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Georgetown University, Washington, District of Columbia , "is the oldest Catholic literary establishment in the United States. It was founded immediately after the Revolutionary War, by the incorporated Catholic Clergy of Maryland, who selected from their Body Trustees, and invested them with full power to choose a President and appoint Professors. Since the year 1805, it has been under the direction of Society of Jesus " (The Laity's Directory, 1822).

Origin and Founder

In treating of the origin of Geogetown University, its chronicles and historians are wont to refer to earlier schools in Maryland, projected or carried on by the Jesuits. It is true that Father Ferdinand Poulton, a few years after the settlement of St. Mary's, wrote to the general of the society about the prospects of founding a college in the infant colony; and the general answered, in 1640: "The hope held out of a college I am happy to entertain; and, when it shall have matured, I will not be backward in extending my approval". But the times were not favourable. The laws against Catholic education and educators were so stringent during the greater part of the Maryland colonial period that it was only at intervals, for brief spaces of time, and by stealth, that the Jesuits, always solicitous for the education of youth, were able to conduct a school. Such a school was at Bohemia, in Cecil County; it numbered among its scholars John Carroll , the founder of Georgetown College. He is the link, moral and personal, between Georgetown and earlier schools ; and with his name the history of Georgetown College is indissolubly connected. He had a large share in its foundation and upbringing, and the sons of Georgetown, to honour his memory, have formally instituted the observance of "Founder's Day", in January of each year. Even before he became the first bishop of the United States, he saw and impressed upon his former brethren of the Society of Jesus the urgent need of a Catholic College. Having secured their cooperation, he drew up the plan of the institution and issued a prospectus appealing to his friends in England for financial assistance. It was he who selected the site; and--although unable to give personal supervision to the undertaking, burdened as he was with the solicitude of all the churches--he watched with paternal interest over the early growth of the college. Georgetown still possesses his portrait, by Gilbert Stuart, relics from his birthplace at Upper Marlborough, the manuscript of his course in theology, the Missal which he used when a rural missionary at Rock Creek, the attestation of his consecration as bishop at Lulworth Castle, the circular which he issued detailing the plan and scope of the college, and many letters, original or copied, relating to its standing and prospects.

In 1889 the college celebrated with befitting pomp the hundredth anniversary of its foundation. Georgetown, in 1789, was the chief borough of Montgomery County, Maryland. Father Carroll selected it for the site of the academy, influenced, no doubt, by a knowledge of the locality acquired during his missionary excursions. In speaking of the present site, he describes it as "one of the most lovely situations that imaginations can frame". The first prospectus says: "in the choice of Situation, Salubrity of Air, Convenience of Communication, and Cheapness of Living have been principally consulted, and Gerogetown offers these united advantages". In regard to the "Salubrity of Air", it is significant that the college records show the first death among the students to have occurred in 1843. In 1784, Father Carroll was appointed prefect-Apostolic or superior, of the Church in the United States. In 1785 he wrote to his friend, Father Charles Plowden, in England : "The object nearest my heart now, and the only one that can give consistency to our religious views in this country, is the establishment of a school, and afterwards a Seminary for young clerymen." At a meeting of the clergy, held at White Marsh, in 1786, he presented a detailed plan of a school, and recommended the site which had impressed him so favourably. The clergy sanctioned the project, adopted a series of "Resolves concerning the Institution of a School", and directed the sale of a piece of land belonging to the corporation, in order that the proceeds might be applied to the erection of the first building. The Reverends John Carroll, James Pellentz, Robert Molyneux, John Ashton , and Leonard Neale were appointed directors. In 1788, the first building was undertaken. The work proceeded slowly, from want of funds, and 1789 is considered to be the year of the foundation of the college, as the deed of the original piece of ground was dated 23 January of that year. The land--one and a half acres--was acquired by purchase, for the sum of 75 pounds, current money. The "Old Building", as it was called, was not ready for occupancy until 1791; it was removed in 1904, to make way for Ryan Hall.

In its material growth the college has expanded from the solitary academic structure of early days into the clustering pile that crowns the ancient site. Among its oldest constructions are:

  • the North Building (begun 1791, completed 1808),
  • the Infirmary (1831-1848),
  • the Mulledy Building (1831),
  • the Observatory (1843),
  • the Maguire Building (1854),
  • the Healy, or Main, Building (1879),
  • the Dahlgren Chapel (1893),
  • the Ida M. Ryan Hall (1905), and
  • the Ryan Gymnasium (1908).
To the original classical academy have been added, as opportunity arose or expediency prompted, the astronomical observatory, in 1843; the medical school, in 1851; the law school, in 1870; the university hospital, in 1898; the dental school, in 1901; the training school for nurses, in 1903.

