Centennial: Webster’s 100 Year Journey

Photo contributed by Webster University

“Alma Mater Royal Mother long be your reign,

O’er the hearts of those who enter your domain.

We flaunt your praises to the sky,

Webster dear old Webster.”

Story by Alex Schoenstein and Hayden Andrews

So begins the Webster College alma mater song, and a long reign it has been. Since those words were first put to paper in 1928, Webster has survived through hell and high water to become a globally recognized institution.

In response to a growing demand for higher education available to young women, the Sisters of Loretto founded the university in 1915.

“At that time there weren’t a lot of opportunities for high school girls who wanted to go to college,” Webster archivist Kathy Gaynor said. “And if they were Catholic, there were very few opportunities to go to a Catholic college.”

When the school opened as Loretto College, there were five students enrolled and the first graduating class was only two. Yet Webster showed its willingness to reach beyond its borders when the school welcomed its first international students as part of a World War I relief effort.


As Webster moved into the roaring ‘20s, it experienced a period of prosperity and change. It was in 1924 that the name was changed to Webster College. That year also saw the largest incoming freshman class at the time, which consisted of 50 women from 12 states. This was also the year in which Webster became an accredited institution.

In the ‘30s, Webster experienced many firsts. There was the first male president of the college, the first Saturday school, the first parents’ day (which has now become parents’ week) and the first blind student to graduate from the college.

After surviving the financial upheaval of the Great Depression, Webster wearied the devastation of World War II. In the war’s aftermath, Webster began a new admissions program for veterans in 1946. The following year, Webster admitted its first two African American students. Four years later, Janet Irene Thomas became the first African American to graduate from Webster.

Just as America underwent great change and upheaval in the ‘60s, so did Webster. During this decade, the college became both secular and co-ed.

“By the ‘60s, Webster was developing a reputation for the fine arts, so we had a lot of men who wanted to come to Webster,” Gaynor said. “For a short period of time, Webster had an agreement with SLU that the men could take fine arts classes at Webster and then take their general education credits at SLU. So becoming coed was a very gradual process. They didn’t just fling the doors open and say that we’re going to take men. It was very gradual until 1965, when [Webster] went completely coed.”

Peter Sargent, currently Dean of Fine Arts, was a teacher at Webster when this transition took place.

“The first step to becoming coed started in the arts,” Sargent said. “Part of that was because we thought, ‘why not get guys here to play in the performances instead of recruiting from around the city?’”


Sister Jacqueline Grennan became president in 1965 and spearheaded the decision to become a secular school. Part of the reasoning was financial, but there were also fewer and fewer women going into the sisterhood. The burden was becoming too much to bear for the small order of nuns. This was the first time that any Catholic school had been handed over to a secular authority, and permission from Rome had to be granted. At the time, it was a very controversial decision.

“Jaqueline’s speech happened in January of 1967, when we said we were going to become a secular school,” Sargent said. “The students at that time were here because we were a nontraditional school; students could tailor their own degree program. So there is this huge amount of independent spirit. The students prior to that who had come for a liberal arts Catholic education, really had trouble with coeducation. The life in the dorms, and that feeling of, ‘oh my god, they’re just destroying the place.’ It was quite volatile.”

Around that time, Sister Grennan chose to leave the order and asked to be released from her vows. She continued to be Webster’s president for a number of years during which time she got married and became Jacqueline G. Wexler. Though the Sisters of Loretto handed over the control of the college, they have remained involved to this day.

“There is a real admiration for the Sisters of Loretto by the administration here at Webster because this was not some rich order,” Gaynor said. “They were pinching pennies and going from week to week to pay the bills. So to take that leap of faith, to start the college, they lived very frugally; they somehow kept the doors open through the depression — through World War II. In terms of scholarship and embracing international studies, that’s all been going on since the early days. There is a great deal of appreciation of that legacy.”


Webster students and staff pride themselves on taking civic action, as has recently been the case with the school’s response to Ferguson. This sort of civic engagement has its roots in the protests and demonstrations of the ‘60s.

