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A Short History of St. Joseph College

Michael Hillman
Greater Emmitsburg Area Historical Society

Long before the attack on the World Trade Towers, I was supposed to have a meeting at the National Fire Academy. I discovered the meeting was canceled only after I arrived at the Academy. It being a cold day, and with little else to do, I decided to spend the afternoon walking the halls of the Academy's building.

Like most new residents of the area, I regarded the National Training Academy is just another government installation. But for many long time residents, it is fondly remembered as St. Joseph College, the women's equivalent to the then Mount St. Mary's College for men.

As I stood in the walkways between its stately buildings, the only sound I could hear was the wind whispering through the leafless trees. Closing my eyes and superimposing my own memories of walking through Rosemont College for women, the empty walkways at St. Joseph's once again came to life. Every direction I turned, girls dressed in school blazers huddled, chatted, laughed or rushed to make their next class. I wasn't there in reality, but I was there in spirit, and it was breathtaking to experience.

Any history of St. Joseph College must begin with its founder, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. In 1809, Elizabeth Seton established the academy and day school for poor children. In 1810, financial difficulties made it necessary to accept boarding students. By the end of that year the number of boarders had increased to 30. At the close of the academic year in 1811, there were about 50 boarding students in the Academy.

With enrollment in the day school doubled by 1820, a two-story brick building was constructed for the day students. Between 1826 and 1861 an intensive program of building and expansion was undertaken.

By 1839 the total enrollment of the Academy and the day school had reached 160. As more boarders registered, it became imperative to add another wing to the Academy, christened the Brute Building in commemoration of Right Rev. Simon G. Brute, once a director of the Sisters and instructor at the Academy. The first floor of the building was used as an exhibition hall, the second floor for a study hall, and the third floor for vocal and instrumental music units.

During the battle of Gettysburg, the school's grounds were used as encampments for Union troops, and afterwards, as the site of makeshift hospitals for the care of the wounded from both sides. Many a brave man breathed his last on its hallowed grounds. But more importantly, many did not, thanks to the efforts of the Daughters of Charity who staffed the school and sent sisters to Gettysburg to nurse the wounded of both armies.

Following the war, increased registration in the music department prompted the decision to build still another addition to the Academy. The new four-story structure reflected an Italian influence in its spacious corridors. Completed in 1873, it contained dormitories, classrooms, a library, offices, and reception rooms.

Construction of the Emmitsburg railroad in 1875 significantly impacted accessibility to the college. Instead of being a day's trip from Frederick, students and visiting parents from across the east cost could now comfortably reach the main gates of the college by train. At the depot, new student were greeted with open arms by the Sisters to whom they had been entrusted, while departing students hugged each other, promising to maintain lifetime friendships, promises they kept as recounted by MaryKay Hughes Clarke (SJC '72) in her article this edition on reflections of college life. When the railroad ceased to operate in 1940, the below-grade line was filled in and the depot removed. Today no sign remains of this once integral part of college life.

During the 1880s rumors began to circulate that due to a slump in registrations, the Academy was to be closed; but the Academy's doors remained open. On March 20, 1885, a fire broke out in the school's kitchen and burned until the morning of Mar. 21. Fire-fighting assistance pounded in from as far away as Frederick City. Two wings not directly connected with the Academy apartments were completely destroyed, but there was no loss of lives.

In keeping with the trend toward establishing courses of Catholic higher education for women, the Academy petitioned for a college charter around the turn of the century. On Feb. 26, 1902, the General Assembly of Maryland chartered the Academy as a college.

In 1920 another new four-story building, Verdier, was built. In the fall of 1926, students returned to find a group of three new buildings: Seton and Marillac Halls, the two dormitories; and Vincent Building, housing classrooms, and administration offices, and DePaul auditorium. Autumn of 1956 witnessed two more additions in almost a century and a half of changing life and times at St. Joseph's with completion of the modern "Rosary Hall," housing 150 students in 75 double rooms.


Like all long-lived educational institutions, the course of study at the college continually evolved. In keeping with the prescribed courses for Academy students of that time, the curriculum was small but basic, and in addition to the "three R's" included the fundamental subjects of history and geography.

A report card dated in 1826 included the following observations and comments about one of the Academy pupils: "Talents - very good; Judgment - good; Memory - good; Temper - fretful, and has much pride to contend with; Application - good; Manners - at times very amiable, yet frequently influenced by her temper; Health - not good."

The development of the spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical capacities of the individual student was given special attention even in this very early period of the Academy. By 1856, rhetoric, philosophy, botany, and chemistry courses were offered, as well as Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian.

Young girls of the pre-Civil War era placed a high premium on the "refined" subjects of painting, music, and needlework. By 1845 piano, guitar, and harp lessons were offered by the Academy in addition to vocal instructions. During the middle 1850s, the art curriculum included lessons in drawing, china, canvas, and oil painting on velvet, water colors, and pastel. Tapestry, ornamental needlework, shell work, transferring, and artificial flower making. Immediately after the Civil War the art department had three full-time instructors.

