, the College happily finds itself on firm financial ground. A new recreation center is taking shape and a new vision for the campus of the future is on the drawing boards. Academically, it is attracting accolades for its unique programs, such as January Term and Collegiate Seminar, and its successful model of engaged student learning.

A Rare Survivor

The survival of Saint Mary’s through all its trials and tribulations is “providential, if not miraculous,” says Isetti. “Indeed, of the hundreds of denominational colleges founded before and after the Civil War, the vast majority have perished.”

What is it that kept Saint Mary’s alive when other colleges succumbed to the same financial, social and academic pressures? For Brother Ronald, the crucial factor was the faith of the Brothers. “There was always in each of those crises a very strong group of Brothers as a community at the College. And within our own tradition as Brothers,  the sense of faith is very strong,” he said. “We believe God is leading us in this work, and we’re going to do it no matter what challenge we face.”

And if it had not survived? American higher education would have lost a unique and powerful voice, Isetti says. “When the Christian Brothers came to America, they melded the democratic ideals of human equality with the educational ideal of the liberal arts,” he notes. “In this new vision, everyone had a right to a broad and humanistic education, from the rich and privileged to the middle class and even to the poor, for whom Saint La Salle had founded the Christian Brothers congregation in Europe. That’s the real legacy of Saint Mary’s.”