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The founding of the College of the Holy Cross

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The opening of a Catholic boys' college was one of Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick's proudest moments as the Bishop of Boston


This month marks 175 years since classes began at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. The opening of a Catholic boys' college was one of Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick's proudest moments as the Bishop of Boston; finally achieving a goal he had worked towards since his arrival in 1825. It was his hope that such an institution would provide Catholic boys with the education necessary to continue their studies at a seminary and eventually return to serve the diocese, which was always in need of additional priests.

Readers may remember that Bishop Fenwick first attempted to establish a boys' college in Benedicta, his failed Catholic utopia in rural Maine. At the time he thought this isolated, quiet, rural community would provide the ideal atmosphere for students to pursue their studies and constructed a two-story wooden college building there between 1839 and 1841. It sat on 500 acres of land designated as the college farm but, despite these ideal settings, he was unable to find a religious order willing to staff a college in such a remote location.

The prospect of establishing a college in the diocese seemed to be fading when an opportunity was presented to Bishop Fenwick to purchase a school in Worcester. The school was Mount St. James Academy, founded by Father James Fitton in 1836. Father Fitton had successfully operated the school for six years but was starting to feel the strain of overseeing it while also serving Catholics residing in a vast area between Worcester and Hartford, Connecticut.

In September 1842, Father Fitton offered the school to Bishop Fenwick, who completed the purchase the following February and immediately set about improving the grounds. The purchase consisted of a wooden school building and farmhouse set upon 52 acres of land. Bishop Fenwick purchased adjacent land, increasing the campus to 84 acres, and on June 21 laid the cornerstone for a new four-story brick structure that was to serve as the main college building. It was named the College of the Holy Cross after the cathedral in Boston.

While improvements were being made, Bishop Fenwick once again had to pursue a religious order to staff his new college. A graduate of Georgetown College, Maryland, Bishop Fenwick had been ordained as a priest in the Society of Jesus and twice served as rector of the college. He now called upon the Jesuits there to assist him.

In the archive is a letter addressed to Bishop Fenwick from Father Francis Dzierozynski, SJ, vice-provincial of the Society's Maryland Province which offers us a glimpse into the negotiations. Writing from Georgetown College on Jan. 25, 1843, Father Dzierzynski notes that he had received the bishop's invitation and it had been discussed by the provincial consultors. The letter reveals one of the major points in their discussions: whether to operate the college as a boarding or day school. Bishop Fenwick's invitation was to run a boarding school but, Father Dzierozynski writes, the Society has found that boarding schools require three times the number of faculty members as a day school and results in only about one-tenth of the good effect. At most, the college could house 150 students, and that would require at least 20 priests.

He continues to offer a compromise, that "if Worcester can be made a day school of, we are ready to make such a beginning there as you kindly offer to accept. Viz. to send Father (Thomas) Mulledy thither with another of ours to open the school; and afterwards as our circumstances will permit take charge of the schools, etc." By his calculations, a day school staffed by 20 priests could educate between 500 and 1,000 students.

Correspondence continued, and, in the end, Bishop Fenwick was able to convince the Society that the college should operate as a boarding school. He convinced them that fewer priests than they thought would be necessary at the start and that he would lend financial support as needed. He also revealed their shared desire for a day school in an urban setting, which he hoped would be in Boston, but that he did not have the funds to establish a second school at that time. This would eventually become a reality with the opening of Boston College in 1864. Finally, an agreement was reached, and classes began for the first time on Nov. 1, 1843, with six students present.

Interestingly, the week before his death in August 1846, Bishop Fenwick left the College of the Holy Cross to the President and Directors Georgetown College in his will. In effect, he was giving the college to the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, and the college operated under their charter until the College of the Holy Cross was incorporated separately in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1865.

Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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