It starts with the Sisters: The history of Cardinal Stritch University
Since the announcement of the upcoming closure of Cardinal Stritch University in April, many are reflecting on what it means to have an 86-year-old institution like this come to an end. To better appreciate how Cardinal Stritch grew to be one of the largest Franciscan institutions of higher education in North America, let's understand the roots of Stritch and its greater history.
Sara Woelfel is the Cardinal Stritch University historian and runs the Sister Margaret Ruddy OSF Archives on campus. She says that in order to understand the school and its guiding principles, we have to go further back than when it was founded.
"Any history of Cardinal Stritch University has to start with the Sisters [of St. Francis of Assisi], and so I'm going to go well before [when the school was founded in] 1937 to 1849, and that's when the founders of the Sisters first stepped foot in Milwaukee," notes Woelfel.
This group was the first foundation of vowed Franciscan women to be established in the United States. They traveled from Ettenbeuren, Bavaria at the invitation of the first Milwaukee archbishop and were at the service of the St. Francis de Sales Seminary, which was fairly new at the time, to serve the German immigrants who settled in the Milwaukee area.
"So from the very beginning, they were putting themselves at the service of the people of Milwaukee, but their heart was with Christian education. They had really hoped that they could start a congregation of religious Sisters here and eventually branch out into education. And that's something they eventually did," notes Woelfel.
St. Francis, St. Clare, & the Franciscan Values
To be a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi meant to follow the teachings of Saint Francis, who was from the small mountain city of Assisi, Italy. Francis started his service in a humble way, living in poverty that he felt would allow him to better serve and know God, according to Woelfel. "It was kind of a radical approach to service — especially because he came from a wealthy family. It shocked people, the way that he served," she adds.
St. Francis steadily gained followers, and St. Clare was one of the first women to follow him. She also left her wealthy family to embrace a life of service and poverty, and would go on to found her own community of "poor ladies" in the church of San Damiano. St. Clare is remembered as Francis' most faithful follower and co-founder of the Franciscan movement.
"They are giants in the Franciscan tradition, and the Sisters recognized that," notes Woelfel. "And so when it came time to found their own college, they actually founded St. Clare Junior College in 1932, which is the forerunner to St. Clare College 1937. So they honored her with that naming."
The four Franciscan values that are integrated into Cardinal Stritch University and the education of its students include: showing compassion, creating a caring community, reverencing creation, and making peace. Each year, the university community chooses one of the four values to highlight, shaping how that value is incorporated into programming throughout the year.
"The Sisters articulated those values for the first time in the 1980s because they recognized that the Sisters of St. Francis, who used to be in all areas of the university ... their numbers were starting to diminish... So they saw that it was really important to articulate those values so that the people who were left, the laypeople who would be working alongside them, could understand what was at the heart of this university from the very beginning and carry that on," explains Woelfel.
The formative years
When St. Clare Junior College opened in 1932 it shared quarters with St. Mary's Academy high school for women on the Motherhouse property in St. Francis, Wis. This school was founded to meet the high demand of Sisters going to work in education, but didn't have the proper teacher training, according to Woelfel. The Sisters first received teacher training at the convent, but later would attend colleges and universities for advanced degrees and additional training before the founding of St. Clare Junior College.
At the urging of Cardinal Stritch, who was Archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, the congregation started this school as a teacher training college just for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi under the leadership of Mother Bartholomew Frederick. In 1937 the college became a four-year degree-granting institution for the Sisters and other religious communities and was renamed St. Clare College.
"They quickly started to embrace other religious orders and bring them in and by 1946 they started to admit laywomen," says Woelfel. "It started as something very simple and very practical and it didn't take long before it began to serve a wider population."
Who was Cardinal Stritch?
In 1946 the Sisters renamed the college to The Cardinal Stritch College to honor the former archbishop. After his time in Milwaukee, he served the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1939-1958 first as Archbishop and later as Cardinal.
"He was called sometimes the Archbishop of Charity because he would say, 'As long as I have two pennies in my hand, one belongs to the poor.' So he just really had a heart for people in need, especially during a time when Stritch was founded during the Great Depression," notes Woelfel.
"Because he was such an advocate for education as well, the Sisters ... had approached him and asked whether they could name the school for him ... He said yes as long as you always serve people in need. He wouldn't have wanted his name on a school that didn't have that at its heart," she adds.
Legacy & innovation
Woelful notes that throughout the school's history, the Sisters were not simply just "holding space."
"They were innovating things, they were creating curriculum around special education. One of the first reading clinics in the Midwest was formed here and it's because our Sisters were at the cutting edge of trying to teach people to read," she says.
Woelfel notes the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi have also been in charge of other corporate ministries outside of Cardinal Stritch University. For example, around 1900 they formed what is now known as St. Coletta of Wisconsin.
"Right from the beginning they understood that there were people with special challenges that needed special ways to learn. So the Sisters have their own beautiful history and fortunately Cardinal Stritch University kind of served as a way for them to innovate and serve those other ministries at the same time," she explains.
In addition to the education people received, in the early years of the school the Sisters lived alongside students, sharing spaces, meals, and often serving as motherly figures to students. The Sisters also demonstrated their belief in the mission of the school by contributing their salaries back to Stritch. From 1968 to 1969, their contributed services totaled $430,000 — 31% of the college's budget at the time according to Woelfel.
"You hear stories all the time of the Sister who, with her Ph.D., would be teaching in the classroom during the day, and at night she'd be running the switchboard, or she wouldn't be afraid to help out in the kitchen or clean the bathrooms," she notes. "They did not know the limits of hierarchy. They didn't see it that way. This was their school, and they all came ready to serve."
"I think [the Sisters] legacy is going to be that they put everything that they had into this place."
Woelfel says there are Sisters still on the south side of Milwaukee and are so pleased with what Cardinal Stritch University has meant to the community. "So even at this closing, they're sad but they're celebrating it as opposed to mourning it because they just know what it has meant to people," she says.
Woelfel admits she's gone through the range of emotions since the closure announcement. However, as she's been handling the artifacts in the archives and revisiting the school's history, she says she feels a sense of pride for what she's been able to be a part of.
"Not only are our alumni shaped by [what we did here] but the people they affected, the people they served are carrying this place on. So it will be sad, I will certainly grieve. But in the moment, I'm just grateful," says Woelfel.
She also wants to assure alumni and greater community members that everything in the archive will be well taken care of, as a local archive is willing to take many of the records, photographs and publications from the Sister Margaret Ruddy OSF Archives.