The history of Marygrove does not begin with 1927 or the city of Detroit, but with 1845 and the town of Monroe. On November 10, 1845, three women formally began a religious congregation of Catholic nuns, today known as the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or IHMs. The three women came to Monroe at the invitation of a young Belgian missionary priest, Father Louis Florent Gillet.

One of the women, Theresa Maxis, was named the first leader of the new community. A woman of color of Haitian origin, she had formerly served as president of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a black community of Catholic women in Baltimore, Maryland. When she arrived in Monroe, she began almost immediately to develop a school for women.

On Christmas day a notice appeared in the Monroe Advocate announcing the opening of a “Young Ladies Academy” offering a course of study that included French and English grammar, arithmetic, mythology, bookkeeping, needlework, beadwork, tapestry, worsted flowers, and music. By January 15, 1846, St. Mary Academy welcomed its first students.

That beginning was followed by the opening of parochial schools throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but the Academy remained the center of innovation and progress in the IHM educational system.

Marygrove is the direct descendant of the original St. Mary Academy. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Academy had begun to offer college-level courses and by 1905 the Sisters had built a separate St. Mary College. In 1910 the State of Michigan empowered the college to grant degrees, and in 1914, the State Department of Education authorized it to grant teaching certificates. Those original charters are still in effect at Marygrove today.

In the early 1920s, it became apparent to the IHM Congregation and to Church leaders in Detroit that the college was outgrowing its buildings and that Detroit would be a more appropriate site for a new campus. Mother Domitilla Donohue agreed with Detroit's bishop that moving the college to the city would give more women an opportunity for higher education, and that the College would have a larger field of influence in Detroit. She also believed, with him, that the College could itself be a monument to the city of Detroit. Accordingly, in March, 1922, for $241,000, Mother Domitilla purchased as the site of the new St. Mary College an 80-acre wooded tract in a developing area of northwest Detroit.

The purchase price of the land, however, exhausted the money that had been set aside to build the new campus in Monroe, so the Congregation launched a Building Campaign Fund in 1923, culminating in a week-long Marygrove Festival at the Arena Gardens in Detroit. With the help of the St. Mary Alumnae Association, Michigan parishes, graduates of IHM schools, and Detroit business leaders, the Festival alone raised $101,000, but the total campaign fund itself could not match the cost of the new buildings. So, in an act of courage, faith, or sheer bravado difficult to imagine today, Mother Domitilla and her governing council indebted the IHM Congregation for the $4 million necessary to build and equip the College.

The new site suggested a new name, and in 1925, with the laying of the cornerstone of the present Liberal Arts Building, St. Mary College became Marygrove College. The gates of the Detroit campus opened in September 1927, welcoming 287 students, 100 of whom were sophomores, juniors, or seniors.

The first class of Marygrove students was greeted by the first lay president of a Catholic women's college in the U.S., Dr. George Hermann Derry. Dr. Derry was an educator, a scholar, a philosopher, and a lecturer with an international reputation who had been educated at the Catholic University of Paris. His previous experience included chairing the political science department at Bryn Mawr and the philosophy department at Marquette University.

Dr. and Mrs. Derry lived with their three children in the president's house on campus (now Hartman Hall), often entertaining intellectual figures of international importance. Dr. Derry frequently invited Marygrove undergraduates to meet the guests as part of the students' social and cultural development.

Mother Domitilla appointed Dr. Derry the first president of the new college because his philosophy of education matched the Congregation's own vision of scholarly excellence, service to the professions, and commitment to social justice. In particular, the Congregation charged Dr. Derry with the task of building a curriculum that would enable the professional education of women, many of whom would be the first in their families to obtain a college degree.

George Hermann DerryThe system of education that Dr. Derry devised—and the IHM faculty shaped—derived from a theory of education based on the liberal arts. An art, according to Dr. Derry, was the right way of doing a thing.

The Marygrove Idea, as this philosophy came to be known to generations of alumnae, encouraged Marygrove women to develop personal power in themselves, to be driving forces in their chosen fields, to act consciously on their own values, and to be proficient in what Dr. Derry considered the seven liberal arts:

  • the art of behavior before God
  • the art of behavior within society among persons
  • the art of expression
  • the art of reasoning
  • the art of historical realization
  • the art of leisure
  • the art of making a living

The test of a college, Dr. Derry believed, was what its graduates were and could do.

