The facts about the history of Villanova

Raynor Denitzio

We all think we know the history of Villanova University. However, this is only the official history. A look at some of the lesser known facts about our alma mater reveals a tradition filled with colorful characters and stories which come together create an even more interesting and engaging history. Here, in no particular order, is an unofficial history of Villanova.

1. We owe our history to an Augustinian…sort of

The man credited with purchasing the land which eventually became Villanova University, Father Thomas Kyle, O.S.A., came to the Philadelphia area from his home in County Mayo, Ireland. He purchased 200 acres known as Belle Air from the late John Rudolph in October 1841 for $18,000. These details seem fairly mundane until one realizes that Kyle did so without any authorization or funds from the Augustinians. He borrowed the down payment for the land from Mrs. Lennon, a parishioner of the Old St. Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia (whom he never paid back). This angered his bosses at the time, the Rev Moriarty and the Rev. O’Dwyer, neither of whom agreed with this action. Rumor has it that Kyle was kicked out of the Augustinian community for this, and while it is indeed true that he was only an Augustinian for a few years while in the United States, he left the order on his own accord.

2. The weird history of the law school

Founded in 1957, Villanova Law School is considered a fairly prestigious name among Catholic law schools. The land which is the present site of the law school also has its own rich history. Originally (and some law school students may still support this moniker), this land was named “Mt. Misery” by Dr. Moriarty, O.S.A. due to the heavy woodland covering the land at the time. In addition, prior to its present use as a law school, this land was home to a nine-hole golf course.

3. The Navy saved us

In the 1940s, when World War II called many young men into the service, the University was almost forced under. It was only the Navy’s V-12 officers program that saved Villanova. The University was chosen from out of 10 schools in the country to host this program, and it started the rich tradition that the Navy and Villanova share, as Villanova’s Navy ROTC program is one of the most respected in the country.

4. Tuition was once a lot more reasonable

As your parents take out a third mortgage and auction off a kidney to pay your tuition, keep in mind that back in 1843, the fees wouldn’t even pay your books at the campus store now. One hundred and twenty-five dollars is all it took to get you an education if you were over 12 years of age, while fees at the prep school (which was moved to Malvern in 1924 to become Malvern Prep) were $100.

5. “Fedigan’s Folly”

Despite what many freshman students may think, it wasn’t Fedigan Hall. The Rev. Fedigan decided that the University needed more space if it was to reach its full potential. He authorized the construction of “Mendel Hall” which you now know as Tolentine Hall. Believing this to be a grave overestimation of the University’s capacity for growth, other priests labeled Tolentine “Fedigan’s Folly.” (Many Arts and Science students still believe this building is a folly, and hope someday that it is renovated or at least given working bathrooms.)

6. The Haunting

There are many buildings on campus which have a spooky history. The University did indeed serve as a hospital during the Civil War and again in World War I (where it housed influenza victims), when many college age men were pressed into service in the war. This led to rumors about certain halls on campus, particularly Alumni, being haunted as a result of this history. In addition, rumors abound about the history of St. Mary’s Hall. Built in 1963, it is home to tales of hauntings, suicides and blocked-off wings. However, perhaps no hall on campus has as much history as Dundale Mansion. Located at the back of West Campus, it was originally built as a home for the Morris family, whose spirts legend holds still inhabit the old house. When questioned about on-campus ghosts, many members of the University staff mentioned Dundale Mansion. Tales include lights turned on in the middle of the night, only to have public safety officers find no one in the home.

7. The fires

The University has had many struggles with fire in its history. Three times during the “Anti-Papal” riots in 1844 the priests at Villanova were warned that they were about to be burned to the ground and forced to flee. It was at this time that rioters burned down St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia, destroying many priceless manuscripts and writings that the Augustinians had taken with them from Europe. A fire at College Hall in 1928 forced the University to move students to Rosemont College. In addition, the monastery burned down in 1932.

8. 10 buildings in nine years

Difficult as it is to believe now as we watch the practice facility crawl towards completion, from 1954 until 1963, the University built or acquired 10 new buildings. These buildings are Sullivan Hall in 1954, Dougherty Hall in 1955, Sheehan Hall in 1956, Garey Hall in 1957, the Commerce and Finance building and acquisition of the new Alumni building in 1958, the Augustinian Guild acquisition in 1959, the Nursing Building’s acquisition in 1960, the construction of new Mendel Hall in 1961 and the building of the new St. Mary’s Hall in 1963.

These eight facts are in no way the only interesting features of our University, but merely a small sampling of the history to be learned if you do a little digging. Maybe Villanova isn’t such a boring place after all.