By 1900 physiology, German, Greek, calculus, solid geometry, physics, trigonometry, and zoology had been added to the curriculum. After the threatened closing of the Academy in the post-Civil War period, more practical and advanced courses were offered - a forerunner to the eventual securing of a charter in 1902 to grant college degrees.

For the realization of the objectives of spiritual, mental, and physical development, the College was organized into five divisions, namely: Religion and Philosophy, Humanities, Natural Science and Mathematics, Social Sciences and Nursing. Through careful integration of these divisions, the student during the first two years of residence was afforded the opportunity to become a cultured person. The curricula were so arranged that each student, through the study of religion and philosophy, could secure the proper spiritual and intellectual perspectives; through literature, language, and social studies, the cultural heritage necessary for the appreciation of the true and the beautiful; and, through natural science and mathematics, the foundation for a sound scientific outlook.

In addition, the College provided courses for students who were preparing for such professional fields as dietetics, education, journalism, nursing, social work, and medical technology.

When students entered their third year in college, they began a more concentrated study in one major field, which generally coincided with one of the departments of instruction.

The old "distributions" of Academy days gradually give way to modern college graduation exercises. The high-necked dotted Swiss commencement dresses were replaced by black academic caps and gowns. The harp and string recitals, the lengthy poetic readings accompanied by dramatic gestures, and the classical solos included in the two-hour long "distribution" ceremonies of the Academy era were replaced by the dignified and brief greeting given at the conferring of degrees during Commencement Week in June.

College Life

In the early period of the Academy, silence was observed by students until after breakfast, during study, during meals, and after night prayers. During meals one of the pupils read from some spiritual book. Students attended catechism classes on Sunday and spent any leisure time on Sundays reading "good books." They usually kept small notebooks in which were recorded virtuous maxims as well as the criticisms and suggestions of the various teachers regarding the formation of character.

In a catalogue dated for the academic year of 1874 -1875, parents were advised that letters and reading material were subject to inspection by the Mother Superior. Visits from parents and relatives who lived in the vicinity were allowed once a week - on Thursdays. Weekly reports of "application and behavior" were read at assemblies in the presence of Sisters and pupils. Easter holidays were non-existent and there were only a few days' vacation at Christmas.

The "young ladies" of the middle 1800s were advised to pack into their school-bound trunks "four and one-half yards of Swiss muslin for veils ... three black marino or alpaca aprons and one hood . . . six calico or chintz dresses . .. a table service of two silver spoons, one silver fork, one ivory-handle knife, a napkin ring, and a glass or silver goblet." No jewelry was worn except earrings and a pin for special occasions.

By 1909 navy blue dresses with no trimmings were obligatory. At this time a watch was the only piece of jewelry allowed. Sweaters, if worn at all, had to be navy blue or red. By 1957, short skirts, sweaters, and socks became the uniform of the day. But students still donned academic caps and gowns for Sunday Mass and pinned on short white veils for chapel attendance during the week.

"Polite class" was a monthly must around the middle of the nineteenth century, in which students were taught the social amenities of the day, including introductions, curtseying, and table etiquette. Dancing was indulged in at night and on rainy days. Outdoor games were croquette, tennis, and games like tap . . .." Toward the turn of the century, boating, canoeing and skating on Toms Creek were added to the sleigh and straw rides of the earlier recreation program. A dance was sometimes held for those students who spent the Christmas holiday at the Academy.

Records from the late 1890s reveal that "calls were strictly supervised. Boys from Mount St. Mary's were entertained by the girls "under surveillance of prefects and Sisters." Return visits to the Mount were made in the presence of Sisters. Only Mount St. Mary's boys who were relatives or who had been particularly named by student's parents called on girls at the Academy, and during the "call," a Sister remained in the parlor and signaled the time for departure.

Until around 1904 - 1905, a pupil could not stay away from the Academy overnight unless in the immediate care of a parent. At this time parents were also advised to send only fruit to their children except at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, "this limitation being considered more conductive to healthful digestion." As late as 1910 students could write letters to their parents only on Sunday or Thursday. Other correspondence was limited to one a month.

In 1919 students shared dormitory cubicles instead of the modern collegian's single or double room. Rising time was then at 6:10, and students reported to the study hall at 6:40 for morning prayers. They breakfasted at 7 a. m. in silence and reported for classes in silence. "Lights out" time was 9 p.m., and a main switch threw the dormitories into darkness at that time.

The equivalent of a modern-day coffee break was enjoyed by students of the early 1920s at three in the afternoon. Students took time out for bread and molasses. Mount men visited the campus with prefects at that time, and their "calls" were still chaperoned by prefects and Sisters.

