University Archives History
History of Mercyhurst University
In 1926, the Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Erie founded Mercyhurst College on a hill overlooking Lake Erie. Leading the effort was Mother M. Borgia Egan, whose determination and supervision made the venture a success. The Sisters of Mercy believed strongly in the education and empowerment of women, and accordingly, Mercyhurst College was a women-only institution for its first several decades.
Since its founding nearly a century ago, Mercyhurst has undergone significant changes. From welcoming its first male students in 1969 to offering its first graduate program in 1978 to gaining university status in 2012, the institution has proven time and time again its ability not only to adapt to changing times but to put change in motion. Today, Mercyhurst enrolls approximately 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students, a far cry from its humble beginnings. Even so, Mercyhurst remains loyal to its roots in the Mercy tradition, keeping the Mercy Core Values at the heart of its mission.
This webpage will continue to be updated as a more comprehensive account of the institutional history is developed.
History of The University Archives
The Mercyhurst University History Department established the Archival Center in the 1971. The archives were originally housed in the Learning Resources Center. In its beginnings, the Archival Center collected and preserved material related to university, local, and regional history. In September 1995, the Archives Center was named for Sister Mary Lawrence Franklin R.S.M, Mercyhurst Archivist from 1980-1994, and the Archives’ focus has since shifted towards preserving primarily Mercyhurst institutional history. The archives is now held on the 3rd floor of Hammermill Library.
Sister Mary Lawrence Franklin
Sister Lawrence was born in Erie and was a graduate of Mercyhurst University. She taught at several elementary and secondary schools and served as the archivist for the Sisters of Mercy from 1986-1995. As a Sister of Mercy, she was active in the Mercy community and with several local volunteer organizations. A poet, Sister Lawrence had published five booklets of her work and authored From Eire to Erie, a history of the Erie Sisters of Mercy
History of The Thomas J. and Michele Ridge Collection
The Thomas J. and Michele Ridge Collection at Mercyhurst University covers the timeline of their years in public service. Consisting primarily of documents, audiovisual material, photographs, and artifacts, the Ridge Collection includes Thomas Ridge’s services as the U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania’s 21st district (1983-1995), and, more extensively, his two terms as the 43rd Governor of Pennsylvania (1995-2001). The Collection also includes Michele Ridge’s papers from her time as First Lady of Pennsylvania (1995-2001).
Governor and Mrs. Ridge’s papers incorporate subjects of research interest regarding Erie, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and national and international topics. These subjects range from welfare reform, education, the environment, Americans with Disabilities Act, and budget balancing. Of note, the Collection includes both Governor and Mrs. Ridge’s daily schedule and every speech given from 1995-2001, the September 11th terrorist attack, and the subsequent forming of the Office of Homeland Security, the predecessor to the Department of Homeland Security.
The story of Mercyhurst begins across the Atlantic Ocean, in the city of Dublin. There, on historic Baggot Street, Catherine Elizabeth McAuley founded a new religious congregation—the Sisters of Mercy—in 1831. The Sisters of Mercy pledged to uphold not only the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but a fourth vow as well—the vow of service. They made it their mission to improve the lives of those suffering from poverty or illness and to elevate underserved communities through education. This mission drove their ministry, propelling the spread of the order first across Ireland and England and then, in 1843, to the United States. Seven Sisters of Mercy made the transatlantic voyage, settling in the city of Pittsburgh to establish a convent there. From Pittsburgh, a group of Sisters traveled northeast to Titusville, setting up several schools in the region over the years that followed.
Following the success of their educational ministry in these years, the Sisters of Mercy set their sights further north. Just as founder Catherine McAuley had sought to uplift women through the Mercy ministry, the Sisters of Mercy in Erie believed passionately in the need to empower the women of this region through education. They recognized that women in Erie and beyond lacked opportunities for higher education. To remedy this, the Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Erie founded Mercyhurst College on a hill overlooking Lake Erie. The all-female college, they were certain, would provide a top-notch education in a range of disciplines, preparing its students for success as homemakers, new Sisters of Mercy, and, increasingly, as career women.
Leading the effort was Mother M. Borgia Egan, whose determination and supervision made the venture a success. Born Catherine Egan in DuBois into an Irish Catholic family, she became a postulant to the Sisters of Mercy at age 14. Her service as principal of a Mercy school in DuBois exemplified her commitment to Mercy education as well as her leadership ability. Some of her greatest strengths were her intelligence and her decisiveness – once she had made a decision, she never wavered in seeing it through.
While it is unclear when or how Mother Borgia decided to pursue the creation of a college for women, the decision undoubtedly was shaped by broader social trends. At the time, Catholic youth increasingly sought opportunities to pursue higher education in a Catholic setting, but these opportunities were limited. On a practical level, the high enrollment at Catholic grade schools meant a higher demand for qualified schoolteachers with bachelor’s degrees. For the Sisters of Mercy, opening a college where Sisters could be educated would ensure their members would be well-prepared to serve the community through the ministries of medicine and education. With the support and advice of Bishop Gannon and Father Thomas Gasson, then-president of Boston College, Mother Borgia led the Sisters of Mercy through the process of immense change as they moved their headquarters from Titusville to Erie and began planning for the creation of a women’s college there. Despite others’ doubts, Mother Borgia remained firm in the belief that the Sisters of Mercy would find and raise the funds for the project. She won the admiration and respect of many as she worked to make the dream of Mercyhurst College a reality, guiding the Sisters through challenges like the cost of the project and the final, frantic efforts to finish construction after a workers’ strike left the completion of work on Old Main and Egan Hall in the Sisters’ hands. With hard work and determination, under Mother Borgia’s leadership, the Sisters’ efforts paid off.
