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Notre Dame: Our Lady, Our Story
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Notre Dame: Our Lady, Our Story

How Notre Dame College Was Founded & What It Is Today

By Christian Taske ’07 & Patricia Harding

NDC Timeline

1850 – Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld, Germany, is founded.

June 8, 1855 – SND of Coesfeld separate from Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort, Netherlands.

July 6, 1874 – Six SND arrive in Cleveland to teach at St. Peter's and St. Stephen's schools.

Sept. 10, 1877 – SND establish Notre Dame Academy for boys and girls, grades 1 to 12.

Sept. 6, 1913 – Ground is broken for Notre Dame Academy campus at 1325 Ansel Road.

1920 – Notre Dame Academy enrolls girls only.

April 1, 1921 – SND in Cleveland ask Mother Mary Cecilia Romen in Germany permission to open college.

March 26, 1922 – Mother Mary Cecilia Romen asks Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs for permission to open college.

April 15, 1922 – Bishop Schrembs grants SND permission to open college.

Summer 1922 – Notre Dame College is founded.

Sept. 18, 1922 – First day of classes

March 30, 1923 – Articles of Incorporation are signed.

June 30, 1923 – SND lease 39 acres on Green Road.

June 14, 1924 – SND purchase 15 acres on Green Road.

June 15, 1925 – First graduates of two-year Teacher Training School

June 9, 1926 – First 13 students graduate with four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Oct. 31, 1926 – Groundbreaking for Administration Building

Sept. 17, 1928 – First day of classes in Administration Building.

June 15, 1933 – SND buy 39 leased acres on Green Road.

June 9, 1938 – Betty Brown becomes first black student to graduate from NDC.

February 1942 – War-time accelerated program is implemented.

July 9, 1954 – Harks Hall groundbreaking

June 4, 1955 – First summa cum laude designation is awarded to Suzanne Gelin.

Aug. 14, 1961 – Providence Hall groundbreaking

Sept. 18, 1961 – West wing of Administration Building is completed.

Dec. 3, 1963 – Groundbreaking for Connelly Center and Alumnae Hall

1969 – Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) for men and women is initiated.

Oct. 24, 1969 – Groundbreaking for Clara Fritzsche Library

1975 – Lifelong Learning Center is established.

May 18, 1975 – First two male students graduate with A.A. degrees.

September 1978 –Weekend College (WECO) is established.

May 1983 – First 12 WECO students graduate.

Sept. 9, 1987 – Keller Fitness Center is dedicated.

Fall 1991 – Master of Education program starts

May 1994 – First M.Ed. students graduate.

July 1, 1994 – Center for Excellence opens.

Nov. 16, 1997 – Tolerance Resource Center opens.

January 2001 – First three male undergraduates enroll.

Nov. 2, 2003 – Dr. Andrew P. Roth is inaugurated as 13th president.

May 7, 2005 – First co-ed class graduates.

Nov. 3, 2005 – Academic Support Center opens.

Fall 2006 – NDC purchases campus from SND.

March 31, 2008 – North Hall groundbreaking

Aug. 5, 2009 – South Hall grand opening

Nov. 9, 2009 – Abrahamic Center is inaugurated.

Summer 2011 – NDC purchases former Regina High School building

Fall 2011 – Enrollment reaches 2,156 students.

“Dear Bishop and Father: May I most respectfully submit to your Lordship my reasons for so urgently requesting your gracious permission to found in Cleveland a College under the direction of the Sisters of Notre.”

With these words, Mother Mary Cecilia Romen, the Mother General of the Sisters of Notre Dame, opened her March 26, 1922, letter to Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs. Romen, who led the Sisters of Notre Dame from Coesfeld, Germany, wrote the bishop at the request of the Sisters in Cleveland, who had been discussing the need for a college under their direction for some time. Romen had approved and told them, “Do everything that is necessary to prepare a faculty and to qualify with both Church and State…God Himself will help us.”

In her letter to Bishop Schrembs, Romen explained a college would allow the Sisters to be educated in their own institution to meet the increasingly stringent requirements for teacher certification. She said more Sisters were needed to staff parish schools and they hoped to attract aspirants to the congregation from the student body. She stressed there were not enough Catholic colleges in the diocese and the community asked the Sisters to open one. She listed statistics summarizing the Sisters’ “extensive and laborious work” as grade and high school teachers over the previous 50 years, and promised they would enter the venture at their own financial risk.

