Seattle University, Founding of

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 9/22/1999
  • Essay 1684
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Seattle University traces its origin to September 27, 1891, when Father Victor Garrand, SJ, (1847-1925) and Father Adrian Sweere, SJ, (1840-1913) dedicated Seattle's first Jesuit parish. The new Immaculate Conception church and school briefly occupied St. Francis Hall, built by Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine (1838-1909), at 6th Avenue and Spring Street (now the site of the Women's Century Club). The Rocky Mountain Mission of the Society of Jesus had purchased land on the present-day campus of Seattle University, and beginning in the fall of 1892 some classes were held there in the former home of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The school's first new, permanent building, now Garrand Hall, was consecrated on December 8, 1894.

Reincorporated in 1898

Father Alexander Diomedi, SJ, succeeded Garrand as pastor and rector in 1896, and Father Sweere assumed these duties the following year. The Immaculate Conception school was reincorporated as Seattle College on October 21, 1898. It remained on its First Hill campus until December 7, 1919, when it suspended college-level courses and moved to the present site of Seattle Preparatory School. (The College resumed higher education and returned to its First Hill campus in 1931. It was renamed Seattle University in 1948.)

A Jesuit Education

The Society of Jesus is a unique institution within the Catholic Church. It was conceived by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1546), a former Basque soldier of fortune who found his faith in 1521 while recovering from battle wounds. After years of study and meditation, he began organizing a band of clerical intellectuals and educators to serve as "soldiers of God" in defending the Church during the Reformation and spreading its ideas to new lands. Pope Paul III approved the plan of a "Society of Jesus" on September 27, 1540, and Ignatius quickly recruited some of the Church's most famous thinkers and teachers. Skeptics dubbed them "Jesuits," meaning people who invoke the name Jesus too much. The new order embraced the intended insult as its unofficial name.

The Jesuit role in Pacific Northwest history began in 1831, when the survivors of a band of Salish (Flathead) natives from Montana arrived in St. Louis seeking "black robes" to minister to their people. Only a few dozen Jesuit missionaries served the entire North American continent at the time, and Father Peter DeSmet, SJ, (1801-1873) did not win permission to respond to the Salish appeal until 1840. The following year, he established the famous St. Mary's Mission near present-day Missoula, Montana.

Jesuits' Belated Arrival in Seattle

Jesuit priests spread through the Northwest but they did not reach Seattle until March 1890. The long delay is explained by the priority that Father Joseph Cataldo, SJ, (1837-1928), Superior of the Spokane-based Rocky Mountain Mission, placed on ministering to Native Americans. In keeping with Jesuits' special responsibility for Native Americans, assigned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1833, Cataldo's motto was Sumus primo pro Indianis ("Indians First"). (Jesuit zeal for native rights in South America had lead to the Society's banishment between 1773 and 1814.)

Cataldo finally dispatched Father Augustine Laure, SJ, to Seattle in direct response to persistent appeals for a Jesuit school for boys from Father Francis X. Prefontaine, who had established the city's first Catholic parish in 1867, and Father Aegidius Junger, Bishop of the Nesqually Diocese. Although the Sisters of the Holy Names had established Seattle's first Catholic school in 1880, a Jesuit school was regarded as more prestigious at the time, particularly in attracting male students from Seattle's burgeoning Italian, German, and Irish immigrant communities. Based on Laure's glowing assessment of Seattle, Father Leopold Van Gorp, SJ, followed in the fall of 1890. He surveyed the city for a possible Jesuit campus, and purchased from Arthur Denny (1822-1899) nine lots at the corner of Broadway and Madison Street for $18,382. (This original campus is now [1999] the northwest corner of Seattle University's First Hill campus.)

School of the Immaculate Conception

Fathers Garrand and Sweere arrived in Seattle from the Jesuit parish in North Yakima on or about September 1, 1891. They immediately commenced teaching in St. Francis Hall, a parish school building finished in February of the same year at the corner of 6th Avenue and Spring Street (on the present site of the Women's Century Club). Bishop Junger formally announced the establishment of Seattle's first Jesuit parish and school on September 12, and Fathers Garrand and Sweere became the city's first Jesuits to celebrate Mass on September 27, 1891.

Assisted by nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Names, the Jesuits instructed 191 boys during the first year of the School of the Immaculate Conception., which was officially incorporated on June 30, 1892. The School shifted operations to the First Hill site in the fall of 1892, using a building previously occupied by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. With the assistance of architect John Parkinson (1861-1935), Garrand designed a new structure fronting Broadway to house the Church of the Immaculate Conception on the upper stories and the school on the lower. Construction. began in 1893 but was delayed by that year's national economic crash. It was finished and dedicated on December 8, 1894. By the time of the building's dedication, Father Sweere had returned to Yakima. Garrand contracted typhoid in 1895, and was sent to recuperate in Eastern Oregon. He later undertook missionary work in North Africa, where he died in 1925. Father Alexander Diomedi served as parish priest and rector until June 18, 1897, when Father Sweere returned to take over. (Father Diomedi founded Seattle's second Jesuit parish, St. Joseph's, in 1907.)

Seattle College is Born

Under Sweere's guidance, the School of the Immaculate Conception reincorporated as Seattle College on October 21, 1898. The new board of trustees also included Fathers Robert Smith, SJ, and Thomas Neate, SJ. (Lay members would not govern Seattle University until 1971). In 1899, Seattle College instructed 137 boys up to the high school senior level for an average annual tuition of $15.

The parish chapel relocated from the campus on December 8, 1904, when Bishop Edmund O'Shea joined Sweere in dedicating the impressive new Church of the Immaculate Conception at 18th Avenue and Marion Street. Father Sweere left Seattle the following year for missionary work in Alaska, where he died in 1913. Father Francis Dillon, SJ, an American-born Jesuit, succeeded Sweere and guided the college until 1909. During his tenure, enrollment at the fledgling college expanded to 200, despite the near-destruction of its main building by fire on May 1, 1907.

First Commencement

Father Hugh Gallagher, SJ, next took the reins and with Bishop O'Shea had the honor of presiding at Seattle College's first commencement in 1909. The College awarded its first Baccalaureates of Arts to three graduates: John Concannon, John Ford, and Theodore Ryan. (Although a Master of Arts degree was granted to James R. Daly in 1910, advanced instruction would not develop for many years.)

Father Charles Carroll, SJ, was named president of the college in 1910 and served until 1914. He guided the regrading of the new campus to provide a baseball diamond for students.

Father Joseph Tomkin, SJ, succeeded Carroll. World War I military enlistment caused college-level enrollment to drop, and Tomkin reluctantly disbanded higher courses in June 1918 and proposed to sell or lease the First Hill campus. On December 7, 1919, Seattle College re-opened on the Interlaken Avenue campus of the former Adelphia College (now Seattle Preparatory School) and remained there until 1931, when it returned to its original and present-day campus.


Fr. William P. Schoenberg, SJ, Paths to the Northwest: A Jesuit History of the Oregon Province (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1982); Walt Crowley, Seattle University: A Century of Jesuit Education (Seattle: Seattle University, 1991); Shaping Seattle: A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey K. Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); David M. Buerge and Junius Rochester, Roots and Branches: The Religious Heritage of Washington State (Seattle: Church Council of Greater Seattle, 1988).

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