Notre Dame’s Alumnae before 1972

On June 11, 1917, Notre Dame added a new demographic to its alumni base – women.  According to Scholastic, the first two women to earn degrees from Notre Dame did not go unnoticed.  During commencement, it was reported that “[t]here was an enthusiastic outburst of applause in Washington Hall when the names of Sister Francis Jerome and Sister Lucretia (Holy Cross Sisters of St. Mary’s College) were read out as recipients of the M.A. [Greek] and M.Sc. [Chemistry] degrees [respectively]” [Scholastic, September 29, 1917, page 6].  The graduation of these two women at Notre Dame was not a one-off occurrence, but rather marked the beginning of a historic tradition of coeducation at Notre Dame.  Except for the 1919 commencement, women have graduated from Notre Dame every year since 1917.

Article regarding Commencement, 1917 [Scholastic, September 29, 1917, page 6]
Further research is needed to know when Sister Francis Jerome and Sister Lucretia began their studies at Notre Dame to earn these degrees, whether any of their time was in the classroom alongside their male counterparts, or if it was mostly independent study.  In 1918, Notre Dame established the summer school program, which was the gateway for women to study at Notre Dame.

Students and faculty of the Music Department Summer School Program, July 1919. They are posed outside, in front of Rockefeller Hall and the St. Edward statue.

The history of coeducation at Notre Dame is a fascinating and complex one.  The view of Notre Dame as an all-male bastion often leaves out the story of Notre Dame’s female students who were here before their more traditional female counterparts moved in for the fall semester of 1972.  A cursory overview of the commencement programs done in the 1980s gives us a glimpse of these pre-1972 women:  324 bachelor degrees, 4128 masters degrees, 184 PhDs, and 2 law degrees.  However, these numbers only tell part of the story.

Summer School Students, including nuns, priests, brothers, and lay men and women, posed on the steps of Bond Hall, 1929.  Photo by H.C. Elmore.

Going back through the commencement programs today, we gathered more personal information on these women to help humanize them.  Many women studied at Notre Dame but did not complete their degrees.  They, unfortunately, won’t be on this list, which was created to give a flavor of who these women were.  It is for informational purposes only, not to be used as the sole source of serious research.  Please contact the Registrar to verify student information.

At the time of this posting, we still have a ways to go to complete this list, but the data gathered thus far is quite interesting.  Perhaps there are more laywomen in the mix than what people assumed.  Sisters from Saint Mary’s comprise only a fraction of the other orders represented.  Notre Dame’s female graduates follows the diversity of the general student population, with women represented from across the country and internationally, including Nova Scotia and the Philippines.  The number of multiple degrees the women earned is a bit surprising, as was discovering two triple-Domers thus far:  Sister Mary Aloysi Kerner (BA 1922; MA 1923; PhD 1930) and Sister Mary Jerome Shaughnessy (MA 1926; BA 1930; M.Mus. 1935).

Three sisters looking at books on campus with the Main Building in the background, c1950.

Hopefully these lists will help to shine more light on Notre Dame’s pioneer alumnae, as they are an important part of the Notre Dame family and history.  There are many other resources available to do further research on these women, such as University RecordsNotre Dame publications, and the alumnae directories.


Lewis Hall

On August 10, 1965, Notre Dame dedicated its first dormitory built specifically for female students.  Lewis Hall was originally built as a residence for the religious women pursuing advanced degrees at Notre Dame, accommodating 143 nuns, all in private rooms.  It would later open to include female lay graduate students as the number of religious declined.  In 1975, Lewis was converted to a residence for undergraduate women and the single rooms were turned into doubles.

GPHR 45/4645: Architectural sketch of Lewis Hall exterior, c1962. Drawing by Ellerbe Architects. [copy negative]
Architectural sketch of Lewis Hall by Ellerbe Architects, c1962.
Holy Cross Sisters Mary Frances Jerome (MA in Greek Literature) and Mary Lucretia (MS in Chemistry) were the first two women to earn degrees at Notre Dame in 1917.  The formal establishment of the Summer School Program in 1918 and the Graduate School in 1932 brought thousands of women to Notre Dame from across the country.  Since most did not live locally, they did their coursework over the summer sessions, dragging out the time needed to complete their bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees.

GPHR 45/5148: Lewis Hall exteriors with female students (nuns), c1965. Image from the University of Notre Dame Archives. (University of Notre Dame Archives)
Lewis Hall exterior with female students, 1965.

