President John Garvey and his wife, Jeanne, at a podium.

John and Jeanne Garvey welcome guests during the Campaign launch event at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

By John Garvey, President
CatholicU, Fall 2019

When you are at the beginning, it’s always a small thing. Aside from the pomp and circumstance of the inaugural Mass, the opening of Catholic University in 1889 appeared to be nothing more ambitious than a few seminarians learning to master Latin on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. But to the bishops, and to Pope Leo XIII, the fledgling school was the seed of a far more significant project.

Their ambition was to create a center for graduate study for American Catholics. Or, as our founding rector Bishop John Keane described it, a place where one would find “that higher learning which the fullest intellectual development calls for.” That was a rare thing in the late 19th century. There were not many more than a thousand graduate students in all of the United States. While there were a number of good undergraduate colleges, there was only one really good graduate school, Johns Hopkins. What our founders undertook was a serious effort to raise the level of intellectual achievement, not only for Catholics, but for the nation.

The case for The Catholic University of America was most persuasively put by Bishop John Spalding of Peoria, Ill., who called the Church’s efforts in higher education “one of the most real, and potent influences in shaping our national character and destiny.” He worried that Catholic educational efforts at the time were middling, and that in the American Church there was “a deplorable dearth of intellectual men.”

Another early proponent of Catholic University was Rev. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers. He imagined that the ideal Catholic university would include “higher and more profound studies in every department of literature and science.” Father Hecker, whose cause for sainthood opened in 2008, underlined the potential advantages of “a body of alumni who would intellectually exert a great influence over the Catholic community throughout the United States.” 

Bishop Spalding estimated that it would take $500,000 to get the University up and running. Mary Gwendoline Caldwell gave $300,000, and with that we built Caldwell Hall. In 1884 the backers of the University enlisted Bishop Keane to be the first rector. It was his job to build the University from the ground up. He delegated the quotidian tasks to his vice-rector, and dedicated his time to hiring faculty and learning how to run a research university.

Five years after he took the job, having hired 10 faculty members and recruited nearly 50 American seminarians, most living and studying under one roof in Caldwell Hall, Bishop Keane launched Catholic University. Despite its meager appearance, The Boston Pilot predicted the founding would be “a fountainhead of strength and a focus of light for the whole Church in America.”

This fall marks a similarly significant moment for The Catholic University of America. At the end of September we announced Light the Way: The Campaign for Catholic University. With a goal of $400 million, it is the most ambitious fundraising campaign in our history. The name refers to our University motto, Deus Lux Mea Est (“God is my light”). It speaks to our impact as a research university in the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. It also suggests the role we can play in helping renew the Church, and the nation, in these troubling times.

The University is in many ways a different place than it was at the beginning. We are no longer exclusively a research university. We began accepting undergraduate students in 1904. The breadth of our academic offerings has expanded to 12 schools, which offer a total of 183 degree programs, and 31 research facilities. What hasn’t changed is our commitment to the founding vision of building a University dedicated to serious intellectual study at the highest levels.

We have already made great headway toward our goals to provide the best facilities and learning environments for our students, attract the most brilliant scholars, and offer scholarships to deserving students. There is much more to do. I hope you will join us in the mission to continue building up Catholic University.