As we celebrate Providence College’s centennial this year, there is a back story that is worth telling. The original idea to establish a Catholic college in Rhode Island belonged to The Right Reverend Thomas Hendricken, D.D., the first Bishop of Providence. So he invited the Society of Jesus to come to Providence in the 1870s with this in mind. After 22 years in Providence, however, the Jesuits withdrew from the diocese in 1899. As reported in the Providence Visitor, the diocesan newspaper, “The two Jesuit colleges at Boston (Boston College) and Worcester (College of the Holy Cross) should not be endangered by such a needless and doubtful venture.”
In April 1887, the Right Reverend Matthew D. Harkins, D.D., became Bishop of Providence. He, too, hoped to establish a Catholic college in the city, and turned to the Dominican Order to do so. Bishop Harkins first petitioned the Order on November 24, 1910. While the Order was receptive, they asked for a delay to be sure they had the finances and the personnel to handle an undertaking this large. Bishop Harkins again wrote to the Order on October 9, 1915. This time, he sweetened the pot by promising 11 acres of land and $10,000 in scholarships. The Dominicans voted to accept the Bishop’s offer, and the mechanisms were put in place to secure the necessary approvals from Rome.
On November 8, 1915, the Italian-American liner Ancona sailed for New York City from Naples, Italy. It carried with it permission to found the college stamped with the approval of the Master General of the Dominican Order. One day later, the ship was torpedoed by an Austrian submarine and it sank, along with all cargo and mail. Two hundred seventy lives also were lost, including those of 27 American citizens. And so, World War I delayed the founding of Providence College. A new copy of the Master General’s approval was secured a few months later, and Bishop Harkins was informed on January 29, 1916 that the Dominican Province of St. Joseph had permission to start a college in Providence. That was later followed by official permission from the Vatican in 1917.
On January 18, 1917, Providence State Representative John Devlin introduced a bill supporting the formation of the college in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. The bill underwent several revisions and passed the House on February 2. The Senate followed with its approval on Feb. 6. On February 14, 1917, Governor R. Livingston Beeckman signed the bill into law, making Providence College an official corporation in the eyes of the state of Rhode Island with a charter granted by the State. And so, more than any other day, Providence College considers February 14, 1917 to be the definitive date of the founding and establishment of the College.
It was suggested originally that the new college be called Matthew Harkins College, but Bishop Harkins objected out of modesty. Guzman College was then suggested, since Guzman was the family name of St. Dominic. It was actually Matthew Sullivan, an architect hired by the Bishop to design the college’s initial building, who suggested the name “Providence College.”
Providence College has come a long way since 1917. We have conferred just under 54,000 undergraduate degrees, and we now occupy a rather unique position in American higher education as a Catholic and Dominican liberal arts institution that is primarily undergraduate in nature, and which happens to have both a strong NCAA Division I athletics program and a burgeoning business school.
As education has become commodified and consumers look for return on investment, the value of the liberal arts is often called into question. I would argue, however, that a liberal arts education is more important than ever because it is through the study of disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy, and theology that a student learns how to think critically, communicate clearly, and judge ethically. Through the liberal arts you learn how to learn, which is the task of a lifetime.
While colleges and universities rely heavily on empirical data, anecdotal information from trusted sources has value. We hear consistently from employers who hire Providence College graduates that they are most impressed with how well-rounded their new employees are. They are pleased that these young people can communicate well, both verbally and in writing. They are impressed with their approach to problem-solving, their ability to think critically, and the way they work well in teams, especially with people who come from different backgrounds, and who speak different languages.
In 1993, PC won a national competition to establish the Alan Shawn Feinstein Institute for Public Service, and we became the first college or university in the country to offer a major in Public and Community Service. Today, our students, faculty, and staff volunteer over 50,000 hours annually at more than 125 community agencies, schools, and other non-profit sites throughout Greater Providence. Service is an important part of our culture and helps define a Providence College education.
I am optimistic that our next hundred years will be equally as fruitful and rewarding for the students, faculty, and staff of Providence College, and for the larger Rhode Island community. We pledge to continue our service to the people of this state, and to be an integral component in the economic development and the overall quality of life in Rhode Island in whatever ways we can. By the providence of God, Providence College was founded one hundred years ago and it is trusting in that providence that we begin our next century.
Note: An amended version of this commentary, entitled "100 Years of Providence College," appeared in the March 3 edition of The Providence Journal.