Our Iowa Heritage: St. Agatha’s of Iowa City – Breaking The Glass Ceiling.

When the State University of Iowa (organized in 1847) finally opened up for classes (1855), a radical idea in higher education came with it…

Giving women equal opportunity.

In a move that no other public university in the U.S. had ever done, SUI’s first year’s enrollment of 124 students included 41 women! That’s one-third of the total class! A percentage, that quite honestly, wouldn’t be equaled by other universities for several more decades. You see, from the very beginning, Iowa City has been a beacon for freedom and equality – a place where men and women of all color, race, religion, or national origin can be treated equally. Allow me here to share another Iowa City story of equality in education that most know very little about – the story of St. Agatha’s Seminary.

Father Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli came to Iowa City in 1840, one year after its creation. A young priest with an adventurous spirit and easy-going personality, Mazzuchelli planted new parishes in over thirty different communities in the tri-state area of Iowa/Wisconsin/Illinois between 1837 and 1864. Historian Joseph Fuhrmann writes this about the good priest…

As history shows, on December 20, 1840, Father Mazzuchelli celebrated Iowa City’s first mass with 28 others, gathered in the home of Ferdinand & Mary Haberstroh (see below). Which brings us now to The Park House, located on the northwest corner of Dubuque and Jefferson Streets in Iowa City (see below)…

Ferdinand & Mary Haberstroh, the welcoming hosts for Iowa City’s first Mass in 1840, came to Iowa City in 1839 from Baden, Germany, with Ferdinand serving as a territorial government overseer just as the city was being formed.

The Park House – In 1854, a map of Iowa City was compiled and drawn by J. H. Millar. It featured twelve amazing sketches created by Iowa City artist, George H. Yewell. The Park House, as pictured here, was shown as a larger building than it actually was. Obviously, the expansion plans never occurred. Click here to read more about George Yewell and to view all twelve of his amazing sketches.

A successful businessman (Iowa City Manufacturing Company), Heberstroch built The Park House just east of their home around 1850, opening it by 1852 as one of Iowa City’s finest hotels. During the latter part of the Iowa statehouse years (1846-1857), before the state capital moved to Des Moines, Heberstroh’s Park House was one of the city’s favorite gathering places for statesmen and legislators alike. The building, located near City Park (see maps above), was only a short two blocks away from Capitol Square.

After the state capital moved westward (1857) and the business district of Iowa City developed further to the south on Clinton Street, The Park House diminished in popularity, finally closing in 1861. Ferdinand Haberstroh, when he died in 1860, gave his wife, Mary, control of all his properties and as you can see from the story above, in 1861 she donated the hotel to St. Mary’s for the explicit use of educating women. By 1862, a team from the Dubuque-based Sisters of Charity of The Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), who had been invited here by St. Mary’s, was given charge of Iowa’s first women’s seminary – an idea that was quite radical at the time, but greatly needed since opportunities in education for women were quite rare.

St. Agatha’s Seminary opened in 1862. Female seminaries in the 19th century weren’t seminaries in the way we understand them today, as schools of theology. Instead, female seminaries functioned much like modern boarding schools.

In the 1860’s, opening a female seminary as a private educational institution was a “cutting edge” concept, and history shows us that the Sisters of Charity played a significant role in this growing trend toward women’s equality. And, as it turned out, Iowa City was a perfect location for their “radical” new approach to education since SUI, as we mentioned earlier, had already opened up university classes to women in 1855. Historian Jordan Archer writes about the significance of women’s seminaries in the 19th century…

The female seminary movement can be traced back to a single school, which opened in 1792. The classroom of Sarah Pierce at Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut educated women under the belief that women were intellectually equal to men…Several of her students, including Catherine Beecher and Emma Willard, would go on to found female seminaries of their own with curriculums that included logic, chemistry and mathematics. This movement was monumental, and not only because it was the first standard education for women. It was also the first time women played an active role in their own education. Schools for women, founded by women, began to open all over the country, beginning around the 1820s.

Circa 1890 – St. Agatha’s Seminary was highly successful in Iowa City for nearly 50 years, and due to that success, a fourth floor was added to the building in 1875.

Historical records show us these details…

Based on education surveys by both the United States government and the Catholic Church, St. Agatha’s Seminary successfully operated as both a day school and a boarding school for women for nearly 50 years (1862-1911), peaking at an enrollment of 156 by 1883. A report from the Commissioner of Education (1894) indicates the nuns taught algebra, geometry and physics to the young women at the seminary – a curriculum focused on academics in contrast to other schools which focused more on etiquette and manners.

Most records indicate that St. Agatha’s closed its doors in1911…

(P-0275)

After St. Agatha’s closed in 1911, the building was purchased by local businessman Albert Burkley, who renamed it Svendi Hall, using it as a women’s dormitory for SUI students. In 1918, Burkley, who owned other establishments in downtown Iowa City, converted the building into an apartment complex, renaming it Burkley Place. Here’s more info from historical records…

Some writings (above) indicate that St. Agatha’s closed in 1909, but most agree that 1911 was its final year.

Today, the St. Agatha building remains as an apartment complex and is simply identified by its street address – 130 East Jefferson.