The laying of the cornerstone for the original college complex, envisioned as a classical Gothic structure, occurred on August 25, 1925, and drew a crowd of thousands of onlookers. A year later, Mercyhurst College opened its doors to its first group of students on September 20, 1926. At the time, twenty-three young women comprised its student body, while its faculty consisted of seventeen Sisters of Mercy. In the years that followed, construction was completed on several signature features of the campus, including Christ the King Chapel, O’Neil Tower, and the Grotto. The Sisters of Mercy also maintained a Seminary for the education of teenage girls; the Seminary was housed on the Mercyhurst College campus until 1963, when it was moved to a new building and took on a new name – Mercyhurst Prep.
Mercyhurst College earned its charter from the state of Pennsylvania in 1928, and accreditation from Middle States followed three years later. It was the first institution in the Erie region to grant college-level education to young women. Despite the challenges of these early decades, including the Great Depression and World War II, this was a time of growth and joy for the institution. In 1929, students published the first edition of The Merciad; the student newspaper has remained active ever since. 1930 saw the creation of the first sports teams, and in 1934, the first wedding to be held in Christ the King Chapel took place. These formative years saw the establishment of crucial traditions, traditions like May Day festivities, formal dinners, and the Orphan’s Party that combined socialization and fun with educational and charitable experience.
As the college grew in enrollment, the sprawling campus saw the construction of new buildings to accommodate student life and academics. These buildings – like Weber Hall and Preston Hall – have changed in function over the years, but remain an integral part of the campus. In 1950, Mercyhurst gained another iconic symbol in the form of the magnificent wrought iron gates that mark the main entrance to campus. Academically, the college continued to establish a reputation for excellence. Throughout its history, Mercyhurst has taken considerable pride in developing signature programs that are unlike offerings anywhere else in the nation. During these years, one such program was the Cadet Teacher Program, which ran for nearly half a century and centered on equipping students with real-world teaching experience.
The 1960s were a period of transition across the nation, and Mercyhurst saw its fair share of change as well. As students underwent a shift in consciousness, they turned away from old traditions and sought new directions; for example, the iconic May Day festivities that had been a defining part of campus life for so many years were held for the last time in the late 1960s after students expressed a lack of interest in continuing an event that was both old-fashioned and costly.
But the biggest change in those years, and certainly one of the most significant shifts in Mercyhurst’s history, occurred at the close of the decade. In February 1969, recognizing the changes sweeping the nation’s social fabric as well as academic demand and economic forces, Mercyhurst’s Board of Trustees voted to make Mercyhurst a coeducational institution. For the first time in its history, Mercyhurst welcomed male students alongside female students that fall. Sister Carolyn Hermann, then-president of Mercyhurst, oversaw the transition, which ushered in further expansion as facilities were repurposed and constructed anew to accommodate the male students. It was not long before Mercyhurst, long known as a women-only institution, reached equilibrium in its balance of male and female students.
A decade after becoming coeducational, Mercyhurst marked another milestone with the offering of its first graduate program in 1978. Since then, its graduate offerings have expanded to include thirteen master’s degrees and ten graduate certificates. The Laker football team debuted in 1981, winning its first game and from that day forward being a key element of campus life and school spirit. To keep up with student demand, Mercyhurst continued to expand its roster of athletic programs, attracting standout student-athletes in a range of sports. Continuing its tradition of developing signature programs, Mercyhurst debuted its Research Intelligence Analysis Program (RIAP) in 1992. It was the first four-year degree program in the nation designed to prepare students for a career in intelligence analysis.
In the twenty-first century, Mercyhurst has adapted to changing times – and continually sets itself ahead of the curve. With new traditions like the Mass of the Holy Spirit and Hurst Day to bring the community together and new offerings like the Cybersecurity program, Mercyhurst puts its motto of Carpe Diem into practice. In 2012, Mercyhurst gained university status, a major milestone. As Mercyhurst University approaches its centennial celebration, it can look back on its past with pride. From a women’s college that began with twenty-three students and seventeen Sister-faculty, the university has grown to enroll approximately 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students in an impressive variety of disciplines – a far cry from its humble beginnings. But in all those years, despite all the changes and challenges they held, Mercyhurst has remained loyal to its roots in the Mercy tradition. Its success and growth are a testament to the longevity of the Sisters’ vision of a “college upon a hill,” a vision they worked diligently to make reality and one which has so drastically shaped the lives of all those who call Mercyhurst home.
The Mercyhurst University Archives proudly capture the illustrious, inspiring history of the institution and those connected to it. We at the Archives welcome you to explore Mercyhurst’s history in greater depth.
The history of Mercyhurst and the changes the institution has undergone are captured by a variety of sources, including photographs, news articles, yearbooks—and advertisements, which provide information about Mercyhurst itself while also reflecting the contemporary social environment. One of the earliest advertisements for Mercyhurst appeared in print in 1930, and it emphasizes the college’s focus on women. The ad describes Mercyhurst as a “college for women interested only in the life work and problems of women,” reflecting the prevalent notion that women should pursue different activities, interests, and careers than men. In keeping with this notion, Mercyhurst offered only four paths of study at this time: high school teaching, home economics, social science, and secretarial work. These four paths were some of the only ‘appropriate’ careers for women during this era. The ad depicts the ‘ideal’ Mercyhurst student as a well-dressed young woman, indicating that Mercyhurst primarily attracted middle- and upper-class women during this time. Mercyhurst, according to this advertisement, was the ideal college for modern women, offering a modern education; the emphasis on modern trends reflects the postwar fascination with new ideas and shifting trends, a fascination that culminated with the the fast-paced Roaring Twenties. Interestingly, while this advertisement mentions that the college was run by the Sisters of Mercy, it did not mention the college’s Catholic identity—possibly reflecting the college’s desire to recruit women of varied faith backgrounds in a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was not uncommon.
