Defining Women

Defining Women

When she wasn’t handing out apples and advice, Mother Antonia was altering the face of education for all women.
By Anne Bertram

Lean In. Women Don’t Ask. These books, and others like them, about a woman’s place in today’s world, tell us what to strive for and how to behave. Anecdotes and statistics make the case that we limit our own success because we believe we’re not worth it — not good enough. Or we don’t support each other. Et cetera. On one hand, there’s no shortage of discussion about how we, as women, continually place obstacles in our own way.

On the other hand, there’s Mother Antonia.

Mother Antonia McHugh, St. Kate’s first president, is legendary for making St. Catherine a nationally recognized institution of higher learning. When she assumed leadership in 1914, only a single building, Derham Hall, had been completed. A mere five faculty members held college degrees (none beyond a master’s). St. Kate’s was not accredited. And the first graduating class had two members.

By the time she left in 1937, Whitby Hall, Caecilian Hall, Our Lady of Victory Chapel, Mendel Hall, Fontbonne Hall and the power plant had all been built. Ten faculty members held doctoral degrees. Not only was St. Kate’s accredited, it was the only Catholic university with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Thirty-one women received Bachelor of Arts degrees and forty-seven earned their Bachelor of Science.

So how did Mother Antonia do it?


“The aim of the College of St. Catherine,” Mother Antonia said, “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… to exercise the imagination of the student to see through four years of college and beyond to a life of some kind of profitable service.” As far as she was concerned, it was a given that  women were competent — and they were capable of work that would make a difference in the world.

Keep in mind that at the time St. Kate’s was getting started, respected scholars could and did assert that women were not just intellectually, but physically incapable of advanced study. Rev. John Todd, for instance, lamented that the female college student “must be on the strain all the school hours, study in the evening till her eyes ache, her brain whirls, her spine yields and gives way, and she comes through the process of education enervated, feeble, without courage or vigor, elasticity or strength. Alas!”

But Mother Antonia saw the opposite, of course. She knew the potency of scholarship. She herself held three degrees; she had a deep understanding of geology, geography and history; and her knowledge of music and art was extensive. Exceptional education made women stronger. It made them worthy of respect. Thus, she devoted herself to ensuring only the best for those who chose St. Kate’s.


Stories abound of Mother Antonia tirelessly providing whatever her students and faculty (all of whom were Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet) needed in order to learn and improve. Sisters Rosalie Ryan and John Christine Wolkerstorfer noted that “she impartially handed out apples and advice. Her classroom was a place where young women found out what was the matter with them even when they didn’t want to know.” For students who couldn’t pay tuition, she found scholarships; for those who needed clothes, she got alumnae to donate some.

For her faculty members, she secured funding, made connections and got the archbishop’s permission for them to study at major universities such as the University of Chicago (her alma mater), Columbia, Oxford and Louvain. Because she felt that travel was an indispensable part of a thorough education, she made sure they got a chance to do just that.

Former professors Anne Condon Collopy McKeown ’28 and Mabel Meta Frey pointed out that “the idea of Sisters studying in secular universities in this country was revolutionary indeed in the eyes of most of the hierarchy at the time, but travel in Europe! for Sisters!… it is hard to imagine how incredible the idea of foreign study and travel was in the Midwest to the  generation of the twenties and thirties… it was certainly not for Sisters with their vow of poverty.”

It was for the St. Kate’s Sisters, though.

Mother Antonia taught them how to travel by taking them with her on her business trips so they could learn to handle money and navigate boats, buses and trains. When she sent Sisters on trips by themselves, she would sometimes go so far as to lend them her personal train pass. This could cause awkwardness if the conductor knew Mother Antonia personally, since, obviously, he could tell that it wasn’t actually her getting the free seat. But as one Sister remarked, “I think most of the train men knew that these passes were [being shared],” and they were willing to turn a blind eye.

“Imagine a young Sister embarking on travels you made possible, sending photos of the Sphinx and detailed observations of Oxford tutorials. Imagine her returning home full of energy and experience, ready to lead, to divide the work with you.” This is an excerpt from “The Fundamentals,” a monologue about Mother Antonia commissioned for St. Kate’s Reunion 2016.

Mother Antonia leaned in long before “leaning in” was cool, and the power of her vision and energy persists. We see it in St. Kate’s unique learning environment that’s collaborative and recognizes the contributions of women, past and present.

Anne Bertram is executive director of Theatre Unbound. She wrote “The Fundamentals,” which Megan Campbell Lagas ’02 will perform again at Reunion: June 9, 6 p.m., CdC ballroom.

Antonia McHugh, CSJ, served as first dean (1914-1929) and president (1929-1937).

Antonia McHugh, CSJ, served as first dean (1914-1929) and president (1929-1937).

Members of St. Kate's Latin Club, 1924.

Members of St. Kate's Latin Club, 1924.

Our Lady of Victory Chapel was modeled after the Church of St. Trophime in Arles, France.

Our Lady of Victory Chapel was modeled after the Church of St. Trophime in Arles, France.

Photos by University Archives, St. Catherine University.


The recently published Our Lady of Victory Chapel: Monument, Mystery, Mission includes stories about Mother Antonia. Buy it online at and support the Chapel's preservation.

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