“Surely good Saint Joseph will not permit us to plead in vain. This is the firm conviction of your most humble and obedient Servant in Christ,” Mother Mary Cecilia concluded her letter.

She was right. Less than a month later, the bishop granted permission and the story of Notre Dame College began to unfold.

Ninety years to the day of Mother Mary Cecilia sending that letter, Notre Dame College began a year-long celebration of its anniversary. Students, alumni, employees and friends of the College gathered in the Regina Auditorium to listen to a speech by President Dr. Andrew P. Roth, to watch a video highlighting longtime employees’ connection to the College, and to celebrate with punch, cake and give-aways.

In his speech, Dr. Roth told the audience about those individuals who had the courage to take on the challenge of building the College and those who helped it flourish over the years. He told them about Mother Mary Evarista Harks, Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche, Sr. Mary Odila Miller, Dr. Frances Quinlivan, and Helen Foose Petersen ’38.

“To many of you these are just names on buildings or awards,” Dr. Roth said. “But they are much more than that. They are individuals who had the courage to do what ought to be done during times when it was difficult to accomplish them. Without them, the College as we know it today would not exist.”

The Notre Dame of today is an opportunity college that through financial aid of more than $16 million provides a private, values-based, Catholic education in the liberal arts to students who might otherwise not have access to such an experience. It is one of the most diverse collegesin Ohio, as one fourth of its students are minoritiesand nearly half are not Catholic. They come from 20 different states and a dozen different countries.

Notre Dame is long past the days of being a small business operation. Its operating volume is at $43 million and last fall the College recruited the largest incoming class in its history with 489 students. Total enrollment is now at nearly 2,200 students and more than 250 employees work to support the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

That mission is grounded in the history of the College and the Sisters of Notre Dame, who first came to Cleveland on July 6, 1874, at the request of Bishop Richard Gilmour, who had sought German-speaking teachers for the parish schools of St. Stephens in Cleveland and St. Joseph’s in Fremont, Ohio. The Sisters arrived from Coesfeld, Germany, where their congregation had been founded by teachers Hilligonda Wolbring and Elisabeth Kuehling in 1850.

The Sisters were spiritual descendants of Saint Julie Billiart (France, 1751-1816), who had established the congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur to teach poor children. They were also followers of the educational principles of Bernard Overberg (Germany, 1754-1826), who had transformed the German Catholic educational system by applying his philosophy of a student-centered teaching approach.

From 1850 to 1855, Wolbring and Kuhling were trained by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort, Holland, a congregation that followed the rule of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur. When political tensions in Germany forced the Coesfeld group to separate from the Amersfoort congregation, they took the simple name “Sisters of Notre Dame.”

The Sisters began to instruct students from kindergarten through teacher education. They did so until the state took control of Catholic schools and expelled teaching congregations from Prussia during Bismarck’s Kulturkampf in the 1870s. At that time, Cleveland experienced unprecedented growth in its German immigrant population and Bishop Gilmour requested that Sisters come to Cleveland to teach.

“If your Sisters were here, they would easily be employed,” he wrote in a letter dated July 9, 1873. “You must send me first-class teachers or I don’t want them.”

By 1877, about 200 Sisters had journeyed to America. In 1878, the Sisters in Cleveland opened Notre Dame Academy for 14 students, grades 1 through 12, paying $3 tuition per month. By 1910, the Academy had grown so dramatically the Sisters purchased property on Ansel Road overlooking Rockefeller Park to build a new school. The brick, Gothic structure, dubbed “Castle Ansel,” was completed in 1915. Within a year, enrollment reached 500 and after 1920 the Academy accepted girls only. Soon, their parents asked the Sisters to offer a college education as well.

 After the bishop granted permission in April 1922, Sr. Mary Evarista Harks became the first college president, Sr. Mary Odila Miller served as treasurer, and Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche was named dean and administrator. It was her responsibility to determine the philosophical foundations of the women’s college, shape the curriculum, hire faculty, and establish the extra-curricular life.

Four-year programs were established for the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Philosophy in Education degrees. On Sept. 18, 1922, the College opened its doors at Ansel Road to 13 women and 11 novices. There were nine faculty members: three Sisters, three priests and three lay women. Tuition was $75 per semester. The College’s Articles of Incorporation were signed and filed with the State of Ohio on March 30, 1923. The College’s first 13 students graduated with four-year bachelor’s degrees and teaching certificates on June 9, 1926. The following day, the Alumnae Association held its first meeting.

