By LEAH GROSS
The young woman reached for her graduation cap, setting it gently upon her head. As she straightened the tassel, goosebumps ran down her arms as she envisioned the hundredth class of Mount Mary College walking down the aisle to receive their diplomas. She was part of a hundred years of accomplishments in women’s education.
The foundation of Mount Mary began in 1871 when local philanthropist John Lawler, who wanted to provide a Christian education for the children of Prairie du Chien, invited Mother Caroline and the School Sisters of Notre Dame to found a school for girls. Mother Caroline chose the site of the former Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, and Lawler named the school St. Mary’s Institute. Lawler provided the funding, and the School Sisters staffed the school, which opened in 1872.
Lawler and his wife, along with Secretary of State Peter Doyle, also provided the funding to build an additional hall in 1878. Just as the roof was ready to be placed, a raging storm collapsed every last brick of the building, from the four completed walls down to the very foundation.
Lawler wrote to the superior of the convent:
“Dear Sister Patricia:
I am arranging for the rebuilding of your hall. It will be ready, [lease God, for your closing exercises [graduation] …. I hope you and the sisters are well. I shall be back in a day or two.
Lawler paid the architect and masons and had them start the hall immediately. The new St. Mary’s Hall stood finished in time for commencement just a month later.
The Lawlers’ and Doyle’s contributions illustrate the devotion that marked the founding of the Institute. Over the next 30 years, the little school prospered. For its 25th anniversary in 1897, the name was changed to St. Mary’s Academy.
The turn of the century brought more changes for St. Mary’s: the conveniences of running water, electricity and plumbing. Things people take for granted today were novelties to the students in 1903. Six years later, St. Mary’s enrollment soared. In 1913, the Academy announced its first course available at the college level, marking the founding of Mount Mary College, although still called St. Mary’s Academy. It was the first full-year college for women in Wisconsin.
It is this event that Mount Mary College celebrates in its 100th year as a college. Nearly a century ago, Mother Caroline, Lawler and the School Sisters of Notre Dame started a great legacy.