A few years later, the tone of Mercyhurst’s advertisements had shifted. After the difficult years of the Great Depression, the ads of the late 1930s focused on logistics. They promoted scholarships available to Erie students, stated the cost of a Mercyhurst education outright, and instructed young women about which high school classes to take to prepare for college. Clearly, after years of economic hardship, financial considerations were given a great deal of importance. Additionally, the ads of these years reflect the slow yet perceptible growth of women’s opportunities outside the home, as they informed students of potential career paths like dietetics and hospital technology that had previously been absent from Mercyhurst’s curriculum. But an education at Mercyhurst would not be ‘all work and no play,’ assured one advertisement that emphasized social opportunities like formal dances and recreational opportunities. One flyer from 1937 sums up the message of this period’s ads perfectly, stating that college should be both “profitable and pleasant.” Mercyhurst was a place for personal growth as well as academic and professional advancement, and the ads of the late 1930s promoted this with enthusiasm.
The entrance of the United States into World War II in 1941 threw the plans of many young Americans into disarray. Young men entered the military to fight in Europe and the Pacific, and to fill the swell of job openings, many young women stepped up to work in factories and other previously male-dominated industries. The Mercyhurst adminsitration, therefore, worried that women would opt to join the workforce immediately after high school, causing a drop in enrollment that could be disastrous. Luckily, these fears did not come to pass, as Mercyhurst experienced only a slight dip in enrollment and continued to grow in the postwar years.
In 1950, after years of economic depression and war, the country had rebounded—but the wartime shake-up of the workforce had increased women’s interest in expanded career opportunities. Mercyhurst, eager to demonstrate its ability to offer these opportunities, advertised its sixteen fields of specialization to attract potential students. Just two decades prior, it had offered four paths of study; now, students could pursue these original programs as well as programs in fine arts, medical technology, pre-medicine, secondary education, social services, and medical secretary work. Times were changing, and Mercyhurst was at the forefront of that change. The Mercyhurst campus was also on the verge of significant expansion. Already, it had acquired its iconic gates, which were featured in a photograph on this ad; in the next decade, it would add a library, residence hall, and more.
But the biggest change came in 1969, when the college adopted a coeducational model and began accepting male students. “Mercyhurst Is Change,” announced one ad from that year in bold letters. Indeed, after a tumultuous decade for American society, change was an appealing word for many young people, and Mercyhurst recognized this. But it also sought to placate those for whom this change might be jarring, adding a quote from prominent Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman: “To live is to change... and to become perfect is to change often.”
By the 1970s, Mercyhurst’s advertisements had changed dramatically compared to the college’s earliest ads. Gone were the artful depictions of graceful socialites in fashionable 1930s clothing. Now, promotional materials featured photographs of male and female students alike in the lab, playing basketball, listening to a lecture, and more. These advertisements appealed to the contemporary desire for varied experiences and flexibility by promoting evening and summer classes and the college’s study abroad program. While still relatively small, Mercyhurst wanted to contend with larger institutions by offering opportunities of the same quality and appeal. Accordingly, the college advertised its new varsity athletics and travel experiences in Greece, Rome, England, Germany, France, and more.
For decades, Mercyhurst had advertised almost exclusively in print. But the release of a television advertisement in 1977 signified that the college had fully embraced the modern age. With a cheerful jingle encouraging students to “go away to college and stay right here,” this ad depicted the friendly atmosphere on campus with footage of the rowing and basketball teams, classroom experiences, and students socializing against the backdrop of blue skies and grand buildings. While over forty years have passed since its release, this TV ad is structured around a formula that has remained consistent in Mercyhurst’s advertisement ever since: utilize new forms of media to reach a broad audience, promote the institution’s top-notch athletics and academics, capture the excitement of student life, and show students just why Mercyhurst could be the place for them.
From cheering on the Laker football team at Tullio Field to filling the Mercyhurst Ice Center on winter weekends to watch men’s and women’s hockey in action, much of Mercyhurst’s vibrant student life celebrates the skill and hard work of the Laker athletic teams. But Mercyhurst’s athletic program has humble beginnings. Within a few years after its founding as an all-women's college, Mercyhurst’s foremost athletic offerings consisted of a field hockey team and women’s basketball. The main sports organization on campus was the Athletic Association, which provided opportunities for students to participate in a range of sports throughout the year. Participants faced off against other Mercyhurst classes or, on occasion, against other colleges. The Athletic Association also organized tennis matches and field days.
Another component of the athletics program in these years was the physical fitness program, which provided even more diverse offerings than the Athletic Association. Students took part in typical activities like basketball, swimming, badminton, and hockey, as well as more surprising ones like fencing and archery— not to mention square dancing, an American gym class staple. Between student-organized sports activities and the physical fitness program, Mercyhurst’s athletic offerings were quite suitable to the needs of the student body and contemporary social trends in the school’s early decades.
