In 1843, University of Notre Dame founder Father Edward Sorin wrote to his superior, Father Basil Anthony Moreau, to request that he send sisters to a new mission in the wilderness of northern Indiana “to look after the laundry and the infirmary…and also to conduct a school, perhaps even a boarding school.” Four Holy Cross sisters answered the call and, after a 40-day voyage from Le Mans, France, they arrived on May 30, 1843. They established the first school and novitiate in 1844 just north of South Bend, Ind., in Bertrand, Mich.
Answering the needs of their community, the sisters taught orphan girls and ministered to the poor and the sick. Under Mother Angela Gillespie, the first American to head Saint Mary's Academy, the school moved to its present site in northern Indiana in 1855.
In 1908, the charter for Saint Mary’s Academy was amended to authorize the legal existence of a college, and Mother Pauline O’Neill, then director, became the College’s first president. Known as the “builder for God” because of the unprecedented growth during her tenure, Mother Pauline’s most notable accomplishment—LeMans Hall—still stands as the most recognizable symbol of Saint Mary’s.
The distinguished tenure of Sister Madeleva Wolff began in 1934. She reminded leaders that “the essence of our college is not its buildings, its endowment fund, its enrollment, or even its faculty; the essence is the teaching of truth.” Some of her most tangible contributions included the establishment of the School of Sacred Theology and the construction of the Moreau Center for the Arts. Sister Madeleva was known for her poetry, her eloquence and her outspokenness. The Madeleva Society, composed of special benefactors of the College, bears her name, as does the Madeleva Memorial Classroom Building and the Madeleva Lecture Series.
Through more than 160 years and 11 presidents, Saint Mary’s College has embraced the mission envisioned by Father Moreau and has continued to make real in the lives of students and alumnae its core values: learning, community, faith and spirituality, and justice. From modest beginnings as a boarding school teaching and ministering to orphans, to offering five bachelor’s degrees and boasting more than 18,000 living alumnae, the College has continued to grow and prosper as a Catholic women’s college in the liberal arts tradition.