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From the Archives: The attempted merger of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s

, , and | Monday, April 11, 2022

Diane Park | The Observer

Historical counterfactuals are always a tricky thing. Even for trained historians, it is tough to tell what would have happened if, say, Lincoln had not been assassinated or if the Allies had lost World War II. However, with regard to the proposed merger between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s in the early 1970s, one thing is certain: it would have fundamentally reshaped the tri-campus community as we know it today.

From the Archives has previously alluded to this potentially momentous merger. It has come up in a past edition on Notre Dame’s first class of women and our most recent edition on Notre Dame admissions. This week, From the Archives directly tackled the merger, beginning with the official opinions, then the student voices, and finally the reasons why the merger may have failed. Ultimately, beyond its potential as a curious counterfactual, the Notre Dame-Saint Mary’s merger (or lack thereof) is an integral piece in the histories of these two independent yet interconnected institutions.


School officials react to potential merger

Nov. 27, 1967 | Nov. 16, 1970 | March 25, 1971 | Kevin McGill | Researched by Leah Perila

Perhaps unsurprisingly, debates over the merger between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s proved contentious over the years.

In 1967, Saint Mary’s abruptly fired its president, Sister Mary Grace, seemingly because she did not support the merger.

Sister Grace said that religious superiors had expressed dissatisfaction to her with the progress of the merger, specifically implicating Notre Dame President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.

“I believe that I was relieved as president because of the wish of the board of religious trustees that a merger with Notre Dame proceed much more rapidly,” Sister Grace said.

However, Fr. John J. McGrath, Sister Grace’s replacement, denied these accusations.

“There has been no collusion over the abrupt removal of Sr. Mary Grace,” Fr. McGrath said. “I haven’t talked with anyone at Notre Dame and have never met Father Hesburgh.”

Observer archives, Nov. 29, 1967
SMC President Sr. Mary Grace was supposedly fired for opposing the merger

In its Nov. 16, 1970 edition, The Observer spoke out in support of what they called “a momentous decision” to merge Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.

“Co-education is fast becoming a reality,” the editorial proclaimed. “Since the day the two schools began co-exchange classes they have embarked upon a path which slowly and inexorably has led them to this end.”

The editorial asserted that the creation of a new coeducational institution “would be of illimitable advantage” to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. It was also a pragmatic decision given the close proximity and historical cooperation between the two schools.

The Observer concluded that the merger “is the right decision, probably the only logical choice that can be made.”

Finally, in March 1971, the most official endorsement for a merger was made at a joint meeting of the Board of Trustees and Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame.

James Cooney, Alumni secretary, prepared a statement presented to the board from the Alumni Association.

“Generally speaking, Notre Dame alumni are, if not enthusiastic, at least quite positive regarding the matter of co-education,” Clooney said.

Observer archives, Mar. 25, 1971

The executives concluded with a unanimous recommendation that unification of the two schools begin immediately and be completed no later than the 1974-1975 school year. The Boards called for one student body, one faculty, one president and one Board of Trustees.

Sister Grace represented an outspoken disapproving faction, but in general, officials at both schools supported the merger. These trends proved similar to the student opinions, which will be explored next.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students protest in favor of coeducation

Jan. 15, 1970 | Dec. 1, 1971 | De Ellis | Researched by Lilyann Gardner

The years leading up to the inauguration of the University of Notre Dame as a coeducational institution were filled with debates, protests and polls.

A poll conducted at the start of the 1970 spring semester revealed that the overwhelming majority of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students supported coeducation. Notre Dame’s student body had an 84.1% approval rating for admitting women while 74.5% of the St. Mary’s students said that Notre Dame should admit them.

However, the survey also revealed some of the concerns students had about the merger — 66.6% of Saint Mary’s students felt that if the merger went through, Saint Mary’s would lose its identity as a college.

Several male students also said that they believed coeducation would be the downfall of Saint Mary’s because of the role Notre Dame plays in the institution’s identity. One student went as far as stating that Saint Mary’s had no identity beyond its connection to Notre Dame.

“What identity does St. Mary’s have other than being ‘the girl’s school next to Notre Dame?’” he asked.

The discourse, though often discordant, was primarily in favor of a coeducational merger. But the students’ opinions were not enough to make the merger happen.