In the early 1970s, students who ended their last classes of the day at three or four in the afternoon, could usually take off for a trip to town and often wind up their afternoon at the Bowling Alley or at one of the town's snack bars. For students of the 1920s, trips into Emmitsburg were few and far between, and until 1929 college girls were chaperoned by a Sister when they walked into Emmitsburg.

Around 1931, returning students found that they had been given their own individual mail boxes and that their mail was no longer subject to the earlier inspection. During the 1930s, students increasingly began to spend more weekends off campus and to attend social affairs at other colleges.

During the late forties the "Pines" or campus smoker was introduced to St. Joseph's and was a familiar landmark to students. The first senior prom was held in 1946, and during the forties more "open" weekends were enjoyed by students than previously.

Day Hops

Like most colleges today, a significant portion of the St. Joseph's student body included "Day Hops" - students who lived in the Emmitsburg area and commuted daily to the school . Betty Fitzgerald Gardner was one of countless Emmitsburg women who point proudly to St. Joseph College degrees hanging on their wall. During the Great Depression, her family moved from Philadelphia back to the family farm just on the northern outskirts of town. "Even though times were tight, my parents wanted their daughter to go to college. Being a few minutes' drive to a college was a major factor in their returning to Emmitsburg," recalled Betty.

However, unlike students who boarded at the college, "'Day Hops," according to Betty, "didn't form the same degree of lifetime bonds with their fellow students. The girls who boarded on the campus rose in the morning together, ate together, studied together, and dated together. They spent their most formative years together, and in doing so, they grew up together as sisters would."

"I, on the other hand, drove to school with my other sisters. We got up together at home, ate together at home, and studied together at home. On the weekends, while the boarding students where confined to campus, Day Hops from Emmitsburg could meet on the town's streets free of any campus oversight. My St. Joseph's friends were my Emmitsburg friends. It just the way things were," Betty explained.

Like most "Day Hops" Betty also had to hold down a part-time job that helped to pay her tuition. "We really didn't socialize much with the boarding students. Due to our home life, we only took part in mandatory social functions. Day Hops even had their own room where they could mingle or study in-between classes. While, occasionally, a boarding student would enter the room, it was more the exception rather than the rule," said Betty.


In 1960, Bill Meredith (Emmitsburg Chronicle "Retired Ecologist" columnist) began teaching part-time at St. Joseph College. According to Bill, "The College had a flourishing Nursing program at that time, and needed someone to teach courses in Zoology and Genetics for their science majors. At that time the science classes were taught in the basement of the Administration Building, which also had some dorm rooms on its upper floor. Lab space was very limited. I had never taught girls before, but I had gone to college with them and knew they were equal to males in science aptitude; and I found the students at St. Joseph to be very well prepared and willing to work."

"The college had a department of Home Economics, a vestige of earlier times, and it maintained what I considered a quaint custom of requiring girls to prepare a dinner for invited guests. My wife and I were invited to one of these; we went, and found it was hard to decide whether we or our student hosts were more ill-at-ease. One of the objectives of the dinner was to prepare a meal that was both nutritionally balanced and economical; my wife, whose memory for such things is infallible, tells me the menu was red beans and rice. I recall thinking it was out of character with the setting, which seemed to be based on rules of etiquette that must have descended from at least the 19th century."

"In the late '60s Mount St. Mary's and St. Joseph started a program of sharing students as well as faculty; students from one campus could enroll in classes at the other if the class was not not offered at the home campus. I continued to teach a seminar course at SJC, and girls took shuttle buses to the Mount to take my Zoology, Genetics and Ecology courses. Committees were established to work on a common course catalog for the two colleges, and to eliminate duplication of courses which had low enrollments at the two schools. Most of the faculty assumed the two colleges would eventually enter some kind of merger of programs while retaining their individual identities; however, one day in the spring of 1972 we received word that St. Joseph's had decided to close. There probably had been discussions between the upper-level administrators, but it came as a shock to me; I still remember exactly where I was when I got the news. I never heard the official reasons for the decision, but I knew some of the factors involved."

"Economic times were hard for colleges; the 'revolution' in student attitudes toward authority in the late '60s made recruiting difficult for single-sex institutions; and the numbers of young women going into convents, which had been an important source of new faculty at St. Joseph's were dropping sharply. Replacing Sisters as they retired with qualified lay faculty would have been very expensive at a time when enrollment was dropping. My guess was that the leaders of St. Joseph's found both hiring less qualified faculty and reducing their standards of student behavior unacceptable. So, the college closed; the Mount immediately decided to become a co-ed college, and many of the girls from St. Joseph transferred. Some of the St. Joseph's faculty also transferred to the Mount in cases where vacancies were available for them," Bill explained.

On May 27, 1973 Saint Joseph College graduated their final class. For the next six years, the once bustling school stood silent. On March 24, 1979, St. Joseph's was sold to the United States government to serve as headquarters for The National Fire Academy and with it, students from all walks of life again grace its historic halls.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman