In October 1841, two Augustinians from Saint Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia, Father Thomas Kyle and Father Patrick Moriarty, purchased “Belle Air” in Radnor Township with the intention of starting a school. The property belonged to the estate of John Rudolph whose wife, Jane Lloyd Rudolph, was a close friend of the Augustinians who served at Saint Augustine’s. The Augustinians were frequent visitors to Belle Air, having celebrated Mass in the Rudolphs’ home for Catholics in the area. A few years after John Rudolph’s death in 1838, Jane Rudolph generously agreed to sell the estate to the Augustinians for $18,000, well below its reported worth of $40,000.
Legal title to the property, comprising approximately 200 acres with the mansion and outbuildings, was conveyed in 1843. The school was called the “Augustinian College of Villanova” and placed under the patronage of Saint Thomas of Villanova, a sixteenth-century Augustinian theologian, educator, and bishop of Valencia, Spain. The College gave its name to the town that eventually grew up around it. The Augustinians hoped Villanova would become a center for the renewal of Augustinian religious life, a place where they could receive novices for the Order and educate candidates for the priesthood, and an academy for boys. Although men of vision, the early Augustinians could have no idea of the hardships they would endure or even of how successful their project would become. Whether they had an indication that they had become part of a national movement that began in the early and mid-nineteenth century to found institutions of higher learning is a matter of conjecture. The evidence suggests that these Augustinians knew their future lay in education, as they had established, briefly, an academy at Saint Augustine’s in 1811. Other religiously affiliated educational institutions were also being established in the Philadelphia area.
Father John Possidius O’Dwyer was named president, and the classes for the new college began on 18 September 1843. The class of thirteen students embarked on a traditional liberal arts curriculum taught by Father O’Dwyer, two other Augustinians, Father Francis Ashe and Father William Hartnett, a diocesan priest, Father Florimond Bondue, and two laymen, Mr. E. A. Ansley, and Mr. William Dalton. At the outset, however, difficulties plagued the new College. The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” riots in Philadelphia in 1844 resulted in the burning of Saint Augustine’s Church. The need to rebuild the church and maintain the new college created a financial crisis for the Order. As a result, the College closed its doors on 20 February 1845. It was able to reopen in September 1846, with a student population of twenty-four, and the first commencement took place on 21 July 1847. The following year, on 10 March 1848, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Francis R. Shunk, signed the Act of Legislature incorporating “The Augustinian College of Villanova in the State of Pennsylvania for the education of persons in the various branches of science, literature, and ancient and modern languages,” and conferring on Villanova College “the power to grant and confirm such degrees in the Arts and Sciences.”
In 1857, Villanova College closed for a second time. Demands on the services of priests through the expansion of parishes in the area created staffing problems for the Augustinians, while the “Panic of 1857” brought on hard economic times. The Civil War in 1861 affected student enrollment, and the College was not reopened until September 1865. In the years that followed, the College prospered, increasing its student population and adding significantly to its physical facilities.
The first great expansion of Villanova began in the late 1890s under Father John J. Fedigan, who served as president and, later, as the provincial of the Augustinians. Father Fedigan wanted Villanova to be a college that would “rank among the best in the United States.” He embarked on an ambitious building campaign that resulted in the construction of new college buildings, improved dormitories, expanded recreational facilities, and the acquiring of new instructional equipment.
Although in the first fifty years of its existence Villanova College concentrated exclusively on the liberal arts, it nevertheless remained open to the changes in the curriculum which were required to meet the needs of the time and the demands for specialization. The School of Technology was established in 1905 under the presidency of Father Laurence Delurey and, in 1915, a two-year pre-medical program was established under the presidency of Father Edward C. Dohan, in recognition of the new requirements for candidates wishing to matriculate in approved medical schools. This, in turn, led to the establishment of a four-year pre-medical program, the B.S. in biology, and the founding of the sciences division in 1926 under Father Joseph M. Dougherty, who became the first dean. Father Dougherty, a recognized authority on the Mendelian Laws of Heredity, was also instrumental in establishing the University’s prestigious Mendel Medal, which honors the memory of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian Abbot and discoverer of the laws of heredity, and recognizes the research of accomplished scientists whose lives demonstrate religious conviction.
