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Marymount History

History of Marymount College

Marymount College was established by Mother Marie Joseph Butler, a woman of tremendous vision and courage. Born Johsanna Butler in County Kilkenny, Ireland, she entered the order of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and served in the congregation’s schools in Portugal before coming to the United States.

In December 1907, Mother Butler (accompanied by Mother Gerard Phelan and a few other nuns) came to Tarrytown with the intention of establishing a boarding and day school for young women. Mother Butler’s cousin, Sir James Butler, helped her locate the property for the school, the Reynard Mansion and grounds.

James had built a successful grocery business, and he provided some of the funds for the purchase of the property. Mother Butler had brought a statue of Our Lady with her from Europe and she named the new school Marymount in honor of the Blessed Virgin and in memory of James Butler’s late wife. The school opened in February 1908 with six students.

Mother Butler had dreams of expanding the new school, and within a few years a four-story annex to the main building was added. Mother Butler established a complete high school curriculum, and by 1918 offered two additional years of study beyond the high school program.

Mother Butler and Mother Gerard were working toward becoming a four-year college awarding baccalaureate degrees. The two educators looked for more property to acquire so that the school could be expanded accordingly. In 1918, they were able to purchase the Herrmann estate, which is the site of the present-day Marymount campus at the top of Neperan Road. There were three buildings on the property at that time: the original Butler Hall; Sacre Coeur, a beloved dormitory until it was razed in the 1970s; and St. Joseph’s, which became the novitiate and later, St. John’s, another dormitory, which was on the site of the present St. John’s-Ursula dormitories. A provisional college charter was granted in 1919.

The college charter became permanent in 1924, the first year that Marymount granted baccalaureate degrees. Students in the 1920’s enjoyed many extra-curricular clubs and participated in different sports, including field hockey and riding, in addition to their academic work. The yearbook, the Elan, and the literary magazine, Oriflamme, were started during this time and the tradition of the May Queen festivities began. With the purchase of a residence in Paris, Marymount was able to offer its students the opportunity to study abroad, becoming one of the first American colleges to do so. In 1926, Mother Butler was elected Superior General of the R.S.H.M. order and Mother Gerard Phelan, her closest associate, succeeded her as president of Marymount in 1927.

Marymount continued to expand during the 1930s, despite the worldwide economic depression. The Science Building was completed in 1934, (the present) Butler Hall in 1936 and Gerard Hall two years later.

The 1930s also saw the founding of the Cormont, the student newspaper, and the inauguration of the Gerard Scholar award, the Colleges’ highest academic honor. The English department, headed by Mother Ursula Corrrea and the art department, under Mother Stansislaus Clarke, offered more courses than any of the other departments. The theology and philosophy departments benefited from the arrival of the Rev. E.K. Lynch, O. Carm., in 1931, whose courses were very popular with the students.

The decade of the 1940s began on a sad note for Marymount with the death of Mother Butler in April, 1940. When the U.S. Entered into WWII, less than two years later, the students joined many others in “doing their part” for the war effort. They formed first aid units for the Red Cross, sold war bonds and worked on victory gardens, among other activities.  

Mother Therese Dalton succeeded Mother Gerard as president of the college in 1943. Mother Gerard was subsequently elected Superior General for the congregation.

The Snow Queen Festival, a popular tradition to benefit overseas missions (a favorite cause of Mother Butler) began in 1945, and a large new dormitory, Gailhac Hall, was built. The student body grew in numbers, especially after the war ended, and many long-serving members of Marymount’s faculty joined the College during these years, among them Mr. Louis Tanno for the drama department, Dr. Helene Magaret and Dr. Vincent Kenny of the English department, Dr. Lillian Proietto of the biology department, and Dr. Elisa Carrillo of the history department.

Mother du Sacre Coeur Smith, a former classics professor and Dena of the college became president of Marymount in 1953. She was especially committed to promoting the mission work that was so important to Mother Butler and during these years the students worked diligently to make the Snow Queen Bazaar, which benefited the missions, a great success. The building program of the college continued during the 1950s with Spellman Auditorium completed in 1951, Marina Hall in 1954, and the alumnae Sports Building in 1959. A highlight of this decade was the 1957 celebration of the 50th anniversary of Marymount’s founding.

