A Brief History of Providence College
100th anniversary of Providence College
At 4:00 p.m. on the afternoon of March 10, 1917, the first Providence College Corporation meeting was held at the Bishop’s House. The Corporation received a land grant of eighteen acres from the Bishop and $10,000. Father Meagher pledged the Dominican teachers and $25,000 to start the first building. Harkins brought his idea to his people. A wave of enthusiasm over the prospect of a Catholic college swept over the state of Rhode Island. Many wealthy Catholics contributed to Harkins’ fund-raising program to raise $200,000, but the bulk of the donations came from those of modest means – the poor classes of laboring Catholic immigrants giving beyond what they could afford. Added to the major fund-raising efforts were a host of other events such as rummage sales and bake sales of Irish soda bread and Italian cannoli. By May 23, 1918, $156,139.73 was raised, and ground was broken for the first building – Harkins Hall (Bishop Harkins would not allow the college to be named after himself). World War I held up the opening for a full year. Then, on May 25, 1919, the dedication of the new college coincided with Bishop Harkins’ fiftieth anniversary of ordination. On September 18, 1919, with seventy-one students and nine Dominican faculty, Providence College opened her doors, pledged to a particular educational system. This pedagogy was basically “the scholastic system, adapted from Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks, Christianized by Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, and successfully carried out by the Order of Preachers for seven centuries in the great universities.”
In the line of Dominic, Fenwick, Harkins, and Meagher, for the next seventy-five years Providence College grew and prospered. Early Presidents, Albert D. Casey, O.P. (1919-1921); William D. Noon, O.P. (1921-1927); Lorenzo C. McCarthy, O.P. (1927-1936); John J. Dillion, O.P. (1936-1944); Frederick C. Foley, O.P. (1945-1947) guided Providence College through her youthful, struggling early history. Providence College overcame the obstacles raised by World War I, survived the Great Depression and plummeting enrollment caused by World War II. The college grew from eighteen to forty-five and a half acres, from one building to seven, and produced approximately 2,500 alumni by 1947. From nine Dominicans in 1919 to eighty-six laboring by 1947 and from one layman in 1927 to approximately eighteen laymen in 1947, the faculty ranks swelled to implement a curriculum leading to degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Philosophy, Bachelor of Science, or a Two-Year Medical Certificate meeting the then requirements of the American Medical Association. Prior to the official opening of the college in 1919, Dominican faculty taught the first credit-bearing PC courses to women religious in 1918. These “night school” students pursued degrees throughout the first five presidential tenures and firmly entrenched the college’s commitment to church and community service through the division of continuing education. Finances played a large role in determining the physical growth of the college through World War II. Bishop Harkins’ initial fund drive was augmented by Bishop Hickey’s 1920 diocesan drive, Father Dillon’s 1937 Aquinas Hall drive, and Father Foley’s 1947 $1.5 million building fund. The financial generosity and broad support of the Catholics of Rhode Island saw the college through the Great Depression and World War II. All gifts were sought and none overlooked. The most unusual donation, a first in PC history, came when a young fifteen-year-old MGM film star sold “her autograph in front of the Loew’s State Theater” for five and ten dollars a copy on February 18, 1938. The next day, at a Bridge and Fashion show in Harkins Hall, Ms. Judy Garland, not yet of Wizard of Oz fame (1939) “came bearing gifts” to Father Dillon’s Aquinas Hall fund. In appreciation, Ms. Garland, “a girl with a gift, was laden with roses,” by attentive PC students. Fundamental to all five presidencies was the Catholic identity of the college, the retention of the seven-hundred-year-old scholastic nucleus, a strong commitment to liberal arts, and a successful adaptation to the trends of higher education set by regional and national accrediting associations. The idea of the founders, a Catholic college in Rhode Island, came of age. From the solid foundations laid in the first thirty years, Providence College matured into a modern, fully accredited Catholic liberal arts college under the next five presidencies of Robert J. Slavin, O.P. (1947-1961); Vincent C. Dore, O.P. (1961-1965); William P. Haas, O.P. (1965-1971); Thomas R. Peterson, O.P. (1971-1985); and John F. Cunningham, O.P. (1985 to the present). The later Dominican presidents, committed to the idea of the founders and early fathers, carried the college forward through adversity, economic crisis, national decrease in all-male college enrollments, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, oil embargoes, the civil rights and students’ rights movements of the sixties, admission of women in 1971, the declining number of American clergy, the tragic death of ten women in the Aquinas Dormitory fire of 1977, the blizzard of 1978, and the Persian Gulf War. Rev. Robert J. Slavin, O.P., fostered new post-World War II vision of unlimited horizon for the growth and development of Providence College. Stately, handsome, imperial, exuding an aura of authority, competence, and brilliant leadership, Father Slavin sought to bring Providence College to new heights in academia. Under Father Slavin’s tenure, the Albertus Magnus science building, Alumni Hall Gymnasium, and Raymond Hall dining/ dormitory complex were built.