Certainly one woman who embodied what the Marygrove woman ought to be was Sister Honora Jack, IHM, president of the College for twenty-four years, from 1937-1961. Her history at Marygrove began in 1927 as the first English professor, and she served as dean of the college from 1930-1937.

Under her direction, the curriculum emphasized speaking and writing skills, critical thinking, and collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. In what Sister Honora called a system of “planned integration” and today's educators would describe as a series of synthesizing experiences, Marygrove students moved through a course of study that included a freshman orientation, a sophomore open-forum, and junior-senior seminars. These classes required students to thoroughly research and write a paper, then present it orally, discuss it, and defend it in the company of students and faculty from several disciplines. So that Marygrove women would move naturally into what Sister Honora thought of as “the normal work-life of the world,” she inaugurated an academic requirement of “professional contacts.” Each department required its students to attend a certain number of professional meetings related to the major field each semester. The tradition of professional contacts is still in place in several of Marygrove's academic departments.

Sister Honora's educational vision was recognized in 1943 when the Association of American Universities, an association of graduate schools, placed Marygrove on the approved list. This was the highest possible rating for an undergraduate institution at the time. In 1947, the American Association of University Women accepted Marygrove as a corporate member.

Student involvement in community service was also an important educational value for Sister Honora, so important that she created the staff position of director of social action. The director's chief function was to provide direction, counseling, and supervision of students in volunteer activities, ranging from hospitals to schools to social service agencies. By the early 1950s, two-thirds of Marygrove students were involved in volunteer service and the College's program received several national awards.

In the late 1950s, Sister Honora also formed a lay board, which met as an advisory group to the president, a forerunner of today's Board of Trustees. At the time, it was considered progressive to involve lay people in policy making at a Catholic religious institution.

When Marygrove celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1960, Sister Honora launched a major development drive for the construction of the new library wing. She said at the time, “We have not asked for gifts, but for investment. And no investment brings higher interest in human influence than does the investment in the education of women.”

The assertive presidency of Sister Mary Emil Penet, IHM, from 1961-1968, brought national attention to the College, not the least because of Sister Mary Emil's own adamant belief in the education of women. In the early 1950s, she had played a key role in promoting the highest possible academic standards for teaching nuns throughout the United States, an idea not always popular in official Church circles when the sisters temporarily left teaching posts to attend graduate schools across the country.

Committed to social reform and to educational justice, Sister Mary Emil undertook two initiatives that have continued to influence Marygrove today. One was Marygrove's early membership in the Fitzgerald Community Council, a neighborhood organization committed to integrating the northwest Detroit area. On October 8, 1963, she said in a press conference: “The acid test of our sincerity in banding together in this Community Council is whether in our heart of hearts we ever would want a lily-white neighborhood here if we could have it. Marygrove would not want it.”

Sister Mary Emil's other initiative was her key leadership role in winning legislative support for the Michigan Tuition Grant Program. This program, begun in 1966, was the first to provide state grant money to students who might not otherwise be able to afford a private Michigan college. Today, nearly every student attending Marygrove is a direct beneficiary of Sister Mary Emil's vision.

In terms of curriculum, Sister Mary Emil's legacy to the College included two major revisions in the general education program, each of which grew from her realization that the world at the end of the 20th century would be increasingly interdependent and multicultural.

Marygrove's social science sequence still offers Marygrove students the tools for critically analyzing our social system from the perspectives of economics, sociology, political science, and psychology. It is a sequence that continues to embody the College's and the IHM Congregation's shared commitment to action on behalf of justice. Sister Mary Emil was also the architect of a required 16-credit-hour sequence of courses in the humanities that emphasized world cultures, an idea even now being discussed and implemented in colleges across the country.

Marygrove's growing responsiveness to the Detroit community took on new and deeper dimensions in 1967 after the urban rebellion in Detroit. Recognizing Marygrove's own insularity, Interim President Sister Jane Mary Howard, IHM initiated “68 for '68”— a recruitment program designed to attract 68 additional black students for the fall, 1968 term. It included offering one scholarship to a senior from every public high school in Detroit, and the program also reached into the parochial schools of both Detroit and Philadelphia. Within a year, 25 percent of the 260 first year students were black, more closely reflecting the changing demographics of the metropolitan area and of Marygrove's own neighborhood.

