McGroarty, Sister Julia (1827–1901)

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McGroarty, Sister Julia (1827–1901)

American nun, educator, and founder of Trinity College . Born Susan McGroarty on February 13, 1827, in Donegal, Ireland; died on November 12, 1901, in Peabody, Massachusetts; daughter of Neil McGroarty and Catherine (Bonner) McGroarty; received teachers' training from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur; never married; no children.

Left Ireland (1831); death of father (1838); began preparations to enter women's religious order (1846); took vows as Sister Julia (1848); moved to Massachusetts (1854); became superior of Philadelphia convent school (1860); became provincial superior in Cincinnati (1887); founded college (1900).

Through her accomplishments as an administrator, Sister Julia McGroarty left behind an educational legacy that benefited generations of Catholic schoolchildren in America. She also battled great opposition to establish a college for women attached to the prestigious Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. One of ten children, she was baptized Susan McGroarty after her 1827 birth on the family farm in Donegal, Ireland. With her family, she emigrated to the United States in 1831, settling for a time in Ohio before moving to Cincinnati when her father gave up farming for good. He died in 1838, which meant certain hardship for the large brood, but her mother's brother, who was a physician in Cincinnati, provided assistance.

As a child, McGroarty did poorly in school, but nevertheless was bright enough to memorize her lessons and books in order to fool teachers into believing she could read, a ruse that was only uncovered when she was ten. At 13, she was sent to a much stricter convent school, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Cincinnati. She surprised many when she decided to become a nun herself at the age of 18. Two years later, in 1848, she took her vows as Sister Julia and began teaching school. After a time, she was sent by the order to Roxbury, Massachusetts, to serve as mistress of boarders at the Academy of Notre Dame there. She spent six years at the school and in 1860 was transferred to the post of superior of the Notre Dame order's Philadelphia school, becoming the first American nun to hold that position.

At the time, anti-Catholic sentiment ran high in many cities, including Philadelphia, and McGroarty attempted to fight prejudice in her community by running a faultless, charitable organization. Her school educated girls from affluent families, but also held evening classes for immigrant families and had a school for African-American children. In 1885, she returned to Cincinnati when her mentor, Sister Superior Louise van der Schrieck , became ill and needed an assistant. McGroarty helped her in her administrative duties of supervising all Notre Dame de Namur houses east of the Rocky Mountains, and upon Sister Louise's death in 1887 succeeded her as provincial superior with responsibilities for overseeing all 26 houses. From 1892 to 1901, her duties also included overseeing all the houses in California.

Over the next decade, McGroarty worked to standardize the curriculum in all schools run by the Notre Dame sisters, and implemented an examination system; she also set up an orphanage and established 14 new schools. Yet McGroarty also saw that while the Catholic educational system in the United States did a fine job of educating young women, it often left them stranded at the threshold of a college education; there were many secular women's colleges across the country, but mixing with people of other religions was seen as a potentially corrupting situation by strict Catholics of the era. The Catholic University of America, founded in 1889, observed the strict gender separation found in Catholic schools and did not admit women (although it received applications from them every year). Backed by Catholic educators and even many male administrative clergy, McGroarty began working to establish a women's college near the Catholic University that would borrow some of its faculty. There was great opposition to the proposed Trinity College, however, for it was seen by some of the more traditionally minded Catholics as a liberal plot to corrupt Catholic values by imposing American customs upon its institutions.

McGroarty fought the indignant cries against "coeducation" with characteristic good grace, though she was even censured by the superior of her own order. The first class of Trinity College was matriculated in 1900. McGroarty never saw its graduation day, however. She died in November 1901, and was buried in the chapel of the Summit School, one of the institutions she had founded.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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McGroarty, Sister Julia (1827–1901)

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