Gonzaga University

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/21/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8097

Father Joseph Cataldo (1837-1928) founded Gonzaga College in 1887 as a Jesuit school for boys in the muddy pioneer town of Spokane.  The campus, on a choice parcel of land on the Spokane River, soon attracted boarding students from around the West and day students from the growing city of Spokane. By the turn of the century, it had a new church, a new four-story brick hall, and 244 students, making it the largest Catholic college in the Northwest. The school was divided between a preparatory department for younger students and an academic department for older students. It soon acquired a baseball team, a symphony, and a military cadet corps. A grand brick,  double-spired St. Aloysius Church was completed in 1911. In 1912, Gonzaga College became Gonzaga University and the Gonzaga School of Law opened. Football became a Gonzaga University passion as early as 1892 -- but was dropped in 1942. The school's most famous alumnus, Bing Crosby (1903-1977), dropped out of his pre-law studies in the 1924 after deciding that his future lay in jazz rather than jurisprudence. The school weathered a financial crisis during the Great Depression and during World War II, lost most of its regular students to wartime service, but became a center for U.S. Navy training programs. In 1948, the school admitted women for the first time and began a period of modernization and expansion. It remained a Jesuit institution, but by 1965, Jesuits made up only a third of the faculty. By 1990, it had acquired professional accreditation in such fields as law, nursing, engineering, and business. In the 1990s and 2000s, the university became known nationally for its basketball success. As of 2007, total enrollment topped 6,000 and Gonzaga was thriving more than it ever had in its 120-year history.

From Mission School to Catholic College 

In the broadest sense, Gonzaga College may have actually been born in 1880 in a tiny rough-hewn schoolhouse on Peone Prairie, about 12 miles northeast of Spokane. There, Father Cataldo opened a day school for the Upper Spokane Indian children at St. Michael's Mission. Cataldo, who had been working with the Northwest Indians since 1865, recognized that if the Jesuits were to continue their Indian mission work, they must build Catholic schools and colleges for the brightest young Indian men. Cataldo was worried not only about their intellectual and spiritual advancement, but also that Indian students would be lured away by the region's new Protestant schools.

Over the next few years, Cataldo’s plans rapidly evolved. By 1881, he and the other Jesuit leaders had begun to dream of a large Catholic Jesuit college, located right in the growing city of Spokane Falls (which would soon drop the word "Falls"). He chose the site because it was central to the Jesuit missions scattered in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. A complicated land deal ensued, resulting in the purchase in 1881 of 320 acres of prime riverfront land just east of the city's growing business district. The town's founders were so enamored with the idea of a college on that site -- which remains today the core of the Gonzaga campus -- that they promised Cataldo funds to help build his college. The only catch -- they expected it to be a college for white students.

Cataldo still thought of the college as a place to educate Indians. He wrote to Rome to say that if the Catholics didn't build a school to educate Indians in the region, then "within a few years the fruit of forty years of missionary endeavor will be rotted" (Schoenberg). Yet he soon came around to the idea that it would be even more attractive to Indian students if it also had some white students. He also warned his superiors in Rome that if he couldn't start building a college soon, the town fathers would give their money to the Methodists.

Yet it wasn't until 1886 that work began in earnest on the college, which had finally acquired an official name: Gonzaga College, named after St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of youth.

Beginnings: Very Strict and All White

"The building is unquestionably the most commanding and imposing one in the Northwest," wrote Spokane’s Morning Review newspaper on New Year's Day, 1887. "The probable cost when completed will be considerably over $30,000" (Schoenberg).

The college also acquired its first Father Superior, Father James Rebmann. After a scramble to complete the building and gather a Jesuit faculty, Gonzaga College officially opened on September 17, 1887. A total of seven students were in attendance. The faculty was 17 strong, all either Jesuit priests or scholastics (those training to join the priesthood).