But times were changing. The 1969 transition to coeducation opened Mercyhurst’s doors to male students – and ushered in a new era for Mercyhurst athletics. With the student population growing in size and diversity, demand increased for sports programs for men and women alike. In the decade that followed, Mercyhurst added over a dozen new teams in eight sports: golf, tennis, rowing, soccer, softball, baseball, volleyball, and basketball. Of these, tennis was first – the establishment of a varsity tennis program was facilitated by the fact that a tennis court had been constructed just a year prior. Student athletes embraced these new opportunities, wasting no time in achieving victories that showed the nascency of Mercyhurst’s new athletic programs was no disadvantage. Just a year after the creation of a men’s crew team, for example, the team brought home a victory over the renowned Notre Dame University’s crew team. In 1972, the women’s sports teams joined the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, giving the programs more prestige and deeper connections with other institutions.
The establishment of a football team in 1981 had both tangible and symbolic impact, as it marked the success of Mercyhurst’s transition to coeducation as well as its ability to compete with other institutions—on the field and in the classroom. Men’s sports teams joined the National College Athletic Association in 1981, followed by women’s teams four years later. In addition to the new football program, the 1980s saw the addition of men’s and women’s cross country and swimming and men’s ice hockey.
To accommodate the rapid growth of Laker athletics, the face of the campus had to change. First came a basketball court housed in the new Campus Center, built in 1977, followed by a new baseball diamond located at the back of campus. In December 1991, the Mercyhurst Ice Center was dedicated. Costing $1.4 million dollars, the Ice Center fixed a problem that had plagued the hockey program since its inception. Previously, hockey players had to travel to all games due to the absence of a venue for home games. This earned them the moniker “The Boys on the Bus” and threatened to impact the players’ academics. With the opening of the Ice Center, hockey players could spend less time on travel and more time on the rink and in the classroom.
The football program gained its own home field advantage in 1996, with the opening of Tullio Field. Previously, Laker football games had taken place at the Erie Veterans Stadium. Named for the Erie mayor Lou Tullio whose support made the success of Mercyhurst athletics possible, Tullio Field soon was equipped with AstroTurf, making it one of the only AstroTurf football fields in the region.
With new facilities and a new mascot—the Old Man of the Sea, selected in 1994—Mercyhurst's sports teams were on their way to greatness. By the time Mercyhurst celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2001, it had developed a thriving athletic program that equipped student athletes with the facilities, coaching, and opportunities they needed to excel on the field and in the classroom. Now that Mercyhurst had the breadth of sports offerings that students sought, including women’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse, focus could shift from the rapid addition of more sports teams to the continual enhancement of existing programs. In the past two decades, Mercyhurst's teams have secured national championship victories and consistent advancement to playoff games. Athletic teams recruit both across the United States and internationally to attract new Lakers.
Of course, the success of Laker athletics is magnified by the positive engagement that the athletics program creates on campus. Notable superfans like Sister Damien Mlechick and Joe Hepfinger brought boundless enthusiasm that proved contagious – and lasting. Regardless of the sport, ‘game day’ provides the chance for students to come together in support of their fellow Lakers, making it a memorable experience for players and onlookers alike. Further contributing to student spirit is the Laker Pride marching band, established in 2016, which performs frequently at athletic events and other occasions. Having grown from humble beginnings as a 15-member pep band that began in 2016, Laker Pride now has a membership in the dozens, all of whom are Mercyhurst students who provide their time and talents to inspire and entertain the Laker community.
The face of Mercyhurst athletics has changed greatly over the years. The Old Man of the Sea is no longer, replaced by Louie the Laker—who then became Luke the Laker. With approximately two dozen sports teams and hundreds of student-athletes, Mercyhurst’s athletic program has grown from humble beginnings to become a regional and national powerhouse. Each year brings new triumphs, not only for the players themselves—but for the Laker community as a whole.
For decades, Mercyhurst has recognized the diverse educational needs of its student population, developing programs to support those with learning differences. Since its creation in the late 1980s, Mercyhurst’s Learning Differences Program has ensured that Mercyhurst is a welcoming, uplifting academic environment for all students. In 2008, to better meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum, the AIM program was established as a component of the Learning Differences Program. AIM stands for Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst, and this program was created with the recognition that students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders require individualized academic and social support so they can thrive in a college setting.
The AIM program had a humble start, accepting just four students in its first two years. But it grew rapidly, thanks in part to a federal grant of $100,000. At this time, Mercyhurst also began to offer a program held in the summer to help prepare high school students with autism for college life; this program is still held annually and is now called the CREATE program. Since its inception in 2008, the AIM program has grown in size and renown. Students benefit from opportunities like social gatherings, group outings, and career training. Furthermore, the program provides comprehensive academic and social support in the form of individualized learning assessments, skill development plans, access to advanced academic counseling, and the option of specialized housing. Today, the program is now housed within Student Life rather than the Learning Differences Program.
The exponential growth of the AIM program since its creation fourteen years ago is a testament to both the program’s quality and its graduates’ success. Currently, approximately seventy students are enrolled in the AIM program to pursue bachelor’s degrees. Both the AIM and CREATE programs have both received national recognition, and Mercyhurst University has been ranked as one of the top schools for students with learning differences. Just last year, Mercyhurst announced a partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers to establish a Cyber-Autism Pilot Program that will prepare students on the autism spectrum for careers in cybersecurity. This milestone is proof that Mercyhurst is fully committed to the success of all its students. Accordingly, the AIM program looks forward to continued success as it helps students to learn, grow, and thrive at Mercyhurst.
For nearly seventy-five years, all who turn into Old Main Drive from 38th Street pass through one of the most iconic structures on Mercyhurst’s campus – the Mercyhurst gates. Measuring twenty feet high and weighing in at an impressive fifteen tons, the iron gates have long welcomed students, faculty, alumni, and guests to the institution, making an unforgettable first impression. The gates are impressive enough on the surface, but even more intriguing is their storied past.