On April 28, 1962, University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh announced a million dollar donation from the Frank J. Lewis Foundation for the construction of a dormitory for these women to live on campus year-round and earn their degrees.  As such, they could earn a masters degree in 15 months rather than over five summer sessions.  Hesburgh said, “the new hall will accelerate the graduate training of the devoted women who constitute the heart of Catholic education in America” [Notre Dame Press Releases, April 1962].

GPHR 45/5148: A female student nun studying in her private room in Lewis Hall, 1965.
A female student studying in her private room in Lewis Hall, 1965.

Chicago business man Frank J. Lewis unfortunately had passed away in 1960 before he could see his foundation fund Lewis Hall.  Before they were married, his future wife Julia founded the Illinois Club for Catholic Women in 1919, which was “a home for young Catholic business women away from home and in modest circumstances.”  The couple was extremely active in philanthropic work throughout Chicago and “their outstanding contributions toward the development of Catholic higher education [was] so great as to have earned them the title of Godfather and Godmother to Loyola University, DePaul University, Lewis College at Lockport, Illinois, and others.”  Frank believed that “God gives a man money so that he will share it with others” [UDIS 99/15].

GPHR 45/5137: Lewis Hall Dedication, 1965/0810. Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Mundelein College President Sister Mary Ann Ida Gannon, and Mrs. Julia Lewis.
Lewis Hall Dedication, 1965/0810. Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Mundelein College President Sister Mary Ann Ida Gannon, and Mrs. Julia Lewis.

In a move to eventually make space for all women undergraduate students who chose to live on campus, Lewis Hall’s resident profile changed in the fall of 1975.  The graduate students were moved to Badin Hall for the year in the anticipation of the opening of the Grace O’Hara graduate student apartments in 1976.  The undergraduate women living in Badin Hall since opening to women in the fall of 1972 were moved to Lewis Hall in the interim.  Badin Hall returned to house undergraduate women after this one year shuffle.

GPHS 4/43: A group of Notre Dame female students (nuns) in a lounge in Lewis Hall, Fall 1967.
A group of Notre Dame female students in a Lewis Hall lounge, Fall 1967.

While the move initially upset students all around, Notre Dame saw it as the best option available to facilitate the graduate and ever-increasing undergraduate women, without further displacing the on-campus male students.

Even though graduate students are often overlooked on campus, Lewis Hall plays a very important role in the history of coeducation at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame:  A Magazine
, Fall 1965
Notre Dame Press Releases
UDIS 99/15
UDIS 256/22

Sister Mary Aquinas, OSF

Notre Dame celebrates 40 years of coeducation this fall.  While the undergraduate women who arrived in 1972 were the first class to matriculate in the regular academic year, women had been earning bachelors’, masters’, and doctorate degrees since 1917 through the Summer School Program.  One of those women gained a bit of fame during World War II because she was an unlikely aviatrix and aeronautical expert.

Sister Mary Aquinas Kinskey, OSF, earned a bachelor’s degree from Catholic University in 1926.  She became a teacher and her interest in aviation stemmed from the enthusiasm for the subject from her students.  In order to best teach her students, she wished to learn as much about the subject as possible.  In 1942, she earned a Master of Science in Physics cum laude from the University of Notre Dame.  Her dissertation was entitled “Electron Projection Study of the Deposition of Thorium on Tantalum.”  Wanting hands-on aviation experience, Sister Mary Aquinas learned to fly in 1943.
“Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, ‘flying nun,’ applying a little glue to the model P-38 which hangs from the ceiling of her classroom at Catholic University. A veteran of fifteen years’ teaching experience, the Sister is giving a summer Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instruction,” June 1943.
Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

That summer, she taught aviation at Catholic University and was involved in training through the Civil Aeronautics Authority.  Below is an announcement regarding Sister Mary Aquinas’ activities published in Scholastic, October 1, 1943:

One of Notre Dame’s religious alumnae who is doing her part in the War effort is Sister Mary Aquinas, the “flying nun.” Sister Mary Aquinas, who received her master’s degree in physics from the University, is an educational adviser to the C.A.A. in Washington. Her aeronautics course at the Catholic University of America is one of the first, if not the first, sequence of such courses for Teacher Training in universities during the summer sessions. The Sister, who believes in practicing what she teaches, is a flier. She often takes her classes on inspection and demonstration tours through aircraft factories and airports. Her group of black-hooded nuns are a familiar sight in these places.

“Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, ‘flying nun,’ exchanging trade secrets with an engineer at the Washington National Airport,” June 1943.
Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

In 1957, “the Air Force Association gave her a citation for her ‘outstanding contributions’ to the nation’s security and world peace” [“No Glamor Girl”].  As part of the honor, Sister Mary Aquinas had the opportunity to fly in a T-33 jet trainer and take the control for much of the flight, making her the first nun to fly a jet.

“Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas teaching a lesson in practical radio operations to the Sisters attending her Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instructors at Catholic University,” June 1943.
The women with heart necklaces are Sisters of the Holy Cross.
Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

Sister Mary Aquinas was the subject of a 1956 television program The Pilot Her moniker as “The Flying Nun” leads many to believe she was the inspiration of the 1967-1970 television show starring Sally Field.  Furthering the thought there might be a connection, the television show was based on a The Fifteenth Pelican, a book by Tere Rios Versace, who also researched the life of Sister Mary Aquinas for an unpublished biography.  Versace’s papers can be found at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.



“The Fighting Irish at the Fronts,” By Jim Schaeffer, Scholastic, October 1, 1943, page 9

September 3, 1942 Commencement Program [PNDP 1300]

Sister Mary Aquinas, ‘The Flying Nun,’ Says Air-Minded Child Is a Happy Child,” by Margaret Kernodle, AP Features Writer, Lewiston Morning Tribune, Lewiston, Idaho, August 8, 1943

Navy Invites Nun to Pilot Jet,” Lodi News-Sentinel, Lodi, California, July 25, 1958

“‘No Glamor Girl,’ Flying Nun Says,” by Bob Considine, The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 8, 1957

Three Sisters, Three Stories, Touching Lives,” Silver Lake College New Directions, Fall/Winter 2008-2009

Sister Mary Aquinas Is Dead; Pilot Inspired TV ‘Flying Nun,'” The New York Times, October 23, 1985

The Wisconsin Historical Society

Photos of Sr. Mary Aquinas from the Library of Congress are in the public domain


WAVES at Notre Dame

“Ahoy matey’s, and what’s buzzin’ Joe College? Somethin’ new has been added on the fair campus of Notre Dame”  [Scholastic issue 07/16/1943, page 11]

Enrollment at Notre Dame declined during the Great Depression for economic reasons.  The need for men in the military during World War II again threatened enrollment levels.  In an effort to keep Notre Dame, an all-male institution, a viable, University President Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, CSC, allowed the Navy to establish a V-7 training program on campus in 1942.  The V-12 program arrived in 1943.  While many are familiar with this part of Notre Dame history, few remember that the WAVES were also stationed on campus in the 1940s.

Women’s Reserve V-10 (WAVES) on the steps of the Rockne Memorial, 1943/0407

The WAVES arrived on campus in July 1943, but they lived in the Oliver Hotel in downtown South Bend.  “They work in the local Navy offices, drive Navy cars and in other ways take over the places of Navy. … The group is made up of both commissioned and non-commissioned personnel” [Scholastic, July 6, 1943, page 8].  Some of the women did learn to fly, to which Scholastic joked, “If and when the time comes for their initial solo, the gals have promised to notify the University, as time must be had to double the insurance on the Dome, you know!” [Scholastic, March 31, 1944, page 8].

Three WAVES working the pay check distribution line at Notre Dame, 1944

 Since the WAVES were not officially affiliated with the University, the Notre Dame Archives does not have many records of their time on campus.  However, the University Archives is extremely fortunate to have the scrapbook kept by Ethel E. Larkin Roselle, a WAVE stationed at Notre Dame and later Harvard University.  The photos from this blog post come from her scrapbook.


The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History and Campus, by Thomas Schlereth, pages 169-173
GRSL:  Ethel E. Larkin Roselle scrapbook

Women & Spirit Exhibit

The Women & Spirit:  Catholic Sisters in America traveling exhibit stops in South Bend from September 2 – December 31, 2011, at the Northern Indiana Center for History.  A number of photographs and audio-visual materials from the Notre Dame Archives make an appearance in this exhibit.

Early in Notre Dame’s history in 1843, four Holy Cross sisters joined founder Rev. Edward Sorin.   For over 115 years afterward, they graced the “French Quarter” behind Main Building, now known as the Brownson Hall complex.

