A Moment in the History of Xavier University with Fr. Tom Kennealy, S.J.
How St. Xavier College Became Xavier University: 1919 to 1930
During its almost 200-year history, Xavier University has had three names. When the University was first established in 1831, its founder, Bishop Edward Fenwick, O.P., called it the Athenaeum. When the Jesuits arrived and took over in 1840, they changed the name to St. Xavier College. In 1930, the institution became Xavier University.
Construction on Bishop Fenwick’s new college in the diocese of Cincinnati, Ohio started in 1829 and finished in 1831. The college was located on the west side of Sycamore Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets in downtown Cincinnati. The phrase “Athenaeum: Religioni et Artibus Sacrum,” (the Athenaeum Dedicated to Religion and the Arts) was inscribed above the main entrance. This motto summarized the goals of the college: the promotion of religion and the education of the young in the liberal arts.
By 1839, it was clear to Fenwick’s successor, Bishop John Baptist Purcell, that the college was facing serious problems which required immediate attention if the school was to survive. Bishop Purcell decided to offer the college to the Society of Jesus, a religious order of men popularly known as the Jesuits, one of whose primary apostolates was establishing and operating Catholics colleges. On September 30, 1840, eight Jesuits led by Father John Elet, the former president of St. Louis University, left Missouri for Cincinnati. On November 3, the college opened its doors as a Jesuit institution. The Jesuits changed the school’s name to St. Xavier College in honor of St. Francis Xavier, one of the early companions of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and a famous missionary.
Discussions about changing the name of St. Xavier College began as early as 1919, after the college had relocated from downtown to its current Avondale property. Should the college become a university, a title that a number of American colleges, even Jesuit institutions, were assuming? Should the name “Xavier” be abandoned? Many found it difficult to spell and even more mispronounced it.
At first, the administrations of both the Jesuit order and the college were cool to the idea of changing the name. The Superior of the Missouri Province, to which St. Xavier belonged, was opposed to changing from college to university. In 1919, he wrote to Xavier president Father James McCabe, stating his opinion, “St. Xavier’s is making a fine start towards a university, but I feel that we should not burden it with too big a name. Let me know what you feel in the matter.” Father McCabe replied that he, too, was opposed to Xavier becoming a university.
However, not everyone agreed. At its meeting on January 11, 1922, the St. Xavier Alumni Association adopted the following resolution and sent it to Father. McCabe:
“Be it resolved by the St. Xavier Alumni Association that it is the sense of this body that the matter of change of name of St. Xavier College be suggested to the authorities for consideration and action at some appropriate future time, and that a copy of this resolution be transmitted to the Reverend Rector of the College.”
As the debate continued, many names were proposed. One was Newman University after John Henry Cardinal Newman, the well-known English writer and theologian. Another was Gibbons University in honor of James Cardinal Gibbons, the former Archbishop of Baltimore, and a third name was Bellarmine University after Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, the noted Jesuit theologian. An alumnus wrote to Father Brockman with the following comment: “Any name is apt to sound poorly until one gets accustomed to it. One name that occurred to me was the University of Southern Ohio.”
By early 1930, the administration of the college, including its Board of Trustees, was convinced that a name change was urgent. Accordingly, in May 1930, Father Brockman submitted to the Jesuit superior of the Chicago Province and the superior general of the order in Rome a request to change the school’s name from St. Xavier College to Xavier University. In his petition, Father Brockman sighted ten reasons for the new name. He pointed out that St. Xavier College had added a number of new departments, programs, and colleges, which gave it both the structure and dimensions of a university in the American model. His major reason, however, was the urgent appeals from many quarters. After expressing the displeasure of alumni and benefactors in the lack of a name change, he noted that many graduates confessed to being ashamed of the fact that their alma mater was just a college and not a university.
Rome’s reply arrived on June 4, 1930. The Jesuit Superior General approved the name change on the condition that the Archbishop of Cincinnati, John T. McNicholas, O.P., grant his approval in writing. The following month the Archbishop gave his written permission.
At a meeting on July 31, 1930, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved an amendment to the Articles of St. Xavier College changing the institution’s name to Xavier University. The following day, Father Brockman sent a certification of the amendment to the Ohio Secretary of State and the Department of Education of Ohio requesting their formal recognition and approval. By an act of the Ohio Board of Education on August 4, 1930, St. Xavier College became Xavier University.
By Thomas Kennealy,SJ, August 2023 with support from University Archives and Special Collections, Xavier University Library
Letter from the provincial of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus to Xavier’s president from Box 1, Folder 5, XUA-124 Xavier University Collection of Governance Records, University Archives and Special Collections, Xavier University Library.
Telegram from Fr. Ledóchowski, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, approving the name change from Box 1, Folder 5, XUA-124 Xavier University Collection of Governance Records, University Archives and Special Collections, Xavier University Library.