Since 1805, when the Society of Jesus was restored in Maryland, Georgetown has been a Jesuit College, with the traditions, the associations, courses of study, and methods of instruction which the name implies. Until 1860 the Superior of the Mission and Provincial of Maryland generally resided at the college ; the novitiate was there for some years; and it was the provincial house of higher studies for philosophy and theology, during the greater part of the period preceding the opening of Woodstock Scholasticate, in 1869. Naturally, under such conditions, the college exercised considerable influence upon the religious development of the country and Catholic progress in the early days. The first three Archbishops of Baltimore had intimate relations with it: Carroll, as founder; Neale, as president; and Ambrose Maréchal, as professor. Bishop Dubourg of New Orleans was president; the saintly Bishop Flaget, of Bardstown, was professor; as also Bishop Vandevelde of Chicago. Bishops Carrell of Covington and O'Hara of Scranton were students. Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, of Boston, one of the first students at Georgetown, and afterwards professor and president, founded the college of the Holy Cross, at Worcester, Massachusetts, a direct offshoot of Georgetown. The Rev. Enoch Fenwick, S.J., president, had a large share in building the cathedral of Baltimore. Bishop Neale founded the Visitation Order in America. Fathers James Ryder and Bernard A. Maguire, presidents, were distinguished pulpit orators. Father Anthony Kohlmann, president, was a profound theologian, and his work, "Unitarianism Refuted", is a learned contribution to controversial literature. Father Camillus Mazzella, afterwards Cardinal, is famous as a dogmatic theologian. Father James Curley, in a modest way, promoted astronomical science ; the renowned Father Secchi was for a time connected with the observatory, as was also Father John Hagen, now Director of the Vatican Observatory. Georgetown has exerted its influence on education and morals indirectly through various other colleges that have sprung from it, and directly by the host of its own alumni, nearly five thousand in number, many of them distinguished in every walk of life.

Upon the opening of the college, in 1791, the first name upon the Register is that of William Gaston of North Carolina, who, despite the constitutional disqualifications of Catholics in his native State, represented it in Congress, and rose to its Supreme Bench. The number of students enrolled in 1792 was 66; on the opening day of 1793, 47 new students entered. This was a promising beginning, but growth was slow, and for several years following there was even a falling off. In 1813 the boarders numbered 42; the average for the preceding ten years had been 25. The century mark (101) was reached for the first time in 1818; the highest number (317) in 1859. The majority of the students at that period were from the Southern States, and the breaking out of the Civil War caused a rapid exodus of young men from classroom to camp. There were only 120 registered in 1862.

The printed prospectus of 1798, issued by by Rev. Wm. Dubourg (president, 1796-99), furnishes the details of the studies pursued at that date, and holds forth promise of an enlarged course. This promise was fulfilled under his immediate successor, Bishop Leonard Neale (president, 1799-1806). In 1801, there were seven members of a senior class, studying logic, metaphysics, and ethics. Father John Grassi ( president, 1812-17) infused new life into the administration of the college : he promoted the study of mathematics and secured the necessary apparatus for teaching the natural sciences. During his term of office, the power to grant degrees was conferred by Act of Congress, March 1, 1815, the bill being introduced by Georgetown's proto-alumnus, a member from North Carolina. This power was first exercised in 1817. The formal incorporation of the institution was effected by Act of Congress in 1844, under the name and title of "The President and Directors of Georgetown College". By this Act the powers granted in 1815 were increased. The Holy See empowered the college, in 1833, to confer in its name degrees in philosophy and theology.

The Rev. Robert Plunket was chosen to be the first president. The corporation defrayed the expenses of his passage from England to America. He entered upon his duties in 1791, served for two years, and was succeeded by Father Robert Molyneux, who became the first superior of the restored Society in Maryland, and held the presidency of the college for a second term at the time of his death, in 1808. The school began with very elementary classes, but the original plan contemplated a rounded academic course, and gradually the standard of classes was raised, and their number increased. Some of the assistant teachers were aspirants to Holy orders, and a class in theology was formed. In 1808, four of this class were elevated to the priesthood, Benedict Fenwick, Enoch Fenwick, Leonard Edelen, and John Spink, the first members of the Society of Jesus to be ordained in the United States.

Present Status

Georgetown University consists of the college, the school of medicine, the school of dental surgery, and the school of law. Clinical instruction is given in the University Hospital, which is in charge of the Sisters of St. Francis, and has a training school for nurses attached. Post-graduate courses of study are carried on in the law and medical schools, and are offered in the college. The college grounds comprise 78 acres, a large part of whch is occupied by "The Walks", famous for their woodland scenery. The hospital is in close proximity to the college ; the law and medical schools are in the heart of the city. The Riggs Memorial Library contains many rare and curious works, early imprints, and ancient manuscripts. Among the special libraries incorporated in the Riggs is that of the historian, Dr. J. Gilmary Shea, valuable for American and Indian languages. The smaller Hirst Library is for the use of the students of the undergraduate school. There are also special libraries for the post-graduate course, for the junior students, and for Maryland colonial research. The Coleman Museum is a large hall in which are displayed various collections; here three thousand specimens illustrate the whole field of mineralogy, while in geology and palæontology there are excellent collections. Mosaics, curious in great variety make the museum one of the most interesting institutions of this kind. The College Archives are deposited in a spacious fire-proof vault, well lighted and ventilated. Connected with the archives, there is a hall for the exhibition of Missals, chalices, vestments, bells, and other memorials of the early Jesuit missions of Maryland. Gaston Hall, where commencement and other exercises are held, owes its artistic ornamentation and finish to the liberality of the Alumni Association. The Philodemic Debating Society Room is decorated with the portraits of distinguished graduates and college worthies. The College Journal and literary and scientific societies furnish opportuinty for mental improvement; the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, which is the oldest in the United States helps to piety. The Athletic Association encourages sport and promotes physical training by means of the gymnasium, ball clubs, boat clubs, etc. The spirit of loyalty towards Alma Mater is fostered by the national Society of Alumni and by the local societies of New York, Philadelphia, Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Pacific Coast, Wisconsin, and the Georgetown University Club of New England.


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