Approximately two years after this poll, The Observer highlighted the frustration of many Saint Mary’s students when the merger fell through.

On Nov. 30, 1971, 1,300 students, predominantly from Saint Mary’s, agreed to boycott classes to protest the collapse of the merger.

Sister Alma, the President of Saint Mary’s, held a convocation to discuss the fallout and was met by several disgruntled students.

“What grounds do we have to place our trust in this college?” Saint Mary’s student government secretary Nancy Christopher asked.

Sister Alma attempted to placate their vexation over being kept in the dark about the merger by encouraging the students to continue discussions with Notre Dame’s administration about transferring. This was not enough to satisfy the students.

Freshmen were particularly disappointed with Sister Alma’s lackluster suggestion. Many of them applied to Saint Mary’s under the belief that they would eventually receive a Notre Dame degree.

Alma shamed the freshmen and protested that Saint Mary’s had never advertised that sentiment, despite press releases from the College saying otherwise.

“I wonder if it would not be a good thing for the majority of freshmen to return,” Sister Alma professed.

Alma’s disregard and disrespect of her students’ perspective led Saint Mary’s student body president Kathy Barlow to begin a boycott at Saint Mary’s before traveling down the road to garner support and numbers from the men of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame student body president John Barkett (‘72) emphasized that he did not think Notre Dame students would be as passionate about the failed merger and the boycott since it did not impact them as strongly. But Barkett suggested that Saint Mary’s students should continue to pressure the Board of Trustees.

“I hope that most students at Notre Dame will act as they see fit,” Barkett said. “St. Mary’s students have a legitimate complaint.”

The boycott did little to rectify the breakdown of the merger, which will be covered next. But the desire for coeducation was heard loud and clear. These prevailing sentiments seem to foreshadow the eventual introduction of women into the Notre Dame community in the fall semester of 1972.

Notre Dame-Saint Mary’s merger is terminated amid accusations and rumors

Feb. 29, 1972 | Ann Therese Darin | Researched by Adriana Perez

Accusations, rumors, resignations and more: after almost a year, negotiations between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s came to a head at the end of February 1972, when College trustee and chairman of the coeducation committee Fr. Neil McCluskey announced that the merger would not occur.

“The officers of the Sisters’ Congregation have usurped the authority of the Board of Trustees and administration,” McCluskey said. “Their decision, ignoring the mandate of the students, the faculty, the parents, and the Board, is no merger.”

He also announced his resignation from the Board of Trustees. “I feel my input is terminated,” he said. “I see no future for St. Mary’s without Notre Dame.”

Observer archives, Feb. 29, 1972

Although McCluskey suggested others on the board might resign, the trustees contacted by The Observer did not confirm this. Nonetheless, they expressed disappointment in the lack of information they had received about the negotiations.

“I am not resigning,” said P. Jordan Hamel, trustee on the College negotiating team. “On Fr. McCluskey’s knowledge of the breakdown: he seems to have knowledge I don’t have.”

McCluskey claimed the Sisters of the Holy Cross wanted exclusive control over female students at the new entity, which delayed initial negotiations. He said Sr. Gerald Hartney and Mother Olivette from the College’s coeducation committee had made the decision — without him — to first suspend negotiations in November 1971.

The Jesuit priest also reportedly had to ask the Saint Mary’s Board of Trustees to reopen negotiations, which he invited University President Fr. Hesburgh to attend. Some rumors said that the prospect of 30 Saint Mary’s juniors getting their Notre Dame degrees for cheap ultimately brought the Sisters back to the negotiating table.

Observer archives, Feb. 29, 1972
Fr. Neil McCluskey announced the termination of the ND-SMC merger and resigned from the Saint Mary’s Board of Trustees

McCluskey also claimed the Sisters did not have sincere intentions for the merger but rather that they were greedy for power and money.

“Questioned on the future of St. Mary’s in competition with a coed Notre Dame, McCluskey replied, ‘Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad,’” The Observer reported.

But time proved McCluskey wrong — Saint Mary’s had a future without Notre Dame. And it was Notre Dame who wouldn’t see a future without women: The University opened its doors to the first class of female undergraduates that fall of 1972.

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Adriana is a Notre Dame senior from Guayaquil, Ecuador, majoring in political science and minoring in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She served as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer for the 2021-2022 term. You can find her at @adrianamperezr on Twitter.

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