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Saint Joseph College is Dying

Roger Morris

Originally published in the Washington/The Sunday Star January 30, 1972

The Saint Joseph College campus lies at the end of a tree-lined lane leading off the main road into Emmitsburg. It is the kind of setting Hollywood used to seek out for inspirational movies. Narrow walkways wind like lace among the immaculate red-brick buildings, and the snowy expanses of lawn are punctuated by religious statuary. An ancient birdhouse, like some rambling grand hotel, is deserted, as the building around it soon will be. Rooms that cried for more space a few years ago are now being deserted and locked.

The faltering college has lived a long life, tracing its founding back to 1809 when Elizabeth Ann Seton established a women's academy in the Western Maryland town. For 163 years the campus has perched on the eastern slope of the Catoctin Mountains, a spur of the Blue Ridge chain that jumps the Potomac and plunges into Pennsylvania.

The college has emphasized liberal arts education in a religious atmosphere, offering 12 majors - from biology to French to social welfare to nursing - leading to the bachelor's degree. The young women have the same activities, honoraries, publications and athletics that appear at most small colleges. Many volunteer to work in a day-care center which serves the community.

At its peak, in 1966, Saint Joseph had 687 students on campus. Now, it doors will close in June, 1973, when this year's junior class is graduated. The decision to shut down affects many people - faculty, staff, workers, the Emmitsburg community. And there will be no more "Joe girls" then, only Joe Alumnae.

A visitor to campus might find it difficult at first to think of Saint Joe as an extreme example of the current plight of private colleges. The Joe girls laugh and talk in twos and threes on their way to class and through the dead leaves of the maple and sycamore trees that guard the campus drive. The wind that sweeps through the campus of a dozen building picks up the sound of the bus carrying male students from nearby Mount Saint Mary's and echoes it over the hill to the frozen pond near the log cabin on Tom's Creek. The nuns smile cheerily.

SISTER Margaret Dougherty, who has suddenly become the last president of Saint Joseph, says that the decision to close was the "only logical one." She participated in the decision, solemnly accepts it, and has agreed to keep a death log so that other colleges will know better how to plan their own deaths. Each day brings new entries as this or that function is permanently terminated.

"We made the decision while we still had something good going", she says with quiet confidence. Her eyes dart about alertly to catch each glance; her smile is that of an open and frank individual. Middle age has not slowed her step.

The fact is that the handwriting has been on the chalkboard for most of her four years as president. Although the college's facilities, which include a new, well-equipped science building, are better than ever and the quality of instruction is still high, tuition has soared to more that $1,800 a year, enrollment has dropped off, and all building plans were scrapped years ago.

"We were beginning to price ourselves out," Sister Margaret says. "We draw from the middle class, and a family with three or four children can't afford us."

Then, too, the Saint Joseph economy has been a false one. Operated by the Daughters of Charity with a board of trustees made up of lay and religious members, the college has depended on the sisterhood for at least 40 percent of its faculty. The sisters get no pay, only room and board. The order also has its regional headquarters at a large provincial house near campus.

"The Daughters of Charity have been subsidizing this operation," the president says. "We contribute an estimated $325,000 annually." It takes 650 students to break even, she says, but recently Saint Joe has had only 500 to 520.

The sisters wanted to maintain a significant number of their order on the faculty, but the number of young women wanting to enter a religious community has dropped drastically, too. Many of the present religious faculty are nearing retirement.

Last spring, the order told the board of trustees it could no longer provide the money or manpower to continue the operation of Saint Joseph. The board could do little but agree.

"I didn't want the news to get out to anybody until the students and faculty were told.," Sister Margaret says. And so, according to a carefully constructed timetable, she told them on Monday, April 19, an otherwise beautiful spring day in Emmitsburg.

AT 11:30 A.M., Shirley Humbert, then a freshman nursing major from Beltsville, was informed in a class assembly that she would never be a graduate of Saint Joseph College.

Miss Humbert, an attractive and somewhat shy young woman with the tiny voice of a Connie Stevens, had speculated with her friends on the nature of the suddenly called meeting as they walked to DuBois Hall. On the way, they met some upperclassmen who had just been told the news in a separate assembly.

"We were thinking that it might have something to do about curfew or Spring Weekend," she recalls. "When the upperclassmen told us, we were sure it was just a joke."

It was no joke. "First it was silence, then it was tears. Even the nuns cried. I called home about two hours after I found out. My mother couldn't believe it, either. She said, 'No, they're going to work something out.'"

By this time next year, Shirley Humbert plans to be a nursing major at the University of Maryland or the University of Virginia.

Kevin Callahan, a junior English major from Washington, is one of the boys from Mount Saint Mary's, a Catholic men's college, who have been a part of Joe girls' lives for as long as the college has existed. The Mount's history is a year older than Joe's - back to 1808 - and the two schools have long depended on each other for social life. Although they are just about a mile apart, the distance has undoubtedly seemed a lot farther to eager Mount boys who have fought watchful nuns, strict curfew hours, and uncounted chaperones for a few moment of privacy with the girls.