The history of the gates begins across the Atlantic. They were designed in England and manufactured in France not for Mercyhurst but for the estate of a wealthy heir named Harry Thaw. Thaw’s father had made a fortune in the railroad industry and passed it down to his son, who spent it lavishly on travel, parties, and on furnishing his Pittsburgh estate—Lyndhurst—where the gates were placed. In 1901, Thaw fell in love with actress Evelyn Nesbit, and they were soon married.
It seems like a fairytale romance between a wealthy suitor and his lovely bride, but there was trouble in paradise. Thaw had suffered from mental health issues for his entire life, and he became fixated on Evelyn’s past involvement with architect Stanford White. White, who designed the famous Madison Square Garden, was several decades Evelyn’s senior and pursued a relationship with her when she was still a teenager. While their relationship remains shrouded in mystery, there are allegations that their involvement began when White drugged and assaulted her.
The situation came to a dramatic culmination one June evening when Thaw and his wife Evelyn were attending a performance at Madison Square Garden. There, Thaw spotted Stanford White in attendance, and after the performance made his way through the crowd, drew a revolver, and shot White multiple times at close range in front of countless onlookers.
There was virtually no doubt of Thaw’s guilt in the crime, but even so, he managed to dodge a prison sentence. Thanks to the lobbying of his mother, Mrs. Mary Thaw, Harry Thaw was hospitalized for criminal insanity for just a few years. Now divorced from Evelyn, he continued his life after his time in confinement, living to the age of 76.
Three years after his death, his estate was set for demolition. The magnificent gates were slated for destruction, too—until Brandon Smith, the architect who designed Mercyhurst’s Weber Hall—intervened and suggested that Mother Borgia purchase them. She agreed, securing the gates at a reasonable price, and had them reworked to display the name of the college. The gates have been an iconic Mercyhurst landmark ever since, providing a warm welcome to campus despite their past connection to an American scandal.
Tucked away on the northwest side of campus is the Grotto, a shaded, peaceful place for reflection, conversation, and study. Modeled after the famous Grotto at Lourdes, France, a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics, the Mercyhurst Grotto features an alcove containing a white statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, an altar, and kneelers, with several benches spread throughout the surrounding lawn. The Grotto was designed by William Sullivan, Mercyhurst’s first chaplain. Sullivan was a central figure in early Mercyhurst history, as he also designed the driveway in front of Old Main and planned the creation of a lake to address water drainage issues. Sullivan Hall, located on the rise above the Grotto, is named for him.
The construction of the Grotto came at a time when many Americans were experiencing desperate times in the midst of the Great Depression. While the Sisters of Mercy certainly had their hands full running a new college, they also sought to alleviate the suffering in their surrounding community. One way they did this was by running a daily kitchen to serve food to those in need. It was from the kitchen’s clientele that Sullivan found the labor resources he needed to build the Grotto. The recruited men were glad to repay the Sisters for their generosity, and they got to work moving boulders and turning Sullivan’s vision into reality.
The Grotto initially featured a much larger statue of Mary, one that was too large to fit within the alcove as envisioned. It also held a statue of St. Bernadette, the young girl to whom Mary appeared at Lourdes. Orva O’Neil, the benefactor of O’Neil Tower and Christ the King Chapel, funded the venture with money left over from a family trip to Europe. She also donated these original statues in honor of her daughter Mary.
Since its creation, the Grotto has been one of Mercyhurst’s unique features. For years, it was the site of the annual May Day festivities. Sadly, the original Mary statue was vandalized in 1992, and the location of the St. Bernadette statue is unknown. The pieces of the first Mary statue are buried at the Grotto, and the replacement statue was ordered to fit within the Grotto alcove as originally planned. Today, students can find solitude in the beautiful tranquility of the Grotto at any time of year. While May Day festivities were eventually moved to the front campus and then ended altogether, the Grotto is the site of annual Masses at the start and end of each school year as well as a location for events like the Mercy March for Black Lives. The Grotto’s origins as an effort motivated by generosity and gratitude and its function as a place of prayerful contemplation make it a true embodiment of the Mercy mission.
With the exponential expansion of Mercyhurst since its opening in 1926, it is no surprise that the older buildings have served varied functions over the years, with departments and academic services shifting location to accommodate the changing needs of students and staff. One of the most ‘nomadic’ services on campus has been the Mercyhurst Library. Today, it is hard to imagine Mercyhurst without Hammermill Library, the large, modern facility that welcomes students to study and to investigate library resources. But when the college opened in 1926, all of its facilities—dormitories, classroom, gymnasium, dining hall, and more—were contained within what are now Old Main and Egan Hall. During those early years, the college library was located in a single room on Old Main’s second floor. It held over 8,000 books—an impressive number at the time, especially considering the limitations of the space.
This arrangement was short-lived. When O’Neil Tower was constructed in the early 1930s, the library took up residence on the tower’s second floor and consisted of a reading room and collection of materials. O’Neil Tower provided more space for students wishing to consult library materials and study, proving to be a more feasible location.
In 1952, ground was broken for Weber Hall, located adjacent to Old Main. Weber Hall was to hold a Little Theater on its lower level and a new library facility on the upper floor. This was the first time the college library had a free-standing building, since it had previously taken up space in buildings with other functions. The Weber Library provided more space, plus an impressive view of the front of campus through its floor-to-ceiling windows. Finally, the library had a more permanent home on campus—or so the Mercyhurst community thought.