A pioneer spirit characterized the early years of the College. Under the direction of Sr. Mary Agnes, the students established college traditions reflecting the identity of Notre Dame. Religion was paramount. Attendance at daily services was required and resident students were expected at Sunday chapel in cap and gown. Student organizations and activities included the orchestra, the glee club, theatre, a debate club and an athletic association. The award-winning student newspaper, Notre Dame News, provided coverage about the College and the Academy.

The College soon outgrew its facilities. In June 1923, the Sisters signed a lease for 39 acres on Green Road in South Euclid, and in June 1924 they bought an adjacent 15 acres. Since no wealthy donors stepped forward, the Sisters organized fundraising events to raise money for the construction of the new campus. Students organized bridge games, theatrical events and concerts, while children collected nickels and dimes.

In 1925, architect Thomas D. McLaughlin & Associates designed a campus that would consist of 14 buildings arranged around a quadrangle, a man-made lake and athletic fields. The Administration Building was built first, but due to a lack of funds only the east and north wings were finished when 82 students arrived for the first day of classes on Sept. 17, 1928. The west wing was not constructed until 1961. Needless to say, McLaughlin’s ambitious original campus plan was never pursued.

During the Great Depression, the diocese prepared for a college merger based on the European university method that incorporated Notre Dame into John Carroll in December 1929. In March 1934, the State Department of Education ruled that one incorporated body (NDC) could not be a part of another corporation (JCU) and dissolved the incorporation.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Odila’s wise financial stewardship, the 1930s fostered growth at NDC despite the Great Depression. The College’s outstanding reputation in teacher training spread across the region. By the time Notre Dame celebrated its 10th anniversary, 1,287 students had registered. In 1933, the Sisters bought the 39 leased acres on Green Road.

During World War II, Notre Dame became one of the first women’s colleges in the United States to respond to the government’s plea for accelerated classes to move graduates into defense work quickly. Students could complete a four-year degree in three years with three 10-week summer sessions.

Expansion was the theme of the 1950s and 60s. Enrollment was climbing, with 300 students in 1952, and the residence hall was crowded. Sisters were sleeping in their offices and classrooms to provide lodging for tuition-paying students. An expansion program was kicked-off during Alumnae Week in 1952. It resulted in the construction of Harks Hall (1955), the Administration Building’s west wing (1961), Providence Hall (1962), Connelly Center (1968), Alumnae Hall (1969) and the Clara Fritzsche Library (1971). By 1968, enrollment had reached 721 students.

In the 1970s, Executive Vice President Sr. Mary LeRoy Finn realized there was a lack of educational opportunities for adult women with children. She established the Lifelong Learning Center in 1975 to ease the return to college for women over age 25. In 1978, she designed the Weekend College (WECO), which enabled these women to complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. By 2000, almost 700 WECO women had received their baccalaureate degrees from NDC. 

With fewer Sisters available to teach at NDC, more lay faculty and staff were hired in the 1980s. During the 90s, the College took several steps toward becoming more separate from the founding congregation while retaining its mission. A new constitution was adopted that established a lay board of trustees, of whom 20 percent were Sisters. When Sr. Marla Loehr resigned in 1995, the College appointed as interim president Dr. Robert Karsten, a Lutheran minister, who became the first male, first layman, and first non-Catholic to lead the College.

In the 1990s, the College made a commitment to minority student development and a stronger multi-cultural environment. Throughout the decade, and until today, more than 25 percent of NDC students claimed a minority heritage. The student body also became more diverse when the College began admitting men for the fall 2001 semester.

Since then, enrollment has soared, countless academic programs have been developed on campus and online, nearly two dozen athletic teams have been launched, student life has blossomed, and more buildings have been added to the campus.

What’s more important, Notre Dame has retained its philosophy of being an opportunity college for those who might have never thought a private, liberal arts education was within their reach. Nearly 98 percent of NDC students receive financial aid and many of them are the first in their families to go to college. They excel at Notre Dame because the College remains committed to its small class sizes and because NDC professors take time to get to know them. Through countless service opportunities and a curriculum that stresses personal, professional and global responsibility, they learn not only how to make a living, but also how to live a good life.    

As Notre Dame continues its journey to become one of the finest, small, Catholic colleges in the Great Lakes region, it never loses track of its mission – a mission that is grounded in the tradition of Sisters of Notre Dame, who saw a need and had the courage to build a college.