A few days after the opening, Father Joseph Joset, a Jesuit missionary, arrived with two Indian boys and tried to register them. Father Rebmann informed him that the school was only for white boys. Somewhere along the way, Father Cataldo's original concept had vanished. By the end of the school year, enrollment had risen to 18 boys, all white.

That number did not include two boys who had already been expelled. There were many ways to get expelled, including any public lapse in immorality, the most serious of which were theft, disobedience, and "impurity." The boys were not allowed to go anywhere without supervision; a scholastic chaperoned them even on a walk into town.

The student's days were strictly regimented during those first years. Students had to rise six days a week at 5:30 a.m. and work or study nearly non-stop until lights-out at 8:30 p.m. They attended Mass every day and twice on Sundays. No alcohol or cigarettes were tolerated, although the older boys were allowed one cigar on special occasions, such as the school picnic. Students had to pass rigorous examinations for advancement; some students became ill at just the thought of these exams. One Montana student ran away and others were pulled out by their parents. Two other disgruntled boys left in disgust, although one of the fathers declared that "the dissatisfaction was mutual" (Schoenberg). Out of the 35 enrolled, a total of 27 boys made it to the end of the second year.

The faculty endured plenty of early turnover as well. By 1890, only three of the original faculty members remained. At the top, Father Rebmann had been replaced by Father Mackin, who was replaced by  Father John Baptist Rene in 1891, who was replaced by Father Leopold Van Gorp in 1893.

Developing and Playing Ball

The school was divided into the traditional divisions common in Jesuit schools at the time. A preparatory division resembled what we would now call elementary school; an academic section, consisting of Third, Second, and First divisions, resembled what we would now call high school; and the Poetry, Rhetoric, and Philosophy divisions constituted the equivalent of a modern liberal arts college.

By 1892, the school was finally out of its infancy and beginning to grow. A new hall, dormitory and the Victorian-style wood-framed St. Aloysius Church were completed. Electricity had been installed in all of the buildings. Enrollment was up well over 50. Even better for student morale: Gonzaga had formed a baseball team, which regularly beat teams from the town.

Baseball was a mild diversion compared with the sport called "college-down," i.e., football, which arrived on campus on Thanksgiving Day, 1892. A reporter on hand said that first game was noteworthy for the "absence of slugging." Football became a Gonzaga passion for the next several years, until it was banned (and not for the last time) as being too dangerous.

By 1894, two boys had been at the school long enough to receive Gonzaga's first Bachelor of Arts degrees. Gonzaga's enrollment was growing so quickly that the campus couldn't keep up with it. So in 1897 grand plans were announced for a huge new college building, four stories tall and, according to the Review, the largest building in the city.

New Gonzaga

New Gonzaga, as the building was called to distinguish it from the older college building, was completed in 1899. It remains today the center of Gonzaga life and academics. The rest of the campus was transformed as well by the turn of the century. The school's original buildings, including the church, were picked up and moved to new locations on the campus, closer to the New Gonzaga and away from the noisy railroad tracks. By 1906, enrollment reached 483 students, taught by 20 Jesuits, eight scholastics and 10 lay professors. Gonzaga's total Jesuit community totaled 76.

In 1906, disaster struck when typhoid fever swept through the school, killing four boys and threatening Gonzaga's very existence. School was dismissed six weeks early to protect the boys and to track down the source of the outbreak. The source turned out to be a plunge bath (a small swimming pool) popular among the boys. The outbreak resulted in two changes; the water in the plunge bath was renewed continually and a fine pressed-brick infirmary was built.

Academic Developments 

The school was transformed in three important ways during its 25th Jubilee year of 1911-1912. First, a grand new twin-spired brick church was built to replace the school's original wood-framed church. This new St. Aloysius Church was dedicated in 1911 and remains the center of the campus' religious life. Second, Gonzaga College officially became Gonzaga University during the Jubilee celebration in 1912.

