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Sister Antonia McHugh: Force of Nature, Woman of History

Antonia McHugh, CSJ, first president of St. Catherine
Antonia McHugh, CSJ, first president of St. Catherine
St. Catherine University Archives

“She who would be a woman must avoid mediocrity.” This fierce quote from Antonia McHugh, CSJ, first president of St. Catherine University, epitomizes her governing philosophy and her legacy that remain a mark of the University. 

Born Anna McHugh in 1873 to an itinerant family of Catholic pioneers, she began her life in Omaha but grew up in Langdon, North Dakota. She entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul in 1890 at age 17, and began teaching third and fourth grade at St. Joseph’s Academy. The list of Sister Antonia’s credentials includes not only a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and education, but a master’s degree in history and several advanced degrees from the University of Chicago.

As a teacher at St. Catherine University (then the College of St. Catherine), Sister Antonia shared with students her extensive knowledge of classical Greece and Rome, geology, geography, music, and art.

At the time her appointment as dean in 1914, acknowledged to be “the first distinct college official” of St. Kate’s, there were a mere 18 students enrolled. However, Sister Antonia proved to be a vital force in the expansion of the college, carefully planning its development and pushing for accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges (which occurred in 1916).

“She built a cathedral”

Sister Antonia’s exploits in constructing new buildings are an integral part of St. Kate’s lore, as she overcame obstacles and persevered in her plans for the campus. St. Catherine was the beneficiary of several grants from the Rockefeller Foundation throughout the 1920s. With the Foundation’s aid, she oversaw the establishment of multiple new campus buildings.  In the fall of 1921, Sister Antonia put a $200,000 grant from Archbishop Austin Dowling to good use in constructing Caecilian Hall, a music building with plenty of space for students and faculty to practice and perform.

But perhaps her most well known campus accomplishment was the building of Our Lady of Victory Chapel, from 1923 to 1924. Sister Antonia exercised her considerable influence when workers were unable to finish laying concrete for the chapel floor by Thanksgiving of 1923 — offering them Thanksgiving dinner if they worked through the holiday — and she got her concrete floor. Ever the visionary, Sister Antonia rejected the idea of a discreet, ordinary campus chapel, and directed the chapel’s architect to draw inspiration from the Church of St. Trophime in Arles, France. Said Archbishop Dowling in a telling comment, “Sister Antonia asked to build a chapel, but she built a cathedral.”

International emphasis

She also dedicated herself to nurturing an international emphasis at the school, stressing travel in Europe as one of the keys to a fully realized education, and offered scholarships to international students from countries as varied as France, Brazil, Iraq, Israel, Japan, and numerous others. With students hailing from all parts of the globe, the international heritage cultivated by McHugh is one still alive and well in our modern-day St. Catherine University.

Sister Antonia became ill in 1937 and resigned due to her poor health, living in Whitby on the St. Paul campus until her death on October 11, 1944. Among the honors present in her legacy are the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal she was awarded by Pope Pius XI and being invited by President Herbert Hoover to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection.

Sister Antonia McHugh’s life, distinguished by accomplishments and dedication to her ideals, is best summed up in her own words: “The aim of St. Catherine is to develop in each girl who comes to it, the virtues of the valiant woman: strength, courage, firm faith, high purpose, and readiness to serve.”

Editor’s note: Antonia McHugh, CSJ is among St. Kate’s faculty, leaders and alumnae profiled throughout March as part of Women’s History Month.

For further reading:

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Alumna is 2016 National Women’s History Month honoree

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March 3, 2016 by Michelle Mullowney ’17

See also: Catholic Identity, Faculty, Leadership, Liberal Arts, Students