Regardless of its name, it’s good to know that this historic building on Jefferson Street has never been lost to urban renewal. Yet it’s interesting that very few Iowa Citians today know the amazing story behind it. In closing, allow me to share a few short comments from author Jordan Archer, a physics student at Iowa, who, in 2016, wrote about her three-year experience living in this iconic building…

I live in a female seminary. It’s an apartment building now, mostly remodeled, but I can imagine the history trapped between the brick walls. I sleep in the same rooms where some of the first young girls in our nation were allowed to educate themselves. I make coffee in the same spot where I imagine a nun once stood, teaching algebra to her class. I eat breakfast at a shaky wooden dining table, where a female student gazed out the windows onto Iowa City 150 years ago. I wonder if those students at the female seminary had a clear view of the Capitol building, with nothing to obstruct the sight of its golden dome.

As the education of women grew into a staple of society, Iowa City evolved as well. Today, I look out the window and see stunning university buildings, paved roads and crowds. While the city has grown, the exterior of 130 E. Jefferson St. remains mostly unchanged from its days as a female seminary. I found a picture from around (1890), taken from across the street when both Jefferson and Dubuque were still dirt roads and the seminary was the tallest building around. Now, Van Allen Hall dwarfs it on the opposite corner. However, the building looks the same, with a white, decorative balcony outside the second floor windows, red bricks forming the first three stories and grey roofing encasing the fourth story. The building is capped by a single turret, a bell tower when it operated as a seminary.

I have lived on the third floor for the past three years, looking out over Jefferson Street. After (my) research, I have an image of a student at St. Agatha’s doing the same. From her window, she would have seen dirt roads, churches and a small town with a fascinating future ahead. Now, I see a large campus, filled with both men and women attending class together. In the same building where nuns once taught young girls, today men and women share laundry rooms. While there is still work to be done, tremendous strides have been made in education equality between genders since that time. Mary Haberstroh played a silent role in bringing women’s education from gender-specific boarding schools to forming a 52 percent majority at the University of Iowa.

Thank you, Jordan. A beautiful tribute to Fredinand and Mary Haberstroh, St. Mary’s Church, and The Sisters of Charity (BVM). A tip of the old hat to you all. And to you, St. Agatha’s – thank you for your amazing 50-year contribution toward breaking the glass ceiling, bringing equity in education to so many women throughout the latter part of the 19th century.


FYI: Here’s a brief timeline for equality in education for women in Iowa City…

1855. Classes begin at the State University of Iowa, admitting both men and women on an equal basis. The 1856-57 student body numbered 124 – 93 men, 41 women.

1862. St. Agatha’s Women’s Seminary opens in Iowa City, beginning nearly 50 years (1862-1911) of quality education for women during a time in America when opportunities for equality in education were very limited.

1870. The University of Iowa opens a medical school and admits both men and women.

1873. The State University of Iowa becomes one of the first colleges in America to award a law degree to a woman – Mary B. Hickey Wilkinson.

1876. Jennie McCowen becomes one of the first women to graduate from the University of Iowa Medical Department. In 1884, she wrote, “In no state has it been more freely conceded that human interests are not one but many, and that the work of the world, broad and varied, must fall not upon one sex, nor upon one class, but that each individual, in return for benefit received, is in honor bound to bear his or her share of the burden.”

1886: The University’s first bachelor’s thesis, “A Brief Description of Nine Species of Hepaticae Found in the Vicinity of Iowa City,” was written by a woman, Mary F. Linder. One year later, Iowa’s first master’s thesis, “The History of the Common Frog,” was also written by a woman, Rose B. Ankeny Edgar.

1912: The first African American women to graduate from the State University of Iowa were Letta (Cary) Bledsoe and Adah (Hyde) Johnson. Both were from Des Moines and received their degrees from the College of Liberal Arts on July 26.

1918. Mildred Whitcomb, of Ottumwa, Iowa, is named editor of The Daily Iowan, becoming the newspaper’s first female editor and one of the first women to head an American college daily newspaper.

1920. The hard work of Iowa’s own Carrie C. Catt and others culminates in the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

1924: Eve Drewelow earned Iowa’s first Master of Arts degree in painting, following the University’s decision two years earlier to accept creative work in lieu of theses for graduate degrees.

1941: Lulu Merle Johnson became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. from an Iowa institution and among about a dozen black women in the nation to achieve such status at that time.

Click here to access our larger Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline.

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity index.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

University Archives: Resource Guide to University ‘Firsts’, University of Iowa Libraries

Samuel Mazzuchelli, Wikipedia

Ferdinand Haberstroh, History of Johnson County, RootsWeb

Ferdinard Haberstroh, St. Joseph Cemetery, Iowa City, IowaWPAGraves

Saturday Postcard 187: Stories of St. Mary’s, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb

Park House Hotel, Wikipedia

The Catholic Churches (Chapter XVII), Clarence Ray (C.R.) Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa – Volume 1, 1912, p 341

St. Mary’s Church – Iowa City – Diamond Jubilee, Joseph Fuhrmann, May 21, 1916, pp 12, 14, 30, 35, 117-120

Sisters of Mercy of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), Encyclopedia Dubuque

Jefferson Street Historic District-Iowa City, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, State Historical Society of Iowa

Female seminary, Wikipedia

Historic Iowa City women’s seminary paved the way toward equal access to education, Jordan Archer, The Little Village Magazine, December 6, 2016

Iowa City Historic Preservation Plan, Iowa-City.com

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