In 1960, Mother Brendan McQuillan (now known as Sister Marie) became president of the College. The 1960s were a time of almost revolutionary change, with upheaval in higher education, in society at large and in the Catholic Church. Increased student activism—fueled by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement—affected college campuses throughout the nation and Marymount was not exception.  

Prominent politicians such as Senator Robert Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy spoke on campus and both students and faculty were involved in protests against the war, while opinions within the Marymount community were sharply divided. Any turmoil, however, did not prevent the College form completing the construction of the Gloria Gaines Library, and another large dormitory, St. John’s-St. Ursula.

The decade ended with Mother Brendan’s resignation as president and the selection of Dr. John Meng, former president of Hunter College and executive vice president of Fordham University, as the first layperson—and male—to be president of Marymount. Influential faculty members who came to Marymount during the 1960s included Dr. Michael Zeik, Sister Kathleen Connell and Dean Roger Panetta of the history department, as well as Sister Ellen Marie Keane and Professor John Lawry of the philosophy department.

The highest enrollment in Marymount's history, approximately 1,100 students, was reached in the early 1970s. During this time, in response to a changing educational climate and introduction of the federal Title IX legislation, there was serious consideration of the possibility of Marymount becoming co-educational. However, after deliberation of the idea, a Long-Range Planning Committee concluded that Marymount’s mission should remain that of providing quality undergraduate education to women only.

Marymount remained a pioneer of new ideas when it introduced the Weekend College in 1975. This program offered adults, most of whom were employed full-time, the opportunity to pursue a college degree through weekend classes.

At the same time, the liberal arts curriculum for the traditional college students was revised to put more emphasis on career preparation. The College began offering students the opportunity to participate in off-campus internships, to provide them with practical experience in the workplace. In late 1974, Dr. Meng resigned as president, having steered Marymount through a difficult period of student unrest.  He was succeeded by Dr. Robert Christian, formerly president of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin and an English professor at the University of Notre Dame. In 1976, Fordham University began offering graduate-level programs in social work, education and business on property near the Marymount campus (owned by the R.S.H.M.), but this had no effect on the independent status of either institution.

Dr. Christian resigned as president in 1979 and Sister Brigid Driscoll was formally installed as president in October of that year—restoring the tradition of Marymount being led by a member of the R.S.H.M. congregation. In 1982, the college celebrated its 75th anniversary marked by several special events, including a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Helen Hayes as a lector, a street festival in Tarrytown, and International Honors convocation and a commemorative project of the journalism class: 75 Years Educating for Tomorrow—organized by Professor William Darden. Another highlight during the 80s was the “We Put Women in Their Place” advertising campaign, which highlighted the achievements of Marymount alumnae who had become leaders in business, public service and the professions.

Through the 1990s, under Sister Brigid’s direction, Marymount continued its mission of educating women for leadership positions in society, although changing times and attitudes regarding single-sex education were demonstrated by lower enrollment numbers.

In 1997, Marymount celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding with a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, made extra special since the Mass was composed and sung by alumna Donna Cribari.

Sister Brigid resigned as president in 1999 and was succeeded by Anne Slattery, ’69, a business executive. Anne Slattery spearheaded the restoration and re-dedication of the Butler dome at the Honors Convocation in October 1999, an important symbolic gesture for the Marymount community. Under her leadership, the dormitories were also refurbished.

In 2000, faced with declining enrollment and the increasing financial burdens experienced by many small liberal arts colleges during this time, Marymount sought assistance through a merger with Fordham University. Marymount and Fordham had many ties over the years.

The Agreement of Consolidation was announced in December, 2000, and Fordham declared its intentions to continue to operate Marymount as an undergraduate women’s college for as long as it was “academically and financially feasible” to do so. With Fordham’s assistance, many of the campus facilities were updated or re-furbished, and a task force was formed to review the operating costs of the College and make recommendations for future plans. After several years, the results of the task force review indicated that the College was experiencing such financial difficulties that it could no longer be sustained. In October 2005, after months of deliberation, the decision was made by Fordham to close the Marymount campus in June 2007 and to merge any remaining students into Fordham’s degree programs.

The Class of 2007 was the last to receive a degree from Marymount College. However, the legacy lives on as the 10,000 alumnae who attended Marymount make their mark on the world, taking with them the quality education, strength of character and religious ideals of those who dedicated their lives to the development of Marymount College, Tarrytown.


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