When Sister Carolyn Herrmann became president in the early 1960s, she anticipated that the college would need significant expansion to accommodate its growth. Accordingly, she launched Mercyhurst’s first capital campaign, which was a resounding success. Funds from the campaign financed the construction of multiple new buildings, including a Learning Resource Center. The Learning Resource Center opened in 1971. It was initially a three-floor building with a rather boxy shape, located 100 feet further west than initially intended due to the discovery of an underground waterway. At the time it opened, the college library contained 65,000 volumes – clearly, expansion was a wise move. The Learning Resource Center housed these volumes, plus study rooms and an archival center.
The Learning Resource Center would undergo significant changes in the years to come. First, in 1985, its name was changed to Hammermill Library to commemorate a financial contribution from the Hammermill Foundation. In the 1990s, the Board of Trustees approved a $500,000 plan to automate the library, bringing it up-to-date with a world of changing technology. The addition of the Walker Wing, dedicated in 1998, added the Barrett Walker Computer Room and Catherine Walker Reading Room and connected Hammermill Library to Weber Hall. Weber Hall, which had been converted to a dance studio after the construction of the Learning Resource Center, was restored almost identically to its original library appearance in 1998 so that students could once again study in the Weber Great Room. Finally, the construction of a fourth floor – which added a Gothic-style exterior to the previously plain building – brought the Hammermill Library into architectural sync with other buildings on campus.
Since then, Hammermill Library has continued to expand its functionality. With the dedication of the Sister Mary Lawrence Franklin Archival Center in 1995, the Mercyhurst Archives, housed on the third floor of Hammermill, have expanded and modernized. Mercyhurst’s Hospitality Department operated a student-run café, Café Diem, in Hammermill Library from 2001 until 2017, when the café moved to the Center for Academic Engagement. Most recently, a million-dollar gift from the corporation MCPs in 2017 helped to fund a state-of-the-art cyber lab in the bottom floor of Hammermill to house the new Cybersecurity program. In 2019, Hammermill underwent a makeover, as a massive renovation to its first floor made the space more attractive and functional. Today, students can access an endless supply of academic materials, including hundreds of thousands of ebooks.
Mercyhurst’s library has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a single room in Old Main. While its history has involved a great deal of relocation and change, it seems that Hammermill Library will continue to be the perfect home for Mercyhurst’s library services for years to come.
The iconic façade of Old Main would be incomplete without the presence of O’Neil Tower, the four-story tower through which students, faculty, staff, and visitors enter the oldest building on campus. Prior to the construction of the initial college complex, the Sisters envisioned a tower that would be the “main feature of the school.” But the high expense of the project forced the Sisters to put the plans for the tower and for a chapel on hold until funds could be raised. For the founding Sisters, it was a disappointment to be sure, but not a devastating one. They remained confident that the tower and chapel would be built eventually, even if it took decades to gather the funds. Mother Borgia even remarked that “the building will not be at its best until we have this [tower].”
It would have been a decades-long wait until Mercyhurst would be able to finance the project, if not for the generosity of Mrs. Orva O’Neil. Mrs. O’Neil was a former student of Mother Borgia and had kept up a close friendship with her; her husband, James O’Neil, had two sisters who became Sisters of Mercy. James, who was from Titusville, had made a fortune in the oil industry, and Orva had suggested on multiple occasions that they contribute financially to the new Mercyhurst College. By the time James died in 1931, he had made clear his desire to fund the construction of a chapel at the college, and the building of the tower was to be part of this project. The O’Neils were Mercyhurst’s first major benefactors, and their contributions funded not only what would become O’Neil Tower—named for James O’Neil—but the Chapel and Grotto as well.
The tower was initially designed to reach an impressive height of 170 feet, at least six stories high. These plans, drawn up by architect Ferdinand Durang, the designer of Old Main, proved impractical. A six-story tower would be more costly and would be vulnerable to bad weather. Instead, the Sisters opted for a four-story design created by local architect Walter Monahan. Ground was broken for the project in 1932, and it was completed the following year – not even a decade after the opening of the college.
The Tower has served a plethora of functions over the years. Initially, it housed the library’s reading room and materials as well as a multifunctional suite for use by the O’Neil family. Currently, it holds administrative and academic offices. But the first-floor foyer has remained consistent in its function over the years, welcoming notable guests like Eleanor Roosevelt, the Von Trapp Family, and Bishop Fulton Sheen, and acting as the venue for holiday traditions and other festivities.
Today, the Tower is illuminated nightly—a striking sight and a fitting treatment for one of the most recognizable structures on campus, the image of which has served as Mercyhurst’s corporate logo. Its cornerstone bears a Latin phrase—In Te, Domine, Speravi, or In thee, Lord, have I hoped—that captures the unshakable faith of the Sisters of Mercy in all their endeavors. Decades later, Mother Borgia’s words still ring true for all who enter the Mercyhurst Gates: Old Main is at its best now that it has O’Neil Tower.
From its earliest days, Mercyhurst has been a trailblazing institution. This is evident in the boldness of its founding Sisters, the determination of its student body, the passion of its faculty, and the innovative nature of some of its most unique programs. Mercyhurst has always complemented its range of traditional liberal arts majors with programs that are undoubtedly unique. These signature programs set the Hurst apart, drawing eager students from across the nation and the world.
As a women’s college in the early and mid-twentieth century, Mercyhurst’s programs aligned with contemporary societal expectations for women. One of its first accredited bachelor’s degree programs was in home economics—a standard offering for a women’s college. But the Hurst’s program came with a twist. Students gained real-world experience in the science of homemaking by taking up residence for weeks at a time in the Home Management House, a house located on campus designated for use by home economics students to practice cooking, cleaning, and even childcare. For years, Mercyhurst would partner with a local orphanage to ‘adopt’ a baby for a short period of time so that the students could care for the child as if he or she were their own. Today, the concept seems surprising, but at the time, it made Mercyhurst’s home economics program uniquely suited to prepare students for their futures as homemakers.
