Friday, November 11, 2011

College of Saint Mary-of-the-Wasatch

College's stone gate entrance, around 1926
College of Saint Mary-of-the-Wasatch

Location: 1300 South, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Opened: 1875

Closed: 1969

St. Mary's Academy started its life as a Catholic girl's school in downtown Salt Lake City in 1875. By the 1920s, it had outgrown its facilities, so a new campus was constructed in the eastern reaches of the city in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. Rechristened as the College of Saint Mary-of-the-Wasatch, the campus included a high school, a convent, and a women's college operated by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. In its later years, it reverted back to just a girl's high school (St. Mary of the Wasatch High School). After closing in 1969, the facility was demolished in 1972, apparently for a housing subdivision.

The first president of the College was Sister Mary Madeleva (1887-1964), a brilliant medieval scholar, teacher, and administrator who was also a widely published poet. She had just received her PhD in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley--after teaching for several years at Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah--when she assumed the post in 1926. She was to stay until 1933. Here's an account of those years by the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake:

With an excellent faculty, a superb library, and highly intelligent and motivated students led by an ambitious president, St. Mary of the Wasatch was probably the best institution of higher education in the state during the seven years Sr. Madeleva presided over it, for the University of Utah did not begin its slow climb to academic excellence until after World War II. She was able to boast that five of her English majors read Beowulf with her in its entirety in Old English, and that in a national science competition, St. Mary's three contestants won, out of eighteen awards, a first place, a second place, and an honorable mention.

Indications are that she enjoyed her Utah years greatly. In addition to the cultural life at Sacred Heart and the opportunity to create a first-rate college from scratch at St. Mary of the Wasatch, her tomboyish love of Nature found ample outlet in the Utah wilds. It evokes an almost comical mental image to contemplate her and her sisters in their complicated Holy Cross habits-not the most effective mountaineering attire-clambering up the steep trails in the foothills and canyons of the Wasatch and cooking Denver sandwiches for lunch over an open fire.

Predictably, there were also complaints about a woman who was that intelligent and driven, even if they were merely grumbled in private. She was too "rebellious." She flagrantly broke the rules of the order by taking "long, unaccompanied walks in the city or in the starlit countryside."

Oh, the horror....

After leaving Utah, Sister Madeleva went on to study at Oxford before eventually taking over the presidency at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. As the Diocese notes, "By then she had an international reputation, having studied with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, become fast friends with Edith Wharton, William Butler Yeats, and many others." Among her many accomplishments at St. Mary's was establishing the School of Sacred Theology--the first and, for more than a decade, the only institution to offer graduate degrees in theology to women.

Feminist philosopher Mary Daly received her doctorate in religion from St. Mary's in 1952.

Here, in my opinion, is one of Sister Madeleva's finer poems:

Wind Wraith
A shy ghost of a wind was out
Tiptoeing through the air
At dawn, and though I could not see
Nor hear her anywhere,
I felt her lips just brush my cheek,
Her fingers touch my hair.

(from Knights Errant)

As is this one, with its stunning eroticism:

Sister Madeleva in 1919
Peace by Night
A velvet beautiful and dark
With hunched horizon lines of trees,
A silence boundaried by stars:
I will remember these;

And all our speech resolved into
An utter impotence of words,
Helplessly mute with living song
Like dream-bewildered birds.

Beyond this time of breathing peace,
This moth-still mystery of night,
I shall not need the dawn's elate
Apocalypse of light.

Leave me this hour of deep content
With darkness upon darkness spread,
Your face against its velvet set,
And blue stars overhead.

(from Four Girls)

Photos: Stone gate entrance to College of Saint Mary-of-the-Wasatch--taken shortly after construction was completed; Sister Madeleva in 1919


  1. With her intense eyes and her uniform and amulet, surrounded by a the moonlike headdress she almost looks like a High Priestess to the Moon there!

  2. When I discovered her last fall, I thought there was something very cool about her. Though at least nominally associated with a male religion, she certainly carved out room for a woman-identified space within it. And her poetry definitely has a lesbian charge.


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