Seattle University celebrates 125 years of Jesuit education

  • Written by Brad Broberg
  • Published in Local
After Seattle University’s Mass of the Holy Spirit on Sept. 29, the university’s president, Jesuit Father Stephen Sundborg, led a procession from Immaculate Conception Church down Marion Street and onto campus. From left are first-year student Justin Clark, alumna Anita Crawford-Willis, Father Sundborg, student body president Jose Carlos Rodriguez, and instructor Dung Tran. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University After Seattle University’s Mass of the Holy Spirit on Sept. 29, the university’s president, Jesuit Father Stephen Sundborg, led a procession from Immaculate Conception Church down Marion Street and onto campus. From left are first-year student Justin Clark, alumna Anita Crawford-Willis, Father Sundborg, student body president Jose Carlos Rodriguez, and instructor Dung Tran. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

SEATTLE – In 1891, Seattle was a distant logging town with a splendid harbor, a growing population and a humble parish school that one day would become Seattle University.

Father Diomedi
After Jesuit Father Victor Garrand became ill, Jesuit Father Alexander Diomedi (seen seated here with two unidentified priests standing behind him) took over as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish. The parish school eventually became Seattle College, today Seattle University. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

If the two Jesuit founders, Fathers Victor Garrand and Adrian Sweere, strolled the 50-acre campus today — 125 years later — they would “walk around in utter amazement,” said Jesuit Father Stephen Sundborg, Seattle University’s president.

But they would also be pleased, he said, because the Jesuit philosophy of education they championed endures at the 7,500-student university.

“The thing that distinguishes the Jesuits is that they’re trying to educate the whole person. They’re not just trying to teach you a vocation,” said Joe Gaffney, an alum and member of the board of trustees. “The focus on service and inspiring people to help change the world is alive at Seattle University.”

The university kicked off its 125th anniversary Sept. 29 with a Mass of the Holy Spirit at Immaculate Conception Church, followed by a campus procession and a barbecue on the campus’ Union Green. More events will follow (see box).

“This isn’t the 125th anniversary of an institution,” Father Sundborg said in an interview. “This is the 125th anniversary of a legacy of a lot of people who gave their lives to a commitment to the church and to Jesuit education.”

Started in a rented hall

Seattle U’s history begins with Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine, who founded Seattle’s first Catholic church, Our Lady of Good Help, in 1867. Although the Sisters of the Holy Names established Seattle’s first Catholic school in 1880, Prefontaine pleaded with the Jesuits to open a school for boys. After repeated appeals, the Jesuits dispatched Fathers Garrand and Sweere, who started Immaculate Conception Parish and School in a rented downtown hall.

Seattle College boys in 1902
Seattle College students in a geometry class in 1902. The university originally offered only instruction for grade school and high school boys. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

Although it was eventually rechristened “Seattle College,” enrollment initially was limited to grade school and high school students.

“They didn’t have the first three graduates from the college division until 18 years after [the school] was founded,” Father Sundborg said.

The first permanent building on today’s Capitol Hill campus — now known as Garrand Hall — opened in 1894. Constructed by German and Irish immigrants who volunteered their labor, the building housed the church, classrooms and Jesuit living quarters.

In 1919, Seattle College migrated about 2.5 miles north, to a location where Seattle Preparatory School stands today. After a period of struggle and doubt about the school’s direction, a cadre of five Jesuits led the college back to its original home in 1931 — a critical turning point that cemented the institution’s future at its present campus, Father Sundborg said.

Mass Holy Spirit
Seattle University kicked off its 125th anniversary Sept. 29 with a Mass of the Holy Spirit at Immaculate Conception Church. About 750 people attended. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

Engaging in social justice

The two decades following World War II were “the golden years,” he said. Returning GIs swelled enrollment, the college became a university, the men’s basketball team was a national power and a wave of construction began — all under the leadership of Jesuit Father Albert Lemieux, who became president in 1948.

In the same way Father Lemieux greatly expanded the campus, Jesuit Father William Sullivan greatly expanded the connection to the community when he became president in 1976. “He developed it into more of a university of the city,” Father Sundborg said.

Seattle University used to be the “best-kept secret throughout the city,” said Dave Madsen, an SU history professor and alum. 

“Now what you have is a university that … prides itself on the fact it is engaging social justice issues not just in the immediate vicinity of campus, but in Africa and South America and Central America,” Madsen said. “No one would have thought of that scope of activity when I started here as a student or even as a faculty member.”

Over the last 50 years, the size of the Jesuit faculty and staff at Seattle University has dwindled from 62 to 17. Educating lay faculty and staff in the Jesuit tradition is a major focus for Father Sundborg, who is beginning his 20th year as president.

“The future of Seattle University is going to be Jesuit,” he said, “but it will be carried forward not by Jesuits so much as by lay leaders who are knowledgeable and inspired by the Jesuit educational philosophy.”

campus picnic
Following the Mass and procession, 1,250 members of the Seattle University community celebrated the school’s anniversary with a picnic and music on the campus green across from the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Photo: Courtesy Seattle University

SU anniversary events

Seattle University is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a series of events. Here is a sampling:

Oct. 25: “Seattle University at 125,” a lecture by Jesuit Father Tom Lucas, Seattle University rector.

Oct. 27: Bestselling author T.C. Boyle discusses his latest novel, “The Terranauts,” as part of the 125th anniversary speaker series.

Nov. 5: The annual gala, which supports student scholarships, will pay special tribute to the school’s rich history and envision its future. 

For more events and details, visit the anniversary webpage.