Beginning in 1918, the College offered programs to women religious, in large part to assist in their preparation to teach in the parochial school system, and to lay women. Evening classes, open to both men and women, were held first at Hallahan High School in Philadelphia, and then on the main campus. The first degree was granted to a lay woman in 1938. The presence of women on a full-time basis on the main campus, however, only became permanent with the opening of the College of Nursing as an autonomous unit in 1953. The move toward receiving women as full-time students on the main campus took another major step when the College of Engineering admitted its first female student in 1958 and the other academic divisions were allowed to admit women as commuters.
The Great Depression posed new challenges to Villanova. The College was fortunate to have as its president Father Edward V. Stanford (1932-1944) who had held various positions in national and regional higher education organizations. Enrollments had plummeted in the 1930s and Father Stanford realized that if the College was to survive, it needed to emphasize quality in the curriculum, implement extensive administrative reorganization, and raise funds for scholarships and the endowment. Although World War II intervened, Father Stanford’s efforts met with measurable success. Under his successor, Father Francis X. N. McGuire (1944-1954), Villanova experienced its great post-war expansion. With the number of returning veterans, enrollments increased dramatically and the size of faculty grew fourfold. Additional facilities were built and in 1953, the College of Nursing and the School of Law were established. In recognition of its enhanced academic programs and reputation, Villanova achieved university status on 18 November 1953.
In 1968, Villanova became coeducational under the presidency of Father Robert J. Welsh (1967-1971). Father Welsh was previously dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and later president of the Washington Theological Union in Washington, DC. Under Father John Driscoll (1975-1988), Villanova embarked on a campaign to become a nationally recognized university. During the 1970s and 1980s, the quality of both the faculty and student body improved dramatically and international studies programs were introduced. Residential and recreational facilities were constructed and efforts to increase the endowment were undertaken. Full-scale university planning was initiated and, in an effort to affirm Villanova’s mission as a Catholic, Augustinian institution, the University Mission Statement was adopted in 1979.
The efforts to improve academic quality that were initiated by Father Driscoll continue under Father Edmund J. Dobbin, who assumed the presidency in 1988. Under his direction, Villanova’s strategic plan, A Future of Promise, A Future of Excellence, which followed upon the 1991 planning efforts, was promulgated in 1995. The plan reiterated the University’s Catholic, Augustinian mission, its commitment to the liberal arts, and the need to augment its efforts to increase the endowment. Endowed chairs were established in theology, philosophy, engineering, and business; scholarship funding was increased, and the curriculum expanded and improved. An extensive building campaign was also initiated that has resulted in new facilities for the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Commerce and Finance, and in impressive student residences on the south and the west campuses.
Today, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences continues to advance a comprehensive core curriculum and a variety of educational programs. Undergraduate students may choose between 32 undergraduate majors, 43 minors, and 16 interdisciplinary concentrations in various disciplines. Students also may pursue interdisciplinary tracks in ethics, gender and women’s studies, peace and justice education, Africana studies, Arab and Islamic studies, Asian studies, global studies, Irish studies, Latin American studies, or Russian area studies. The College also offers 15 combined bachelor’s/-master’s programs, 23 master’s degree programs, and a Ph.D. program in philosophy. All of the College’s undergraduate and graduate programs are aimed at the total growth of the individual and prepare students for viable careers. In keeping with its central place in a Catholic university, the College endeavors to provide a Christian intellectual and moral environment, and draws upon the dynamic legacy of St. Augustine, whose passionate pursuit of wisdom inspires its own quest for knowledge in open, rational, responsible, and mutually respectful interaction of points of view. The College embodies the University’s Catholic and Augustinian heritage, expecting that its students will be both inspired and prepared to be wise critics of the society in which they live, grounded in a moral base and social consciousness that transcends economic barriers and questions of race, gender, and creed. The College has maintained the Sigma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa since 1986, an honor conferred primarily in recognition of outstanding scholarly achievement in the liberal arts and sciences.