Webster reaches its Centennial year


One hundred years ago, there were few choices for women who wanted a college education in a Catholic setting. Only a small number of colleges for women existed in the United States; most of the well-known Catholic universities were for men only. The nuns of the Loretto community wanted to change that.

2015 marks the university’s hundredth year. The Sisters of Loretto purchased land on Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves in 1898 to open a school for girls.

Nov. 1, 1915, the cornerstone was laid for the first building, Webster Hall, which is still used by students today. Loretto College, which later became Webster College and then Webster University, officially opened the St. Louis campus Sept. 13, 1916. Only five students would call Loretto College their home. Today, Webster University is home to 20,000 students worldwide.

Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble said she hopes students care about the Centennial celebration because it is a moment that will soon pass.

“I think that any time you share an experience with a community of people that are all choosing to be there in that moment, that’s more important than the tangible things in life,” Stroble said. “It isn’t just the Centennial itself; it’s the fact that we’re all present together and we’re sharing a moment as members of this community. Years from now, we’ll remember we all shared this moment in time. That’s what makes it special.”

In 1919, Loretto College held its first commencement. The graduating class had two students. Today, more than 7,000 students graduate every year. 1919 also welcomed Loretto College’s first two international students. Both were from France and came to Loretto College as part of a war-relief effort to help students escape World War I. Webster University has since welcomed students from all 50 states and from 148 countries.

The first Webster athletics association was also founded in 1919. Today, Webster has seven men’s and seven women’s sports and is a part of the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III.

Director of Student Engagement and Centennial Committee Student Affairs Representative Jennifer Stewart said the Centennial is a way to celebrate everything the university has accomplished, but that it is also an educational experience.

“There is a lot of history about the university that students don’t know, so it’s a way to educate people,” Stewart said. “It’s a celebration for coming this far.”

In 1924, Loretto College changed its name to Webster College. The name change was made to distinguish itself from elementary and high schools run by the Sisters of Loretto, according to the Centennial book A Century of Defining Moments. The first Student Government Association was formed in 1927. The next year, the second building on campus, Loretto Hall, opened.

Since she was a history major as an undergraduate, Stroble said she has always loved knowing the history of the places she has lived (including Webster Groves) and worked.

“I think I’m incredibly lucky to be here right now,” Stroble said. “There couldn’t be any better gift than to be in an institution when it turns a century.”

In 1945, Webster announced a new admissions program for military veterans. A student veterans’ organization was established with 10 members in 1946. The first two African-American students were accepted to Webster in 1947.

Dean of Students Ted Hoef said the Centennial year provides a great opportunity to celebrate the things that have happened in student life over the years.

“The whole development of Webster is remarkable … learning more about the founders and the role that the Sisters of Loretto played in the development of this institution,” Hoef said.

Maria Hall was added to the campus in 1959 as a dormitory and dining hall for about 110 students. The name was chosen through a student contest.

Male students attended Webster full-time for the first time in 1963. Webster officially became coeducational in 1968.

Hoef said he thinks there is value in appreciating that things were not always the way they are now, and that students who have came before students now helped paved the way.

“It’s important to have some appreciation because the more we understand about where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished, the more we can focus on what comes next in the future,” Hoef said.

In 1966, The Loretto-Hilton Center opened. Conrad Hilton donated $1.5 million of the $1.9 million cost. Today, the Loretto-Hilton is home to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the St. Louis Repertory Theatre.

In 1967, Webster transitioned from a Catholic college to a secular one. Permission was requested by the Vatican to make this transition, Stewart said. Webster was the first Catholic college in U.S. history to become secular.

Stewart said she believes the transition is fascinating and that the milestone was quite massive.

“The courage, the dedication, and the motivation that it had to take to go through that process… that’s a pretty big deal when you think about it,” Stewart said. “It’s those massive things that people today don’t know about. We know Webster as it is now, but there’s so many things that happened in our history that got us to this point, all the little twists and turns that happened along the way.”

Webster College became Webster University in 1983. In 1999, Webster offered its first online programs. Today, roughly 9,000 Webster students take classes online.

Over the years, Webster has opened multiple campuses around the globe and has also added many buildings to the St. Louis home campus.

Stewart said she does not believe one accomplishment is bigger than another.

“There are so many aspects that are differentially important to different people,” Stewart said. “They are all equally important for different reasons.”

On the other hand, Hoef said he thinks the biggest accomplishment for the university is probably its accessible study abroad program.

“Webster does a marvelous job at making a wonderful college education accessible to students that might not have the opportunity to engage in a private university experience,” Hoef said. “Webster opened global campuses and made study abroad so accessible. I talk to students when they come back, and it’s life changing for them.”

Stroble said the Centennial is a moment to look back and appreciate all the people and the work that came before those who are here now. Looking at the next century for the university, Stroble said she can only imagine that there will be even more change.

Stewart agrees. She said she hopes in the next 100 years, the university will continue the path of meeting student needs and helping students find their way to a college education.

“It’s not just about academics, it’s about the whole experience,” Stewart said. “I think we have to grow and change and meet the students where they are, and I think we’ve done a good job of that over the past 100 years.”

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