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Our History

America’s Second Oldest Catholic University

On an unseasonably warm day in October 1808, Father John DuBois removed his coat, rolled up his sleeves and labored with his parishioners and members of the community to lay the foundations of what would become Mount St. Mary's University.

Rather than building next to Saint-Mary-on-the-Hill, the church that he had erected in the verdant grotto on the mountain to serve a burgeoning Catholic population, DuBois, a refuge from the French revolution and a circuit-riding priest, chose to locate the school on the expansive plateau at the base of the hill. The campus continues to be protected by Mary's Mountain from the north and west winds and to bask in brilliant sunshine, dappled by the shadows from the broad belt of trees encircling the area.

DuBois, the school’s first president, and his small cadre of faculty, which included the Right Rev. Simon Gabriel Brute as of 1812, offered a full and rigorous high school and college course to both potential clerics and local boys.

In the summer of 1809, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton came to reside at the Mount for six weeks before moving up the road to found the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg. In the spirit of our founders, this close relationship between the Mount and the Daughters of Charity continues today.

sketching of Fr. John DuBois

Exceptional Students and Renowned Faculty

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Mount taught the men who would shape the nation and the church in the prep school, college, and seminary. The seminary, built on a strong theology program, began retaining students until ordination when the Mount in 1830 received a Maryland state charter to grant advanced degrees. Students during this time included Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the First Consul; Dr. William Whelan, who served as surgeon general of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War; and renowned artist John La Farge.

Students were taught by nationally renowned faculty—a tradition that continues today. Early professors included Fr. Charles Constatine Pise, who is still the only Catholic priest to serve as chaplain of the U.S. Senate; George Henry Miles, a nationally renowned poet and dramatist; and Henry Dielman, a notable composer who was the first person in the United States to receive a doctorate in music. Among his many achievements are the inaugurations marches for U.S. Presidents William Henry Harrison, a quickstep for Andrew Jackson, and a funeral march for the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Mount quickly earned the nickname “Cradle of Bishops.” Early graduates of the Seminary included John McCloskey, the first American cardinal, and John Hughes, first archbishop of New York; John Purcell, first archbishop of Cincinnati; William Quarter, first bishop of Chicago; George Carroll, first bishop of Covington; Richard Whelan, first bishop of Wheeling; and Francis Gartland, first bishop of Savannah. Today, the Mount claims 52 episcopal alumni, including Archbishop William Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

John La Farge, Artist 

A Noble Tree

President John McCaffrey opened the Jubilee Celebration in 1858 by reflecting on the college’s growth: “The seed they planted then—the seedling, which they nursed and watered with their sweat and tears—is now indeed a noble tree, whose fruits are known, and not unhonored, throughout the world.”

Students worshiped at Saint-Mary-on-the-Hill in the grotto, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton taught Christian doctrine there to local children. In 1875, Mount students and seminarians first built the stone replica of Lourdes at the grotto. This holy sacred place gained widespread recognition in 1958, when it was proclaimed a public oratory and national shrine. Today, the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes welcomes more than 400,000 visitors annually.

Archbishop John Hughes

Fr. Edward Flanagan at the Mount

Fr. Edward Flanagan, class of 1906, visits the Mount in November 1945. Fr. Flanagan is well known as the founder of Boys Town.

Expansion in the 1900s

Campus life flourished in the twentieth century with new clubs and traditions. In 1919, The Knights of Columbus received permission to form a council on campus—the first and longest standing council at a Catholic college. The chapter will celebrate its centennial in 2019.;

The Mount dedicated Echo Field in 1900 as intercollegiate athletics began to grow. It wasn’t long before Mount Athletics were drawing national attention. On May 7, 1921, Babe Ruth made his second visit to the Mount. Tradition holds that he was discovered on Echo Field years earlier in a game between his team from a Baltimore industrial school and the Mount. During World War II, at least 727 Mountaineers join the armed forces, 48 of them as chaplains. Facing dropping enrollment, the college initiated a CAA-War Training Service School for flying specialists. A Navy V-12 deck officers school was established, bringing nearly 400 men to the empty rooms on campus.