Teaching was one of the most popular career paths for educated young women of this era, largely due to the gender expectations of the time. To meet demand for new teachers to serve in Catholic grade schools in the region, Mercyhurst developed another unique offering—the Cadet Teacher Program. The program began in 1955, supplementing the more traditional path to a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Participants received a scholarship to defray the cost and began their education at Mercyhurst in the summer term immediately following their graduation from high school. Two years later, they ventured into the community to spend the following two academic years teaching at a grade school of their choice, returning to Mercyhurst to continue their education during the summer terms. The program lasted over forty years, during which time it prepared approximately 450 new teachers for their careers. It ended in 1999 due to a decreased demand for teachers in Catholic grade schools and other changes in the education system.
In 1972, Mercyhurst developed a program that would prepare students to live out the Mercy value of compassionate hospitality in their careers. The Division of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management grew to become Mercyhurst’s largest academic major within a decade of its founding. Students gained hands-on experience working at the department's on- and off-campus dining establishments and learning in state-of-the-art kitchen facilities. The Marriott Corporation named the Mercyhurst program the best in the nation, cementing its prestige. Today, the Statler Department of Hospitality remains unique for its wide-ranging opportunities for experiential learning, including an annual student-run dining series and faculty-led study abroad trips.
The Hospitality department had the highest population of students for several years, until it was eclipsed in size by the up-and-coming Intelligence Studies program. The program was created as a concentration within the history department in 1992 with the backing of Robert Heibel, former FBI deputy chief of counterterrorism, and was known as RIAP (Research/Intelligence Analyst Program). At its inception, it was the only such program in the United States. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it became clear that demand was growing for skilled intelligence professionals, and the program was growing to meet that demand. It became an independent major in 2004, at which point Mercyhurst began offering a master’s degree in Applied Intelligence. Students take coursework in foreign languages, computer science, history, and current world developments. The Intelligence Studies program affords its students a broad network of professional connections throughout the upper levels of government and business and provides countless internship and experiential learning opportunities.
Just as Mercyhurst developed its Intelligence Studies program to meet the need for professional analysts, the new bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in Cyber Security are structured to prepare professionals to address the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century: cyber threats. Ransomware attacks, hacking, and data breaches threaten organizations at all levels of society – in government, healthcare, education, business, and more. Students of Mercyhurst’s Cyber Security program, which was established in 2018, learn hands-on cyber skills ranging from coding to digital forensics to hacking. The program is housed in the newly-equipped Federal Resources Corporation Cyber Education Center, a state-of-the-art facility. It’s one of the only programs of its kind in the nation, and the option to pair a degree in Cyber Security with a second major in Intelligence Studies is unmatched.
Every program at Mercyhurst provides excellent opportunities to students, preparing them for successful careers. These signature programs in particular capture the ‘pioneer spirit’ that motivated the founding Sisters of Mercy in their efforts to establish a women’s college in Erie. The Cadet Teacher Program and home economics degree no longer exist in their original form. But their legacy lives in Mercyhurst’s commitment not only to adapt to changing times but to bring about positive change, blazing new paths and inspiring others near and far.
Egan. Preston. Weber. Herrmann. McAuley. Taylor. Warde. Students and employees at Mercyhurst would recognize these instantly as names of administrative, academic, and residential buildings on campus. But the significance of these names does not end there. Each one pays tribute to a Sister of Mercy whose life and ministry were vital to Mercyhurst’s success.
Two buildings bear the names of Sisters of Mercy who never set foot in America, let alone Erie. McAuley Hall was built in 1959 and was given its name in honor of Catherine McAuley. Catherine McAuley, born in Ireland, recognized the need to minister to the poor and sick and to working-class women and children in her native Dublin. In 1827, she established the House of Mercy to house a community of like-minded women devoted to prayer and service of the poor. Several years later, after facing pressure due to the scandalous nature of unmarried women living together without vows, she structured the community into an official religious congregation and named the new order the Sisters of Mercy. Her decision was contingent on the guarantee that the Sisters would remain able to serve the community rather than conforming to a more traditional cloistered style of religious life. The Sisters of Mercy would go beyond the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to adopt a defining fourth vow—a vow of service. Soon, the Sisters of Mercy spread across the Irish Sea to England, and later all the way across the Atlantic to establish a settlement in Pittsburgh.
Seven Sisters of Mercy made the transatlantic voyage at the invitation of Michael O’Connor, an Irish bishop en route to Pittsburgh who wanted the Sisters of Mercy to start a convent there. One of the seven was Sister Frances Warde. Sister Warde was one of the first seven women to join Catherine McAuley’s order in 1832, and Catherine McAuley considered her a close friend and trusted associate—one of the “first-born,” as she referred to those who joined the order in its nascency. The spread of the Mercy mission across the United States from coast to coast was largely due to Sister Warde’s tireless efforts. For four decades after her arrival, she worked nonstop to establish or aid in the creation of Mercy institutions like schools and hospitals, traveling extensively across the nation in a time long before commercial air travel. In doing so, she laid the groundwork for the continued success of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. Though Catherine McAuley and Frances Warde may never have lain eyes on Mercyhurst, their presence is palpable in Mercyhurst’s continued commitment to the Mercy mission. Therefore, the tribute to their memories in the form of namesake buildings—McAuley Hall and Warde Hall, two of the three freshman residence halls—is well-deserved.
