This year, Webster University celebrates its Centennial, a wonderful milestone in the life of what began as a small Catholic college for women and has developed over the years into a major university with global reach and worldwide influence.
From their Mother House in Kentucky in 1915, the Sisters of Loretto acted on their vision of providing a college education for women living west of the Mississippi River. This was a bold idea that grew out of the Sisters’ recognition that education held the key to a fulfilling future for women, and for all people who are part of any underserved segment of society. So, on November 1, 1915, the cornerstone was laid for what was named that very day All Saints Chapel. Loretto College was launched!
November of 1915 was not a favorable time to launch such a bold venture.
The United States was merely 50 years removed from the Civil War, scarcely a decade past the Spanish- American War, and again feeling threatened as the clouds of World War I raging in Europe increasingly darkened America’s skies. Social discontent in America was mounting. Women actively sought to exercise their constitutional rights and take their place as full participants in American society and the African American community had begun to solidify its own agenda and to press for equal opportunity and fair treatment under the law.
Yes, the times in 1915 were uncertain and unsettled, perhaps making it the best time for the Sisters of Loretto to expand their educational mission. By September 1916, classes were underway on the Webster Groves campus with just five students. In 1919, the college welcomed its first international students – two young women from France. Growth in both student numbers and financial resources was uneven in ensuing years. However, the vision of providing educational opportunity for those who previously had not enjoyed it remained foremost and continued to expand to meet the challenges posed by rapid societal change.
This dedication to educational access led the college in 1962 to become co-educational and to the Sisters of Loretto relinquishing control of the college to a lay Board of Trustees in 1967. Earlier, in 1924, the name change from Loretto College to Webster College was intended, at least in part, to symbolize the strengthening engagement between town and gown. The change in designation from “college” to “university” in 1983 represented a further step in growing Webster’s outreach and expanding its mission of service.
In the 100 years since the laying of the cornerstone, amidst enormous changes in America and the world, the college so heroically envisioned and fearlessly founded by the Sisters of Loretto has adopted innovative methods of implementing its mission while remaining true to the founding vision of the Sisters. Just as in the early years of Loretto College, when young women were being educated for life in the world that was emerging, so today Webster University continues to provide an education for many first-generation college students to prepare them for the world that awaits them — a world that is truly multicultural in America and interconnected globally.