In honor of its service to the armed forces training programs, the school received a 3-inch/ 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun from the USS Detroit—a ship credited with one downed and one assisted downed aircraft during the battle at Pearl Harbor. Two years later Memorial Gymnasium was built and dedicated to the alumni killed in World Wars I and II.

Baseball legend Babe Ruth at Mount St. Mary's

Baseball legend Babe Ruth at Mount St. Mary's in the 1900's; tradition holds that he was discovered here on Echo Field.

When he retired in 2003, legendary basketball coach Jim Phelan had coached more collegiate basketball games than any other coach, many of them in Memorial Gym. Over his 49 years, he boasted a record of 830-524. He led the Mount to its first NCAA Championship in 1962 and earned national Coach of the Year honors. The court at the Mount's Knott Arena is named “Jim Phelan Court,” while the NEC Coach of the Year Award and the Coach of the Year Award are both named in his honor.

Jim Phelan coached Mount St. Mary's men's basketball team from 1954-2003

Here in his famous bow tie, Jim Phelan coached Mount St. Mary's men's basketball team from 1954-2003.

The Mount has enjoyed success in other sports as well, boasting 12 Olympians including Peter Rono, who won the gold medal in the 1500 meter run at the 1988 Games as only a sophomore under the tutelage of the Mount’s remarkable track and field coach Jim Deegan. Deegan coached for 50 years before retiring in 2006. He remains involved in the program as a volunteer and just completed his 62nd season with the team.

While the prep school closed in 1936, the twentieth century was a time of expansion for the college. Women were admitted to the Mount in 1972 and in 1999, the Mount opened a satellite campus in nearby Frederick. The Frederick campus specializes in graduate and adult undergraduate programs.

Mother Teresa at Mount St. Mary's University in 1975

Saint Teresa of Calcutta blessed the Mount with a visit in 1975.

Continued Success in the 21st Century

Following this growth, the Mount achieved university status in 2004, which began a new era of academic excellence that would usher in the university’s bicentennial in 2008. The bicentennial, in the words of President Thomas H. Powell, Ph.D., served as a “moment of celebration, reflection and renewal—a time of hope to give strength, wisdom and vision to the university for its next century of academic leadership and public service in American higher education.”

The Mount’s success and tradition of excellence have been marked by visits from several national and world leaders. Highlights of our sesquicentennial celebrations in 1958 were visits from Robert Kennedy and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gave the commencement address. Saint Teresa of Calcutta blessed the Mount with visits in 1975 and 1995 to spread her message of prayer and love for Jesus Christ. President Barack Obama came to campus in 2015 as he spoke at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial service. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, spoke on campus in 2018.

Much has changed over the last 200 years, but in the spirit of our founder, Fr. John DuBois, the Mount continues to graduate ethical leaders who live lives of significance. As Timothy E. Trainor, Ph.D., the Mount’s 26th president, stated in his inaugural address on October 23, 2017: “Our faculty and staff are motivated to help our students become the best version of themselves and prepare them to lead lives of significance in service to God and others. The Mount is an exciting place to be, and we are poised to create the success stories that will become the next 200 years of our history.”

Yesterday and Today

The life of today's student differs greatly from that of the young men who arrived in Emmitsburg more than 200 years ago.

Early student life revolved around academics and religious development, with few student organizations. Today, the Mount offers more than 70 clubs and honor societies, as well as service learning portions of the curriculum designed to enable students to give back to their college and community.

The early college limited recreation for students to Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and condoned walking the grounds only. Today, the university participates in Division I of the NCAA. Students play on 24 varsity men's and women's teams, along with premier sports for men's rugby and esports, and 30 intramural and club-level teams.

More than 200 years ago, six professors taught a core curriculum that took seven years to complete and offered no specialization. Today, the college employs 114 full-time faculty members to teach our integrated and sequenced core curriculum across 49 majors.

The future of Mount St. Mary's University lies within the foundations of its past. As Charles Hodges, valedictorian of the class of 1958, stated: “The future that awaits us is as boundless as our vision and our imagination, as rich and as full as our spirit, as rewarding and gratifying as our courage and skill will make it. Armed with these weapons, we will wrest success from its challenge. We are well prepared to make our way … for here we have learned responsibilities, an obligation to our parents, our college, our country, our God.”