Women of Today Build on Historic Past to Shape Jesuit Institutions

By Jeanette Grider, Marketing and Communications, Saint Louis University

Mary Bruemmer with the SLU Billiken (Photo by Saint Louis University)

Mary Bruemmer with the SLU Billiken (Photo by Saint Louis University)

As an institution approaching its 200th birthday, Saint Louis University’s (SLU) roots reach back to 1818, when the Society of Jesus sent the Most Reverend Louis DuBourg, S.J. to establish what would become the first institution of higher learning in a part of the country that most considered the American wilderness: St. Louis, MO. This initial step was the beginning of many “firsts” that formed SLU into the vibrant university that it is today.

In those early days, St. Louis was part of the Missouri territory and still a few years away from even becoming a state. Located on the Mississippi River, the settlement of roughly 3,000 people was an important stop for fur traders and had what we might think of today as a “wild west” atmosphere. Educational opportunities were scarce, but the commitment to knowledge and social justice (key to the Jesuit mission) were present.

When the life of an institution spans three centuries and intersects with technological advances and societal changes, its history becomes rich and extensive. Each event holds its own place on the SLU timeline, including how today’s women are helping to shape the institution. And each woman’s unique vision, commitment and leadership have moved SLU forward in its mission of serving a higher purpose for the greater good.

Like much of American society, the 1900s became a pivotal time for women to have a more significant influence at educational institutions: first as students and then as faculty and administrators.

The first female students were admitted to the University’s Institute of Law in 1908, going on to receive LL.B. degrees. Bertha M. Bruening (LL.B. 1911) would go on to become the first woman to earn a degree from the School of Commerce and Finance in 1920. That year included several degree firsts for women at SLU: Sister Mary Louise Wise, S.L. received a master’s degree in English; Mother Gertrude Caraher, R.S.C.J. received an A.B.; and Sister Eustacia Elder, S.L. received a B.S. In 1929, Mother Marie Kernaghen, R.S.C.J. became the first woman awarded a Ph.D. at SLU.

As the decades passed, students became part of the next generation of leaders with Nancy McNeir Ring (AS ’28; GR ’29) being named the University’s first Dean of Women; the School of Medicine admitting its first female students; and women taking leadership roles as professors and administrators.

It is impossible to mention all of the remarkable women of SLU in just one story, but we have chosen a few women to highlight for their roles in furthering the Jesuit mission at Saint Louis University.

Mary Bruemmer first came to SLU in 1938 as a freshman when only five percent of students were women. She returned in 1956 as a member of the staff, earning her master’s degree in 1960. During her long career, Bruemmer served as the dean of women, dean of student affairs and assistant to the vice president for development. Since retiring in 1990, Bruemmer has remained an abiding presence on campus as a volunteer, and at age 95, is still working out of her office in DuBourg Hall. 

In her more than 40 years at SLU, Ellen Harshman, Ph.D., J.D. has filled many roles. As a professor, she has taught students business, law, ethics and leadership. During her time at SLU, she also took on the role of student, earning her Ph.D. in 1978 and J.D. in 1992. In 2003, Harshman became the first woman to serve as dean of the John Cook School of Business. The recipient of several teaching awards, Harshman has been recognized by the St. Louis Business Journal as one of the area's "Most Influential Business Women," as well as one of the "Most Influential Leaders." At present, she serves as Vice President for Academic Affairs and is responsible for institutional planning at SLU. She provides vision and leadership for academic deans and directors in the University’s colleges, schools and centers, the University's campus in Madrid, the University Libraries, and the Division of Enrollment and Retention Management. When Harshman retires from SLU on June 30th, she will leave behind a great legacy of leadership, service and excellence.

Patricia Monteleone, M.D. came to SLU as an undergrad in 1953 and remained a part of the University in many different capacities. She earned her medical degree in 1961, followed thirty years later by her master's degree in health and business administration in 1991. When she was appointed dean of SLU’s School of Medicine in 1994, she was one of the first women to lead a U.S. medical school. Upon her retirement in 2008, Monteleone Hall, which houses the department of neurology and psychiatry, academic offices, patient treatment and clinical research, was dedicated in her honor. When Monteleone received the School of Medicine Pioneer Award in 2011, she was noted as a trailblazer and role model for professional women. 

Like those early Jesuits who came to St. Louis with a commitment to education and service, today’s leaders continue to further that mission. The women who are shaping the modern Jesuit colleges and universities carry the accomplishments of those who came before them and are paving the way for those who will continue to embrace the Jesuit mission far into the future.