“If you go back, you’ll find in the ‘60s that Webster was at the forefront of protesting the Vietnam War,” Sargent said. “And the Sisters of Loretto have always been advocates for challenging that sort of social injustice. I think [with] the Ferguson situation, I don’t want to make it sound ordinary because it isn’t, but it’s typical of the kind of element that has been at the core of Webster in terms of looking at social change. So we’ve always had a history of looking at those issues.”


Webster got many of the things today’s students are familiar with in the ‘80s. In 1983 the school became Webster University, and the following year the Gorlok was born. Just in time, since Webster joined the NCAA as a Division III athletics program a year later.

In just 20 years, most of the buildings on campus sprang into life. This started with the University Center in 1992, followed by the Webster Village apartments and East and West Halls. Webster acquired the Community Music School in 2001, built Emerson Library in 2003 and the East Academic Building in 2012. The University didn’t stop there, opening several campuses globally. The most recent addition is a campus in Athens, Greece.


Webster has seen tremendous growth over the past 100 years and has evolved from a small, all girls’ Catholic school into a diverse and respected global institution. Webster now boasts an enrollment of over 20,000 students, of which more than 7,000 graduate each year. With 100 years of success to build upon, Webster can be expected to boldly lead future generations of students.

“I don’t think we’ve ever know what we’ve been looking for,” Sargent said. “I think Webster is going to continue strengthening in becoming a global university. We’re constantly looking at new areas of discovery, but they’ve all got to be based out of the tradition of a solid education.”


Global Innovation

Photo by Lily Voss

Photo by Lily Voss

Under the founding leadership of the Sisters of Loretto, Webster developed core principles still maintained today: innovation, creativity and a drive to make a difference around the world.

Since then, the university has undergone many changes leading up to its centennial. This includes earning accreditation, becoming secular and co-ed and establishing campuses on four continents.

“We were amazingly resilient,” Webster University President Beth Stroble said. “We didn’t choose to innovate just when it was easy. Women weren’t even allowed to vote, and they started a university.”

As Webster has grown into a university built around fostering global citizens, its values have remained consistent. Webster’s notion of higher education by preparing students through global opportunity is not the norm. Students at Webster, Stroble says, have an opportunity to live that world education through international experiences, regardless of where they are from.

A Webster education bracesstudents to be actively adaptable to the world around them. Experiences in the classroom, says Webster University Provost Julian Schuster, help students to be capable of success after graduation. As media and technology evolve, professors and students work together to develop new ways of learning.

“The Webster of the future will continue to embody characteristics which it always has,” Schuster said. “To be nimble, to be capable of adequately and rapidly responding to the changing environment by always being true to its mission. Each and every change will be yet another opportunity for us to propel to the next level.”

Parent & Student Programs Officer Billy Ratz, who completed his undergrad at Webster St. Louis, explains how Webster students are equipped to work for change. Ratz works closely with alumni and observes that Webster students today share a similar mission with the students from the days of the Loretto Sisters.

“Webster students want to make a difference in the world,” Ratz said. “They have an idea of what the world is and what they want the world to be. They aren’t afraid to make change. Our students are global students.”

Webster has maintained its heart and soul from the principles of the Sisters of Loretto. Since 1915, this has prevented students from feeling like just a number.

“I feel that my opinions on what my education looks like matter to the school,” junior Hattie Svoboda-Stel said. “The relationships with teachers aren’t synthetic. I feel connected to my teachers because they care about the same things.”

For the University’s prospective development, beyond redesigning the University Center, expanding campus housing and pacifying the relationship with the university and Webster Groves, Stroble says although the future is unpredictable, she aims to maintain the intention of the Sisters of Loretto. Preserving their mission to bring higher education to where its most needed, precisely what Stroble believes has taken Webster to new places.

“A hundred years ago the idea of what diversity meant was certainly narrower than it is now,” Stroble said. “As we come to understand more of what it means to live in different places with different faith traditions and different cultures, with different political economies with different issues — our idea of what it means to be the diversity of the world is only going to broaden. Figuring out how to be open to change that helps you live the mission of the university is what I hope for Webster.”

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