Historic Iowa City women’s seminary paved the way toward equal access to education

I live in a female seminary. It’s an apartment building now, mostly remodeled, but I can imagine the history trapped between the brick walls. I sleep in the same rooms where some of the first young girls in our nation were allowed to educated themselves. I make coffee in the same spot where I imagine a nun once stood, teaching algebra to her class. I eat breakfast at a shaky wooden dining table, where a female student gazed out the windows onto Iowa City 150 years ago. I wonder if those students at the female seminary had a clear view of the Capitol building, with nothing to obstruct the sight of its golden dome.

As the education of women grew into a staple of society, Iowa City evolved as well. Today, I look out the window and see stunning university buildings, paved roads and crowds. While the city has grown, the exterior of 130 E. Jefferson St. remains mostly unchanged from its days as a female seminary. I found a picture from around 1910, taken from across the street when both Jefferson and Dubuque were still dirt roads and the seminary was the tallest building around. Now, Van Allen Hall dwarfs it on the opposite corner. However, the building looks the same, with a white, decorative balcony outside the second floor windows, red bricks forming the first three stories and grey roofing encasing the fourth story. The building is capped by a single turret, a bell tower when it operated as a seminary.

St. Agatha's Seminary was one of few buildings on what is now a crowded intersection of downtown Iowa City. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The former St. Agatha's Seminary stands at the corner of Jefferson St. and Dubuque St. in Iowa City. Photo by Zak Neumann.

St. Agatha’s Seminary opened in the 1860s. Female seminaries in the 19th century weren’t seminaries in the way we understand them today, as schools of theology. Instead, female seminaries functioned much like modern boarding schools. This system was a staple in male education, but was unprecedented prior to the 19th century for women.

The female seminary movement can be traced back to a single school, which opened in 1792. The classroom of Sarah Pierce at Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut educated women under the belief that women were intellectually equal to men. The underlying goal of this first school was to educate proper wives. However, several of her students, including Catherine Beecher and Emma Willard, would go on to found female seminaries of their own with curriculums that included logic, chemistry and mathematics.

This movement was monumental, and not only because it was the first standard education for women. It was also the first time women played an active role in their own education. Schools for women, founded by women, began to open all over the country, beginning around the 1820s.

The Catholic Church in particular helped foster the female seminary movement. It was in the midst of this movement, around the 1840s, that Ferdinand Haberstroh and his wife, Mary, journeyed from Baden, Germany to Johnson County, Iowa. They saw an opportunity in a budding Iowa City, which had become home to a Catholic community. They became members of St. Mary’s Church, settled in Iowa City and helped with several projects around town, some still standing to this day.

One of these projects would eventually become St. Agatha’s Seminary. However, when Haberstroh built it in 1852, he opened it as a hotel. Iowa City was named the capitol of Iowa in 1847, and Haberstroh likely planned to profit from the traffic visiting the capitol. Unfortunately, the capitol moved to Des Moines in 1857, shortly after the hotel opened. The hotel fell into debt, and Ferdinand Haberstroh passed away in 1860, leaving the building to his wife.

Sister M. Agatha Hurley was the first Mother Superior of St. Agatha's Seminary in Iowa City. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa City.

Joseph Fuhrmann, another member of St. Mary’s Church, wrote a history of the church for its diamond jubilee in 1916. He paints Mary as a devout Catholic, a woman with “zeal and religious fervor … who thus virtually gave all she possessed to the Lord.” She opened her home for worship while St. Mary’s was still being constructed. When Rev. William Emonds from St. Mary’s Church approached Mary, he intended to rent a single room of the hotel in the hopes of opening a classroom. Mary instead offered him the entirety of the building for educational purposes, telling him he could buy the deed to the hotel, as long as it would be used to help others.

There were three conditions on their deal, however. First, the building had fallen into debt from its days as a failing hotel — the church would have to pay off the $2,000 debt. Second, they would pay $500 to Mary personally. The final condition was for Emonds to give her a place to live in the building for as long as she stayed in Iowa City. The church’s congregation raised the money through fairs and collections, and Emonds purchased the building from Mary for $2,600. It was valued at $18,000. Through Mary’s generosity, a female seminary would open in Iowa City. In symmetry with the movement around the country, an Iowa City woman played a role in advancing women’s education.

Mary never used the third condition of her deal, choosing to leave Iowa shortly after selling the building. She returned to family in Pennsylvania, and passed away soon after. While Mary opened the possibility for a female seminary, Rev. Terence Donaghoe — the co-founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which still exists in Dubuque today — made it a reality. Donaghoe approached Emonds with interest in the recently purchased hotel. Donaghoe pitched the idea of a female seminary at 130 E. Jefferson, and Emonds agreed. The final deal came with its own stipulation. The Sisters of Charity could operate a female seminary in the building, as long as they also operated a free school 80 feet west of the seminary. This free school is now torn down, but once stood on the corner where Newman Catholic Student Center now stands. Both reverends accepted this deal, and St. Agatha’s Seminary opened in the 1860s.

Nuns taught courses such as mathematics, logic and physics to female students in seminaries. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Based on education surveys by both the United States government and the Catholic Church, the seminary operated as both a day school and a boarding school for women. A 1894 report for the Commissioner of Education indicates the nuns taught algebra, geometry and physics to the young women at the seminary. The curriculum seemed to be more academic, in contrast to some of the early schools that also focused partly on manners. The school grew quickly, with a student count of 156 by 1883. The building served as a female seminary until 1911.

When the University of Iowa bought the building in 1911, the connection to serving women in education continued; the university used the former seminary as a female dormitory named Svendi Hall. The building was sold in 1927 to Albert Burkley, who remodeled it into apartments. I imagine this is when the old-fashioned fleur-de-lis wallpaper that still hangs in the entry hall was put up. The decorative balcony survived remodeling in both 1927 and the 1990s, when it was modernized once more.

I have lived on the third floor for the past three years, looking out over Jefferson Street. After this research, I have an image of a student at St. Agatha’s doing the same. From her window, she would have seen dirt roads, churches and a small town with a fascinating future ahead. Now, I see a large campus, filled with both men and women attending class together. In the same building where nuns once taught young girls, today men and women share laundry rooms. While there is still work to be done, tremendous strides have been made in education equality between genders since that time. Mary Haberstroh played a silent role in bringing women’s education from gender-specific boarding schools to forming a 52 percent majority at the University of Iowa.

Jordan Archer has lived at 130 E. Jefferson St. for three years and studies physics at the University of Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 211.

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