For a three-year period in the late sixties and early seventies, under the presidency of Dr. Arthur Brown, the first lay president since Dr. Derry and the first Marygrove president elected by a lay board of trustees, Marygrove initiated a series of changes that marked it as a flexible urban institution open to change. In addition to inviting students to join the administrative processes and to participate in curricular decisions, the College instituted the Division of Continuing Education and Community Service, an educational outreach and service program that today draws thousands of children and adults onto the campus. The College extended the Marygrove mission by including men, more transfer students, and associate degree candidates in the student body.

After a decade of almost uninterrupted change, the Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Raymond Fleck to the presidency. Dr. Fleck presided over the College in a time of great economic and financial difficulty, both for the College itself and for the city and state. Nonetheless, under his administration, Marygrove rededicated itself to the Detroit community by firmly rejecting recommendations that it relocate to the suburbs. In addition, the College community revised, for the first time since 1953, Marygrove's mission statement, identifying competence, compassion, and commitment as essential goals of the institution itself and of its students. Those goals remain in place in the Marygrove of the 1990s.

In 1980, Dr. John E. Shay, Jr., assumed the presidency after a twenty-year career in student affairs at the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Shay's administration saw the institution of aggressive financial management practices, major federal and state grant support, dramatic growth in the College's continuing education programs, creation of the Allied Health unit, the inauguration of the Master in the Art of Teaching degree, and a significant upswing in enrollment.

Under Dr. Shay’s leadership, Marygrove’s strong Board of Trustees began to reflect more truly the Detroit community, and the College renewed and strengthened its ties with the IHM Congregation. In addition, Marygrove enjoyed fifteen years of balanced budgets, no significant debt, a successful $7.5 million capital campaign, and the launching of the $21-million 21st Century Initiative — a fund-raising effort designed to position the College for the new millennium.

Following Dr. Shay’s retirement in 1997 Marygrove’s longstanding executive vice president, Sister Andrea Lee, IHM, served as interim president before her appointment to the presidency of the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1998 the Marygrove College Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Glenda D. Price, former provost of Spelman College, Atlanta, as Marygrove’s seventh president.Dr. Price is the first African-American woman to hold the Marygrove presidency.

Dr. Price immediately implemented the Griots program, an initiative to increase the number of African-American male teachers in metro Detroit school systems, an idea that had been proposed in Dr. Shay’s administration. With significant increased funding from major local and regional foundations, she also initiated, in rapid order, study abroad, honors, and research assistant programs; Onstage!, an arts education outreach effort directed to Detroit children and youth; “Defining Detroit,” an acclaimed series of multidisciplinary presentations in honor of Detroit’s 300th anniversary, which evolved into the Institute for Detroit Studies; an annual Academic Colloquium; affiliation with the Faculty Resource Network at NYU and the National Science Foundation’s Project Kaleidoscope; and two additional institutes: the Institute of Music and Dance and the Women’s Leadership Institute. Because of President Price’s deep involvement in the Detroit civic and corporate communities, the College was able to establish new programmatic partnerships with the Detroit Public Schools. The Skillman Foundation, University of Detroit Mercy, and Lawrence Technological University. Men’s and women’s basketball teams took to the courts, and new strategies to strengthen Marygrove’s relationship with alumni won national foundation support.

During her administration, Marygrove set new strategic goals, developed a campus master plan, and began implementing an ambitious information technology plan. The College won support for the $3 million renovation and full upgrade of the Marygrove Theatre, which re-opened on Founders Day, November 10, 2002, the 75th anniversary of Marygrove College in the City of Detroit. A large federal grant allowed the mathematics and science division to begin the complete modernization of its facilities, including new faculty-student research labs, state-of-the-art smart classrooms, and first-rate teaching laboratories. Renewal of the campus infrastructure, particularly in the area of technology, were matched by an equally strong record of faculty research and publications, each positioning Marygrove for growth in the 21st century.

With President Price’s retirement at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year, Marygrove inaugurated Dr. David Fike as Marygrove's eighth president in 2007.

If today Marygrove’s educational mission and place in the city seem secure, that security may, ironically, be born of an early history that seemed to thrive only in insecurity and risk-taking. When Theresa Maxis left her Baltimore community for Monroe in 1845, taking with her only a vision of education and a fierce determination to make a difference, she could not have been certain what limitations her race and gender would impose upon her. Nor could she have entirely imagined where her faith would take her, or what institutions that faith might lead her to create. At Marygrove in the 21st century, however, we know what Theresa Maxis couldn’t have known. We can say with certainty that she would be very proud of what her 1845 St. Mary Academy has become.

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