 Two unidentified Holy Cross (CSC) Sisters, c1860s-1870s

The nuns at Notre Dame were entrenched in university life from 1843-1958.  “They staffed the laundries, infirmaries, kitchens, and St. Edwards’ Minims School.  There was hardly a facet of Notre Dame life they did not influence.  They set type in the University Press offices located just east of the rear of Brownson Hall, bound books and periodicals, and deciphered mysterious chirography in manuscripts which baffled the editors.  They were tailors, nurses, gardeners, seamstresses, cooks, and charwomen for thousands of Notre Dame priests, brothers, lay faculty and students.  Beginning with only 4 sisters, their numbers grew to 140, then dwindled to only 14 in 1958″ [Schlereth, page 45].

Mass of thanksgiving in the Holy Cross Sisters’ convent chapel, 1958/0504. 
Caption:  “Rev. Arthur Hope, CSC (right), author of Notre Dame: 100 Years, preaches at a Solemn High Mass May 4th marking the departure of virtually all the Holy Cross nuns from the campus after 115 years of devoted service to the University.  Pope Pius XII sent his congratulations and apostolic blessing to the Sisters who vacated the campus convent and returned to their mother-house at St. Mary’s College the following day.  in earlier years more than 100 Holy Cross nuns served Notre Dame in many capacities.  Only five nuns will remain to care for altar linens and staff the student infirmary.”


In its mission to collect, maintain, and preserve records that document the life of the Catholic Church and her people as lived in the American context, the Notre Dame Archives houses a number of collections regarding religious women from various congregations, organizations, and individuals.  Among the larger collections are those of the National Assembly of Religious Women (US), the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of the United States, Sr. Marie Augusta Neal, and the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

 Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW), later Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), August 1963



University of Notre Dame: Portrait of History and Campus by Thomas J. Schlereth
GSBA 3/15
GPHR 45/3464

Notre Dame Summer School

Notre Dame established a summer school program in 1918 “to help Religious teachers to make their work more interesting and more effective” [UPWC 41/44].  On a deeper level, the summer school program had a few other important side effects.  The program was open to both men and women and offered undergraduate and graduate coursework.  For decades, the majority of students were clergy from various congregations across the country:  primarily sisters along with priests and brothers.  These women were among Notre Dame’s first female students and alumnae.  Many of the summer school students were high school teachers and would promote Notre Dame to their college-bound male students.  Additionally, the Summer School program became a cornerstone in the foundation of the Graduate School.

“The first class of doctoral students in chemistry and the largest contingent in the newly created 1918 Summer Session for Advanced Studies,” including Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, CSC (front row, center). (Caption from Schlereth, page 184)

From the beginning, coursework was available in most areas of study, including business, science, and liberal arts.  Since most of the students were secondary educators, the summer school program also offered specialized courses such as education and library science that were not normally offered during the regular school year.

Nuns and other students in a classroom (probably in Main Building) with audio-visual equipment during Summer School at the University of Notre Dame, c1950

In 1960, “One out of sixty-five nuns in the United States is improving her skills as a teacher or administrator at the University of Notre Dame this summer” with a total of 1373 nuns enrolled.  “The sisters, whose religious garb contrasts sharply with the Bermuda shorts and sports shirts of Notre Dame’s lay students, constitute the largest block of the 2877 summer school enrollment.  The student body currently numbers 268 priests, 79 seminarians, 163 Brothers, 904 lay men, and 90 lay women.”  Four-fifths of the summer session students were graduate students in 1960. [PNDP PR 60-55]

Two pages from a scrapbook “Sisters’ Summer Session at the University of Notre Dame,” by Sr. M. Madeline Dosmann, 1961

As time went on, demand for the summer school program declined.  The program was “originally intended to provide an opportunity for religious teachers to finish their baccalaureates in order to meet certification requirements then being imposed by many states” [Schlereth, page 161].  Its function perhaps was not as needed in later years as the numbers of clergy, particularly sisters, declined and the numbers of people with college degrees increased.  Summer sessions still exist today, but are primarily composed of regularly enrolled Notre Dame students.

For more information regarding the summer school sessions, the University Archives holds a number resources, including press releases, informational bulletins, course schedules, and newsletters.

PNDP 30-Su-1
PNDP 40-Su-1
UPWC 41/44
Notre Dame Press Releases
The University of Notre Dame:  A Portrait of Its History and Campus
, by Thomas Schlereth
GTJS 5/09
GPHR 45/1274
GHJC 50/40