The oldest building named for a Sister of Mercy is Egan Hall, which was part of the original college complex as it was when Mercyhurst opened its doors in 1926. It is named for Mercyhurst’s foundress Mother M. Borgia Egan, the “remarkable woman” whose tireless commitment to the vision of a women’s college upon a hill overlooking Lake Erie guided Mercyhurst through its early years. Born Catherine Egan in DuBois, Pennsylvania, into an Irish Catholic family, she became a postulant to the Sisters of Mercy at age 14. Her tenure as principal of a Sisters of Mercy school in DuBois exemplified her commitment to Mercy education as well as her leadership ability. Those who knew her admired her intelligence and her decisiveness – once she made a decision, her commitment to seeing it through was unwavering.
Mother Borgia Egan led Mercyhurst through pivotal moments in its development, as its first president for a brief period and then as an academic dean. From traveling to Harrisburg in 1928 to secure the institution’s official charter to purchasing the iconic gates for the entrance to Old Main Drive, Mother Borgia’s leadership shaped Mercyhurst on all levels—academic, physical, and spiritual. It is only fitting that one of the most regal buildings on campus, one that captures the spirit of Mercyhurst as it was at its founding, bears her name.
Mother Borgia did not work alone, however. Mercyhurst would not have succeeded without the contributions of its early sister-faculty, which included Mother M. deSales Preston and Sister Mary Alice Weber. As a Sister of Mercy in the early 20th century, Sister deSales Preston trained as a nurse to serve at DuBois Hospital. She gained experience and seniority in the order, becoming involved in the management of various Mercy institutions. These included Mercy Manor, a home for working women in Erie, and a mission at St. Basil’s Parish in Coalport. She joined Mother Borgia’s efforts to establish Mercyhurst College and was present as a faculty member when Mercyhurst opened in 1926. Mother deSales Preston served not one but an impressive three terms as Mercyhurst’s president – from 1927 to 1933, from 1939 to 1945, and from 1948 to 1954. During her tenure, she oversaw important moments in the school’s early history, such as the first May Crowning, the granting of the charter and eventual accreditation, the installation of the Gates, and the construction of a Sisters’ convent that would bear her name. Preston Hall was the residence of the Sisters of Mercy until its conversion first to a men’s residence hall in 1970 and shortly thereafter into faculty offices. In 1990, a third floor was added, providing space for the Walker School of Business and giving Preston a makeover to match the campus’ Gothic style.
Sister Mary Alice Weber was also on Mercyhurst’s faculty when the college opened and served as registrar during the school’s early years. Those who encountered her spoke of her charm, intelligence, calm demeanor, and kindness. Both she and her sister Rachael were religious sisters. When their father passed away, they contributed their inheritance to fund the construction of a new hall, which would hold the college’s library and a theatre venue. While Weber Hall is officially named for Joseph J. Weber, the father of Sister Mary Alice and Sister Rachael, its name indirectly honors Sister Mary Alice and her generosity and dedication to Mercyhurst’s success.
After Mother Preston’s final term as president, Mother M. Eustace Taylor stepped into the role. She was Mercyhurst’s fifth president, serving from 1954 to 1960. She was an alumna of Mercyhurst’s first graduating class, earning a bachelor’s degree from Mercyhurst followed by a master’s degree from Duquesne University and a doctorate from Catholic University. Prior to becoming the president of Mercyhurst, she taught English and Latin, resuming her role as an instructor once her tenure as president concluded. Mother Taylor remained active at Mercyhurst in the years that followed, even recording a history of the college to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. In 1994, 75 years after she entered the Sisters of Mercy, the Little Theatre in Weber Hall was dedicated Taylor Little Theatre in her honor.
The Herrmann Student Union honors Sister Carolyn Herrmann, whose leadership is particularly noteworthy; in fact, her tenure is referred to as Mercyhurst’s ‘Second Spring’ because the institution experienced profound growth and renewal in these years. Sister Herrmann served as president during a time of great change for both the nation and the institution. She was the first president under the institution’s revised charter, which created a distinction between the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy and that of the college. Upon taking office in 1963, she immediately faced the tension between tradition and modernity at an institution whose identity was grounded in the former and whose students were increasingly seeking the latter. Gone were the days of May Day festivities and formal events intended to shape Mercyhurst’s students as homemakers and women of society. The times were changing, and Sister Herrmann recognized the need for Mercyhurst to adapt. Accordingly, she oversaw the 1969 transition to coeducation, one of the most momentous changes in the history of the school. The capital campaign she launched at the start of her tenure prepared the college for the transition, as it financed the construction of three new buildings in the 1960s to accommodate the growth of the student body. The expansion of the athletic program, the construction of more student housing, and the restructuring of the academic process soon followed.
By the time Sister Carolyn Herrmann left office in 1972, the institution had undergone dramatic lasting changes. Indeed, not since her tenure has another Sister of Mercy served as Mercyhurst’s president, and it would be almost fifty years before another woman, President Kathleen Getz, would hold the role. But Carolyn Herrmann’s leadership left an indelible mark on the institution and positioned it for even greater growth in the decades that followed. Today, the Herrmann Student Union honors her contributions.
These buildings provide venues for student recreation and academic work, house faculty and administrative offices, and enable students to live together in community. They are central to the life of Mercyhurst for different reasons, just as the women whose memories they honor each left a unique and indelible imprint on the institution. Today, they continue to commemorate the women whose vision and hard work made Mercyhurst the thriving university it is today.