Things have been a little easier in the past few years, however. The girls have pushed their curfew hours back to midnight on school days and 2 a.m. on weekends. Since 1967, Joe girls have even been taking classes at the Mount, and Mount boys have trooped into the inviolate classrooms at Joe.

This year, Callahan, a polite student with the clean-cut look of a choir boy grown up, spends almost as much time at Joe's as he does on his own campus, taking classes in math, marriage and the family, and art history.

"It seems hard to believe that an institution that had gone on for so long could just suddenly fold up," he says as he sits on the steps of the cafeteria, nodding greeting to familiar faces. "There used to be a lot of jokes going around -derogatory things - about each school. Now everyone is realizing what each meant to the other."

Shirley Humbert agrees. "When we came here for interviews as high school students, they were talking about how the Mount and Joe's were having coed classes. I'm sure it made a difference to many girls."

It is hardly surprising, then, that many people on April 19 were thinking the same thing: Since Joe's and Mount had been neighbors all these years and were now dating seriously, then why couldn't they get married-merge!-like many of their students had done?

BUT Dr. Donald Shriner was thinking about other things.

"In my opinion, trying to keep the college going was a futile effort," the young math professor says. "It wasn't my bag." Dr. Shriner, who has quickened a few girlish pulses with his boyish looks and mod dress, started looking for a new job.

"I knew that small colleges were in trouble," says Shriner, who has taught at Saint Joe since 1961, "and wages here were not keeping up with what they had been. So I suppose I anticipated the closing. When they announced the meeting, I jokingly said to another faculty member, 'Here it comes.' We all laughed."

Like Shriner, most people in education know that private colleges - in fact, most colleges - are in trouble. A few have already died suddenly. Other have cut budgets, invoked pay and hiring freezes, and - once again - raised tuitions. The surging enrollments produced by the post-war baby boom are over. Campus demonstrations have stilled much alumni and legislative support. Parents, faced with their own economic pinches, have decided to send their kids to the less expensive state universities and community colleges.

A study released by the Association of American Colleges in September showed that more than 100 private institutions are threatened with immediate collapse. Another report estimates that colleges must somehow increase annual funds by 7.8 percent to maintain even the present shaky stability. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education took an even gloomier view. It said 1,540 colleges and universities are or shortly will be entering periods of severe financial strain.

It is a bad time for a professor to be thrown on the job market, but Sister Margaret says she had little choice. On Oct. 1, she sent letters to faculty members who won't be needed next year.

Shriner was expecting his letter. "I knew I would be going," he says. "There're two of us in the math department, and it just isn't businesslike to keep me when the other is a sister." As enrollment dwindles next year, nuns will do most of the teaching, and the Mount will continue to offer courses. Most lay faculty will be gone a year before the college closes.

One thing does bother Shriner - A letter the college is sending other schools which says, "Look, we're closing, and we have these faulty members available." "I'd rather look for myself," he says.

Mrs. Valli Ryan, director of development at Saint Joseph, did not take the closing announcement as philosophically as Shriner. Although she never attended Saint Joe or any other Catholic school, she decided to fight to keep it open. An effusive woman, Mrs. Ryan is the sort of cheerful, determined person who would put a glow to any gathering. She organized and served as executive secretary for the Committee for the Continuance of Saint Joseph College, a last-ditch measure to save the school.

"This is a terrible thing to happen, because we need private colleges that have religious orientation," she says. "There is a resurgence of interest in religion by teen-agers, and they cannot by law get this at state-supported schools. They need an intellectual understanding of their religious beliefs."

On the night of April 19, Valli Ryan called together student and faculty members who agreed. The idea of a merger with the Mount was eventually discarded, so a campaign to keep Saint Joe alive was started.

May passed quietly, but June was a month of decision. The Alumnae Council voted to back the Continuing Committee. The board of trustees voted to hear the Committee's proposals at its September meeting. And the Mount, fearful of an all-male atmosphere, decided to go coed in '72, although enrollment will stay about the same. This means that some Joe girls could transfer.

"I can never say enough about the cooperation and understanding we got from Mount Saint Mary's," Sister Margaret says. "We almost dealt them a death blow. They had no alternative but to go coed." Both colleges had rejected merger talk years ago, partly as a matter of pride and partly because the cost of two separate campuses would have been prohibitive.

But going coed wasn't the answer for the Continuing Committee. Not all the girls could be taken in by the Mount, and what about the home ec and nursing majors?

While the committee was preparing its proposal, Sister Margaret and her rebellious director of development - true to the spirit of Saint Joe - remained on cordial terms.

Mrs. Edward Egan, known to her friends in the Class of '54 as Mary Louise Rippey, is a Silver Springs housewife who admits she has not been terribly active in alumnae matters except to serve as corresponding secretary for her class. But she was shocked when she got the letter dated April 19. Mary Louise Rippey had met Edward Egan when he was a Mount boy and she a Joe girl. They were taking away her past.

