Hence degrees may be conferred on women: DePaul's first female graduates

The summer school class of 1912
DePaul's summer school class of 1912. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
The close of an academic year provides us an opportunity to look back on graduations from years past. The graduation that took place in June 1912 is notable because it included Sister Mary Clemenza, B.V.M. and Sister Mary Teresita, the first women to graduate from DePaul University. Their graduation was not only a first for DePaul, but also a first for the city of Chicago.

Like most events from the earliest days of DePaul’s history, the details surrounding how women became students at DePaul can be contradictory. The idea seems to have originated with the Most Reverend James Edward Quigley, D.D., then Archbishop of Chicago. In December 1910, Archbishop Quigley reached out to DePaul’s then president, the Very Reverend Francis X. McCabe, C.M., emphasizing the need for an “institution of higher learning which would furnish to women the opportunity to continue their education.” Though most public universities in the city were coeducational by this time, there was a growing concern that Catholic women in Chicago had no way to continue their educations “under Catholic auspices.” Thus, when DePaul opened its summer school session to nuns and public school teachers in July 1911, it became the first Catholic coeducational institution in Chicago.

The summer school session was a roaring success, with the total number of students enrolled ranging from 75 to 125 students, depending upon the source. DePaul continued to offer extension classes open to women during the 1911-12 academic year. Held in the evenings and Saturday mornings, the classes continued to be both successful and highly valued. Fr. McCabe recognized the opportunity fairly quickly, and met with the leadership of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters as early as February 1912 in the hopes of forming an educational alliance. However, the eventual failure of this alliance led to the founding of Rosary College, known today as Dominican University.

Though it would take many more years of advocacy on Fr. McCabe’s part to get women admitted to DePaul as regular students, a feat that wasn’t accomplished until after the end of World War I, that did not stop DePaul from granting women degrees. The brochure for the 1911 summer session confronts the topic of awarding degrees to women head-on, arguing DePaul’s charter gave the university the ability to award degrees to members of both sexes. 

“The Charter of DePaul University, which bears the seal of the State of Illinois under the date of December 24th, 1907, gives the right to ‘provide, impart and furnish opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms.’ Hence degrees may be conferred on women.” 

Thus, DePaul awarded degrees to its first female graduates in June of 1912.

Determining who exactly these graduates were became a problem for university historians later on. The program for the 1912 commencement ceremony hadn’t survived and the ceremony took place a full decade before “The DePaulia” or the yearbook came into being. 

Correspondence from the 1950s provides further confusion by pointing out the Illinois College of Law had long admitted female students when affiliated with DePaul in 1912, and the school even had a female faculty member, B. Elizabeth Lane. The same correspondence also identifies the first woman to graduate from DePaul as Sr. Mary Lambertina, B.V.M., despite the fact multiple issues of “The DePaulia”  and the yearbook recorded Sisters Clemenza and Teresita as the first since the 1920s. While Sr. Mary Lambertina was one of the earliest female graduates, Sr. Mary Clemenza, B.V.M., and Sr. Mary Teresita were the first, receiving their degrees in June of 1912.

Though it would be a few more years before DePaul admitted women as regular full-time students, Sisters Clemenza and Teresita stand out both as trailblazers and harbingers of DePaul’s future commitment to diversity. DePaul and Fr. McCabe’s willingness to open doors for a whole generation of Catholic women was an early indicator of DePaul’s commitment to diversity, which thrives to this day.

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