Acquisition of university status cleared the way that same year for the opening of the Gonzaga School of Law, which would grow to become an increasingly important part of the Gonzaga community. It is today the only law school in Eastern Washington and one of only three law schools in the state. It began as a night school to accommodate its students, many of whom worked during the day, and its faculty, who practiced law in the city by day. It remained exclusively a night school until 1970.

Football at Gonzaga

Football, revived in 1907, became a Gonzaga craze in the 1920s, even though the sport and its growing dominance were still viewed with ambivalence by the Jesuit administration and faculty. Yet the students, the city, and the alumni loved many of those early Gonzaga teams and they led a cry in 1920 for a new stadium to push Gonzaga football into the big time.

The first game in the new stadium -- which would eventually seat 12,000 -- was played on October 14, 1922. In an omen of things to come, Gonzaga lost to Washington State College (now Washington State University). The stadium -- and the football program itself -- soon became a losing proposition. Gonzaga closed its football program for good in 1942 and the stadium was torn down in 1949.

Gonzaga's Jazz Age

Gonzaga's most famous alumnus, Bing Crosby, graduated from Gonzaga High School (as the prep school was then called) in 1920. He attended Gonzaga University and the School of Law, but left in 1924 without graduating from either. He headed out to Hollywood in a jalopy in 1925 and soon became America's biggest star and a generous Gonzaga supporter. A statue of Bing -- complete with pipe -- stands near the Crosby Library, which was dedicated in 1957 and later became the Crosby Student Center.

The 1920s at Gonzaga reflected the energy and enthusiasm of that jazzy age. For instance, the annual Frosh-Soph Fight on St. Patrick's Day gradually escalated to extreme proportions. Each side perfected the art of "shanghai-ing" (kidnapping, more or less) the opposition to keep them out of the "fight," which was like a modified tug of war. One year, a sophomore was discovered chained to a tree four blocks from campus. In 1928, both classes chartered railroad boxcars, intending to send their shanghaied opponents rumbling off to, respectively,  Hope, Idaho and Pasco, Washington. The Dean of Men promptly abolished the Frosh-Soph Fight for good.

Hard Times and War Time

The 1930s were considerably more somber, reflecting the tough economic times at Gonzaga and throughout the nation at large. Tuition had to be cut back and in some cases, waived entirely. The school's debt rose and enrollment suffered; there was serious talk in 1936 about closing Gonzaga for good. Yet the school squeaked by, even managing to open a School of Engineering in 1934. This symbolized a new direction for the school, which was increasingly emphasizing professional studies along with its traditional classical studies. A School of Education, for training teachers, had already been in operation since 1928.

By 1940, the school had recovered and boasted an enrollment of 1,213 -- although this number also included 289 female nursing students at the affiliated Sacred Heart School of Nursing, and 91 scholastics who had been moved to nearby Mount St. Michael's.

Everything changed on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941. The school's students flooded into the military; enrollment at the School of Engineering alone went from 175 to 31 during the war years. Many Jesuit faculty members headed overseas to serve as military chaplains. In a further blow, only three days after Pearl Harbor, a massive fire destroyed the law library and the school's science labs.

Yet Gonzaga was soon bustling with a new influx: U.S. Naval trainees. Gonzaga was chosen as a site to train hundreds of Navy pilots in the V-5 program and hundreds of officer candidates in the V-12 program, the Navy's major collegiate program. Over the course of the war, Gonzaga trained more than 3,000 people, including 686 naval officers.

Changing Times: the Postwar Years

Change proceeded rapidly after the war. Enrollment spiked to over 2,000 in 1948, due partly to the GI Bill and partly because of a revolutionary change on campus: the enrollment of women. In 1948, Gonzaga admitted women students for the first time, even though the subject had been bandied about since at least 1935 when an informal poll showed the boys split nearly evenly on the concept. Yet when 70 women arrived in 1948, some Gonzaga boys resented their presence and "subjected the girls to much scowling and grumbling" (Schoenberg). Yet the school fathers soon noticed that the women's presence "improved the manners of the men and the spirit of religious devotion on campus" (Schoenberg). A women's dorm was provided in 1951 and over ensuing decades the percentage of women on campus rose steadily. Today, women constitute a solid majority.