"My husband go on the phone that night and talked with Sister Margaret," she says. "And we sent money to the Continuing Committee." she also tried to rally her classmates to fight for ol' Saint Joe, but was not very successful. "Those girls - women! - that I talked to seemed to accept it I thought people would get more upset."

Those who attended the reunion in June were anything but placid, however, Many were angry because they weren't consulted before the decision, but Sister Margaret says that if the college didn't have adequate personnel or money, discussion would not have helped any.

Some friends and alumnae also argued that if it were simply a matter of needing more students, they could recruit enough to fill dorm beds. Sister Margaret replied, "I know you can, but what are you going to fill them with? If you first fill the beds and then decide what you're going to do with the people, it's too late. You have to have a philosophy. We have always been selective - someone who has done well in high school and is a refined type of girl." It is no secret that "unrefined" girls have not stayed long at Saint Joe.

Mrs. Egan notes, however, that things have changed considerably since she was a Joe girl. "That was back in the Dark Ages," she jokes. "I enjoyed my four years, although griped like everyone else. There's not a lot to do in Emmitsburg, and we were pretty well restricted. You had to sign in, sign out, and there were always many chaperones. It sounds pretty awful, really. The big thing that happened while I was there was that we got to smoke on campus for the first time."

Today, the girls smoke, wear mini minis and slacks, and argue for open dorms. Still, they are friendlier than most students, smiling brightly when they pass visitors on the manicured campus, and their universal neatness is a parent's dream.

These differences aside, the older girls donated $1,000 to aid the younger ones. With this alumnae support, the now incorporated committee met twice monthly to prepare its plan.

The main points called for the Daughters of Charity to lease the campus to the corporation for 10 years at $1 a year (with option to buy), to continue to provide sister faculty on a gradual withdrawal basis through 1976, and to furnish utilities at cost. The new board would guarantee, through a variety of means, a minimum of 650 students yearly. Businessmen, alumnae, friends, foundations and government would be asked for support.

The board turned the committee down. "Our lawyer advised us not to take the risk of giving over the charter," Sister Margaret says.

"I think our proposal was realistic," Mrs. Ryan says, citing the professional people who backed it. "But we quit meeting after that. For all intents and purposes, we're finished."

Jocelyn Glynn, a junior English major from Philadelphia, will graduate in Saint Joe's final ceremony in June, 1973. She says she is not overly attached to the college and thinks some of its practices are too restrictive. But she worried that the college's closing will cut down on the options of the potential student who might have gone there. Opinionated, but quick not to offend, she sweeps her hand and an unsmoked cigarette as she talks.

With the closing, Miss Glynn's school records will go with the others to be taken care of by the State of Maryland. Other details, such as disposing of endowments and bequests, are being taken care of by the college lawyer. The library, located in century-old Burlando Hall, has been appraised and is for sale. The college is looking for someone to lease the campus, perhaps as a home for the elderly. "We have been advised to have everything settled by termination date," the president says. "It becomes very deadly if you stay on beyond that."

Beth Lawler of Carlisle, Pa., one of 87 freshmen who decided to enroll anyway after getting the news, is afraid things will get deadly even sooner. "I'm really glad I came," she says, "but I'm not staying next year. We would think this is the last dance, the last everything. This place will really be dead." She moved about restlessly in her chair as she talks, with only the rock-pounding juke box pumping life into the nearly deserted student center.

John Shorb, the director of grounds, has been with the college 19 years and is one of many townspeople who will suffer from the closing, although no one has an accurate estimate of the institution's financial worth to Emmitsburg area. There are fewer people already at such Joe hangouts as the Emmitt House and Ott's.

Nobody thought this place would ever close down," Shorb says. "It will hurt a lot." His weathered face is that of a man who has worked his years close to the earth, close to the seasons.

Some townspeople are confused about the closing, as the provincial house and its activities will go on. Some think all the girls will simply transfer to the Mount.

But even more than the students, faculty and alumnae, and townspeople, it is probably the sisterhood that has the greatest sense of loss. It has been their college.

Sister Robertine Weiden, who has held many positions in her 32 years with Saint Joe, says, "I've been in a college atmosphere for so long. It will be very difficult for me." Her ruddy cheeks - a face Breughel would have loved - fight to hold the tears.

The closing of Saint Joe will not command headlines that the fall of a Harvard or Columbia or Notre Dame would, but who knows what school is next? The era of free college growth is at an end, and Saint Joe will not be the last to mark the ending. There are many who understand Sister Robertine's sorrow.

And many will understand Sister Margaret Flinton, the precise and sprightly chairman of the Modern Languages Department. "As I thought it over personally," she says slowly with a smile, "the heart said 'no', but the head said 'yes'".

Read a short history of St. Joseph College

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