100 years of educating women at Notre Dame College celebrates, widens its mission


As Baltimore's College of Notre Dame of Maryland marks its 100th anniversary today, the nation's first Roman Catholic college for women also celebrates a decisive event that occurred in its 75th year.

"That was the crossroads," recalled Sister Rosemarie Nassif, who became Notre Dame's ninth president in 1992.

She referred to "the reaffirmation of our mission as a women's college" -- the "critical decision" that grew out of a convocation of students, alumnae, faculty and staff on the North Charles Street campus in fall 1970.

Along with more than 300 other women-only colleges in the United States at the time, many of them struggling financially, Notre Dame had faced four options, Sister Rosemarie noted this week in an interview.

"Those different directions," she said, "were to merge with an all-male school, become co-ed, close our door, or remain a women's college and transform our mission." The college chose the fourth option.

Sister Rosemarie said she is more convinced than ever that the decision was correct. The college's total enrollment of 3,220 full-time and part-time undergraduate and graduate students, including 1,758 in its pioneering Weekend College, is at a high, as was its 1995 graduating class of 409.

A busy weekend of centennial celebrations will begin on the campus at 2 p.m. today with a convocation in Le Clerc Hall. Cardinal William H. Keeler, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. are scheduled to participate.

As one of the 84 women's colleges remaining in the country, the College of Notre Dame looks ahead as well as back, Sister Rosemarie said.

In 1973, it and adjacent Loyola College opened a shared library, which now contains 290,000 books, an audiovisual collection of 24,000 tapes, and 2,000 periodicals. It is "the structural symbol of a partnership" that includes cross-registration for courses at Loyola, Goucher College and the Johns Hopkins University, the Notre Dame president said.

The College of Notre Dame's historic mission -- "tapping the resource that is the spiritual and intellectual life of women" -- underwent another major expansion and transformation in 1975 with the creation of the Weekend College for both women and men, she said. In 1984, Notre Dame added a master's degree program, also open to both sexes.

The Weekend College, providing Saturday and Sunday courses that lead to a bachelor's degree, has grown beyond the Charles Street campus. Three years ago, it began to teach weekend students at Harford Community College in Bel Air, where it offers baccalaureate programs in business administration, elementary education and nursing as part of the state's Higher Education and Applied Technology project.

Tomorrow, the women's liberal arts college founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame takes still another step as it begins classes for women and men in Southern Maryland. Two programs leading to master's degrees, to be taught at a new facility in the town of California in St. Mary's County, will focus on art in teaching and leadership in teaching.

Upon assuming the presidency of Notre Dame three years ago, following in the footsteps of Sister Kathleen Feeley, whose commitment to women's education had set the pace, Sister Rosemarie said confidently, "Taking women seriously in leadership roles has found its right moment in history."

While women have access to most U.S. institutions of higher learning, that "does not always translate into equality," this Catholic feminist observed this week. She pointed out that, although only 1.5 percent of female graduates receive their undergraduate degrees from single-sex institutions, such schools educated 25 percent of the women in Congress and "36 percent of the highest-ranking women officers in the Fortune 1,000 companies."

Graduates of women's colleges are twice as likely to earn a Ph.D. as women graduating from coeducational schools, three times as likely to earn an economics degree and 1.5 times as likely to earn a degree in the sciences, she said.

Her feminism extends to the Catholic Church, Notre Dame's spiritual anchor. She noted in Rome in November during ceremonies elevating Archbishop Keeler to the College of Cardinals that the ancient rites were "truly a deeper call to holiness" and as such an inspiration to both women and men. But they also were a reminder, she said, that "the position of the church now is to limit the role of women."

Sister Rosemarie believes that the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood, forbidden by the pope, will come eventually. Catholic colleges such as Notre Dame have a "responsibility to edge the church into that place where God is calling us," she said.

College centennial

Convocation at 2 p.m. today.Opening of art exhibit, "100 Years of Art at the College of Notre Dame, A Faculty Retrospective," at 7 p.m. today.

Start of Centennial 5K Race at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

Honors convocation and award to distinguished alumna at noon tomorrow.

Dinner and silent auction at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

"Dance Through the Decades," featuring music and costumes of the last 100 years, at 8 p.m. tomorrow.

Centennial Mass at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Weekend College picnic at 1 p.m. Sunday.

All events are on campus. Information: 532-5547.

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