Another cultural change became manifest in the 1950s: the decreasing presence of Jesuit priests in the classrooms. The percentage of Jesuit priests on faculty declined from 45 percent to 31 percent through the 1950s. By 2007, the percentage had dropped to 13 percent.

Gonzaga commanded a national spotlight on May 11, 1950, when President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) arrived on campus to accept an honorary citation. He proceeded to give what became known as "the Gonzaga speech," aimed at the Dixiecrats in his own party, in which he expressed his opposition to discrimination against minorities and his belief that no one has "an inherent right to rule over" any others.

In 1954, Gonzaga High School was removed from the main campus to a new campus of its own several miles away under the name Gonzaga Preparatory School. Finally, the main Gonzaga campus was strictly for college students and beyond. The elementary-age students had already been sent off to parochial elementary schools in 1922.

Growth, Prosperity, and Service

The 1950s and 1960s marked a period of almost continuous growth and construction. By 1966 the school had seven new dorms, the modern new Kennedy Athletic Center (now Martin Centre) and a separate School of Law building converted from a former elementary school. A popular study-abroad program in Florence, Italy, was established in 1963.

By the 1970s and 1980s, enrollment reached 5,000 and the university became increasingly devoted to a range of professional studies. A number of programs acquired professional accreditation, including the schools of law, engineering, nursing, and business. The Museum of Native American Culture (MONAC), showcasing an unparalleled collection of artifacts from the Jesuit's missionary heritage, was opened in 1974 (it closed in 1991, when it was absorbed into Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture).

The massive Foley Center Library was built in 1992, named for Ralph E. Foley, a Gonzaga alumnus and longtime Superior Court judge and his wife, Helen Higgins Foley. Their son, Tom Foley (b. 1929), a Gonzaga High School alumnus (he also attended Gonzaga University briefly before transferring to the University of Washington), served as the U.S. Speaker of the House from 1989 to 1994. Other notable Gonzaga alumni include the late civil rights leader and attorney Carl Maxey (1924-1997) and Washington's current (2007) governor, Christine Gregoire.

Beginning in 1995, basketball fans all over the country discovered Gonzaga because of its increasingly successful men's basketball program. Some even learned how to pronounce Gonzaga correctly (Gon-ZAG-uh). The Gonzaga basketball team made it into the NCAA basketball tournament eight times between 1995 and 2006. The school produced NBA stars John Stockton and Adam Morrison.

The school's bigger accomplishment, however, may be that its students provide over 100,000 hours of  volunteer community service every year as part of Gonzaga's social justice mission.

 As of 2007, enrollment was at a record 6,300 and the basketball team was filling a new 6,000-seat arena, the McCarthey Athletic Center.  The College of Arts and Sciences -- the descendant of those original Poetry, Rhetoric, and Philosophy divisions -- has been joined by the School of Business Administration, the School of Education, the School of Engineering, and the School of Professional Studies. The University also offers degrees in 26 master's programs, one Ph.D. program, and a Juris Doctor through the School of Law.

Meanwhile, the late Father Cataldo might be pleased to know that, even though, his dream of an Indian college was never realized, Gonzaga now encourages a diverse student body, and yes, that includes American Indians.


Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J, "Gonzaga University: Seventy-five Years, 1887-1962," Spokane: Gonzaga University, 1963; David A. Kingma, "History of Gonzaga University," Gonzaga University website accessed February 20, 2007 (www.gonzaga.edu/About/Mission/Mission+Statement/History.asp); George Weibel, S.J., "Gonzaga's Silver Jubilee: A Memoir, 1887-1912," emphemeral pamphlet available at the Gonzaga University Library (Spokane, 1912); Gary Giddins, A Pocketful of Dreams: Bing Crosby, The Early Years, 1903-1940 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001).

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