The History of Women at St. Ambrose – A Great and Lasting Beginning


In 1968 Bishop McMullen’s school was now available to all who wanted a college education.

Although Bishop John McMullen founded St. Ambrose as a school for boys, women have been present on campus since the school began accepting boarding students in the mid-1880s.

Members of the Sisters of Humility and some laywomen came as housekeepers and cooks.

As the curriculum expanded, Helena Bradford Churchill was hired in 1918 to teach public speaking and dramatic arts, a position she would hold until her death in 1939. She later was joined by another woman, Elizabeth Arnauld, who taught shorthand and typewriting.

By the mid-1920s, states were demanding elementary and secondary teachers have college degrees and be certified- endangering the status of Catholic schools-where classes were taught largely by religious sisters who had not attended college. To serve that need, St. Ambrose established an extension division to teach these teachers at off-campus sites in 1925. The first year, five sisters enrolled and that number increased each year. In the 1928-29 academic year, 19 laywomen enrolled.

The first two women to receive a degree from St. Ambrose finished in 1931: Sister Mary Aquinas Freehill received a Bachelor of Science and Sister Margaret Mary Dwyer received a Bachelor of Arts.

In 1932, the college began to offer summer classes for religious women. In that first summer, at least 125 religious and laywomen enrolled. Over the next 40 years, hundreds of sisters from several Midwest religious communities enrolled in summer sessions.

In 1934, St. Ambrose established a Women's Division, but all classes except science laboratory classes would be taught offsite. The Women's Division students took part in social activities and wrote for the student newspaper. However, not many women enrolled.

A few years later, discussions began with the Sisters of Humility to move a junior college in Ottumwa, Iowa, to Davenport and open a four-year all-women's college. These discussions bore fruit when Marycrest College opened in 1939. In its first years, St. Ambrose provided accreditation for Marycrest.

Also in the 1930s, nursing students from St. Anthony's Hospital in Rock Island and Mercy Hospital in Davenport began to attend summer and night classes. St. Ambrose faculty members taught courses-including basic science-to nursing students from Mercy Hospital. In 1951, this arrangement was formalized when St. Ambrose created a nursing division where student nurses could earn a bachelor's degree. The nurses lived at Mercy Hospital but they participated in campus activities and became part of student life.

In the years following World War II, the number of women on the faculty grew and some women took on administrative roles. In 1959, three women were added to the St. Ambrose Board of Trustees. Women continued to attend summer classes and receive degrees. It is estimated that by the mid-1960s more than 500 women had received degrees from St. Ambrose.

Msgr. Sebastian Menke became the 10th president of St. Ambrose in 1963 and began to recognize the need to make St. Ambrose a co-educational institution. In March 1968, the issue was put before the Board of Trustees. Some weeks later, the Board voted to make the change, but only for women who would commute to campus.

That fall, 166 women enrolled as commuter students. The next year, construction was completed on the new South Hall (Cosgrove) and women moved on campus.

Bishop McMullen's school was now available to all who wanted a college education.

– Rev. George McDaniel '66, PhD

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