Monday, March 28, 2011

College of the Sisters of Bethany

College of the Sisters of Bethany students (1916)

College of the Sisters of Bethany

Location: "A plat of ground bounded by Eighth, Tenth and Folk Streets, and Western Avenue," Topeka, Kansas, USA

Founded: Original charter granted for the "Episcopal Seminary of Topeka" on February 2, 1861. First session of the school opened on June 10, 1861. On July 10, 1872, the name of the institution was changed to the College of the Sisters of Bethany. Finally, the school was renamed Vail College (after Kansas Episcopoal diocese bishop Thomas Vail) on July 2, 1924.

Closed: 1928

As far as I can tell, there were never more than three women's colleges in the state of Kansas. Two of those colleges have closed, and one went co-ed (St. Mary's College in Leavenworth, Kansas--now known as the University of St. Mary--started admitting men in 1988) The College of the Sisters of Bethany (a/k/a Bethany College) is one of the lost ones.

The College was not named after an order of sisters, but to honor the sisters of Bethany, Mary and Martha, who represented "the two great classes of Christian womanhood, the contemplative and the active."

The school was organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, and like many women's colleges, the early leadership appeared to be entirely male. I don't see mention of a woman "principal"--not to be confused with the college "president"--until Miss Meliora Hambletin (or Hambleton) was elected by the Board in 1904. There is also reference to Mrs. Alice Howland Warwick servicing as principal in 1918.

Somewhat optimistically, the College was once billed as the "Wellesley of the West."

A 2003 article in the Topeka Capital-Journal provides the following description of the school:

From 10 to 35 students -- historical accounts differ -- enrolled in the college's first session, which began on June 10, 1861, in a building at Topeka Boulevard and Ninth Street. Five years later, enrollment had jumped to 101 students, and by 1885 had risen to 350.

Wolfe Hall, the college's main building at S.W. 9th and Polk, was constructed in 1871-1872. It was heated by stoves and lighted by coal oil lamps.

The institution was renamed the College of the Sisters of Bethany in July 1872 and moved to a 20-acre tract bounded by Polk, Western, 8th and 10th.

The school's motto was: "That our daughters may be as the polished corners of the temple." The fully accredited school welcomed both day and boarding pupils and offered classes from kindergarten through the second year of college, according to an Oct. 25, 1953, article in the Topeka Daily Capital.

Board was $5 a week, with laundry service costing an additional dollar.

Parents weren't allowed to send their daughters candles, cakes, pickles and preserves because they were "almost sure to be the precursor of headaches, heartburns, sour tempers and bad lessons till they are gone."
The students were asked to bring an umbrella, a pair of thick-soled shoes or overshoes, table napkins, towels, sheets, pillowcases, a dictionary, an atlas and a Bible, according to the newspaper account.

Subjects taught in the early years included ecclesiastical history, metaphysical science, Greek, Latin, history of Jewish antiquities, evidences of Christianity, moral philosophy, domestic economy and home duties, geometry, geology, chemistry, English, music, physical education, oil painting and elocution.

In the early 20th century, boys in kindergarten through grade three were allowed to attend. Eventually, the school stopped offering college courses and finally closed in 1928 because enrollment dropped after World War and it didn't have the money to stay open.

Almost half of its south grounds was sold to the Topeka Board of Education as the site of Topeka High School. Wolfe Hall was torn down in 1959, and part of its stone was used in a rock wall that stands north of Topeka High School and runs north to S.W. 8th.

Photo: Miss Marguerite Koontz's students rehearsing for the Sisters of Bethany College Alumnae May Fete. The performance took place in Central Park, Saturday, May 20, 1916. Georgia Neese, far left, was one of the older girls participating in the May Fete. The other participants were Elizabeth Hopkins, Margaret Ray, Jessie Burnett, Helen Lucus, Joanna Gleed, Beatrice Shakeshaft and one unidentified girl.

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