When Bishop John Hughes purchased 106 acres of land at Rose Hill in the Fordham section of what was then Westchester County to begin a Catholic college, he didn’t have the money to fulfill his debt.
But that didn’t stop him.
When the first academic year opened in 1841 with a mere six students, he still continued with his mission to create an institution for the fledgling archdiocese. He knew that it “would indeed require intellectual wattage,” said Cardinal Dolan regarding his predecessor—the first Archbishop of New York and founder of St. John’s College, as Fordham University was first known.
The cardinal spoke those words during his homily Oct. 1 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during a Mass in celebration of Fordham’s 175th anniversary to a congregation of students, alumni, benefactors, board, faculty and staff. Members of the Jesuits, the religious order that has run the school since 1846, were also in attendance. Cardinal Dolan referred to them as “the heart and the mind and the soul” of the university.
“As Msgr. Thomas Shelley notes in his sterling new history, it was precisely to increase our faith that the one called ‘Dagger John’ took the risk to open an institution of higher learning under the mantle of Holy Mother Church,” said the cardinal referring to the newly published book “Fordham: A History of the Jesuit University of New York: 1841-2003.”
The cardinal, who wore the pectoral cross of Archbishop Hughes during the Mass, continued speaking of Archbishop Hughes. “Convinced was he that this brewing Catholic community in this city he knew would become the capital of the world would indeed require intellectual wattage,” the cardinal said.
For its first 70 years, however, Fordham struggled and remained a small liberal arts college where there was little change in the enrollment, classes or the strict daily routine put in place by the Jesuits. Based on the rules of religious life the Jesuits were familiar with, students were expected to wake at 6 a.m., attend Mass daily, return to their rooms by 7 p.m. and be in bed by 9 o’clock.
“In 1890 the Grand Concourse was laid out through the central spine of the Bronx and in 1901 the Third Avenue El reached Fordham…Thomas Gaffney Taaffe, an alumnus and Fordham’s first historian, marveled that the campus still remained an oasis of peace and quiet only a dozen miles from Gotham, but even he admitted that the rural character of the area was fast disappearing, especially on Fordham Heights, where the little cottage of Edgar Allan Poe was now surrounded by tall buildings,” writes Msgr. Shelley, a priest of the archdiocese who is a professor emeritus at Fordham.
St. John’s College began the transformation to Fordham University in 1905. Two years later, the charter was officially changed to Fordham University.
The 1920s were “boom years” for Fordham. “The university could boast of a rapidly expanding enrollment on both the undergraduate and graduate levels and an impressive building program at Rose Hill,” according to the book.
“By 1921 the total enrollment in the university reached 2,157 and more than doubled four years later to 4,466,” writes Msgr. Shelley. However, the fast expansion spelled disaster for the school in the 1930s, and in 1935, the Association of American Universities dropped Fordham from the list of approved schools. Father Robert Gannon, S.J., who served as president from 1936 to 1949, restored the university’s reputation and academic standards and was responsible for creating Fordham’s radio station, WFUV.
Further expansion came in the 1960s, when the cornerstone for the Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan was laid. The campus there was created after seven and a half acres of land were purchased by Father Laurence McGinley, S.J., president, who asked New York City planner Robert Moses if he could rent space in the new Coliseum building at Columbus Circle.
Msgr. Shelley writes, “Instead Moses offered to bring McGinley in on the urban renewal project that he was planning in the run-down area one block west of the Coliseum. ‘When he mentioned acres, I couldn’t believe it,’ said Father McGinley. ‘I never heard of anyone talk about New York real estate in terms of acres.’”
A successful Excelsior/Ever Upward Campaign launched in 2009 raised more than $500 million, with the single largest contribution in school history from Mario J. Gabelli, College of Business Administration, class of 1965, who gave $25 million.
Cardinal Dolan said Fordham is “an institution of scholarship” that “has blended wisdom, learning, service and faith” throughout its long history. Fordham has upheld “Our ancient Catholic belief that faith and reason are allies, both gifts from almighty God meant to act in concert, not conflict,” said the cardinal.
“Every expression of wisdom and study—sure, theology and philosophy—but also math and science, chemistry and business, and art and literature, history—speaks in some way of Jesus, the word made flesh,” he said.
Father Joseph McShane, S.J., the president of Fordham since 2003, told CNY, that his anniversary prayer is that “Fordham will joyfully recommit to its historic mission devoted to the service of faith, the advancement of learning, the formation of character and the promotion of justice.
“In the long term, I want Fordham to be recognized as a shining example of what Jesuit/Catholic education is and can be: a force for the transformation of the world and the building up of world in which the Gospel comes to life with attractive and persuasive force.”
Current Fordham students seem to recognize that. “I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, so I knew that enrolling in a Catholic university would allow me to further deepen my spirituality and connect with other students who share my beliefs,” said Annie Young, a sophomore at Fordham College, Rose Hill.
“I was drawn to the Jesuits because of their integration of spirituality into one’s daily life.”
A choir member at the anniversary Mass, she said, “Hearing a homily from the Archbishop of New York, singing such ancient music and taking in the sheer magnificence of St. Patrick’s Cathedral all reminded me of how unbelievably lucky I am to go to a school like Fordham.”
Another Rose Hill student, freshman Stephanie Albert, shared what drew her to attend Fordham. “I went to Catholic school my whole life. I wanted to continue my Catholic education,” she said. “The Jesuit motto (strive for excellence, care for others, fight for justice) really spoke to me, and I wanted to be close to New York City.”
As for the Mass and the many in attendance, she said, “It’s been a really special celebration. For me, this is a very strong representation of the community that Fordham creates, no matter when you went there.”
Alumnus Edward Mikus III, a history major from the Class of 2015, proudly wore his class ring. “Fordham was a huge part of my life for four years,” he said. “I wanted to come and honor the university and celebrate the 175th anniversary.”
“There was a sense of friendship and cosmopolitanism fostered there. It’s something I totally would do over if I could. I’m glad it’s been a part of my life, and looking at this church, it’s been an important part of so many other people’s lives, too.”