History of SMWC

Quick History

Aspiring Higher for 175 Years

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is the oldest, premier Catholic liberal arts college for women in the United States, founded in 1840 – nearly 175 years ago. Before women fought for equal pay, before women secured the right to vote, before the women’s rights movement even began, there was Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Although the College recently adopted the brand initiative, “Aspire Higher,” those words were perhaps even more pertinent in the beginning of this institution.

Founding Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College

In 1840, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and five other Sisters of Providence journeyed from their convent in Ruille-sur-Loir, France, to the wilderness of Indiana, to establish an academy for young women. Through many obstacles along the way, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and her companions persisted in each step of the journey.

During the 40 days of the stormy ocean crossing, they were robbed of a good portion of the money meant to finance the rest of their trip. They arrived in New York and traveled half a continent by train, canal, stagecoach and ferry in a foreign land where they could barely speak the language. Finally, on Oct. 22, 1840, more than three months after leaving France, the women crossed the Wabash River.

In the spirit of true adventurers, Saint Mother Theodore’s journal indicates that the source of their initial disappointment upon arrival was not that they had no home but that they did not know where they would find students. Despite this uncertainty, students came to them seeking an education even before the College’s first buildings were erected.

Creating Opportunities for Women

In 1846, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College was granted the first charter for the higher education of women in the state of Indiana. The College conferred its first Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899.

In the tradition of seeking to “Aspire Higher” by creating groundbreaking opportunities in women’s education, SMWC was the first women’s college to offer journalism courses and the first to offer degree work in secondary education, home economics and secretarial science. These programs are evidence of an early commitment to preparing women for professional roles.

As an early leader in distance education, the College introduced one of the first independent study programs in the nation, the Women’s External Degree Program, in 1973. This program served adult women who needed flexible schedules to balance earning a degree, important family responsibilities and career obligations.

Educating Women and Men – Woods Online and Graduate Studies

In 2005, the College expanded access to its undergraduate distance and adult programs to men, while maintaining a firm commitment to preserving its campus-based undergraduate program for women only. Today, through the renamed Woods Online program, both women and men earn college degrees in a wide variety of majors, at a pace that works for their lifestyles.

SMWC’s bold vision to educate students of all ages with an appetite for knowledge is evident in the delivery of its other distance programs. Since 1984, SMWC has offered co-ed graduate programs. Current graduate programs accepting new students are Master of Arts in Art Therapy, Master of Arts in Music Therapy and Master of Leadership Development.

Achieving Success and Innovation

SMWC has continued to reach beyond expectations and provide innovative and unique programs to students. It boasts the only equine program in Indiana, and one of approximately 20 in the U.S., to offer a Bachelor of Science in equine studies. Additionally, it is the only college in the nation to offer a Music Therapy Equivalency Distance program.

SMWC is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the Best Regional Colleges in the Midwest, recently ranking number 16 on the list. The College was also ranked in the top programs nationally by U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Undergraduate Programs, as well as best online graduate business programs for the Master of Leadership Development (MLD) program.

Continuing to Grow – Recent Advancements

SMWC strives to constantly evaluate student needs and evolve to meet those needs. It remains rooted in the past but always focused on the future. There have been multiple exciting additions to the College recently.

In December 2013, it announced the new RN to BSN completion program for current Registered Nurses who are seeking a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Also in December 2013, the College broke ground on the Jeanne Knoerle Sports and Recreation Center. The ribbon cutting for the building will take place one year from the ground breaking, on December 3, 2014. The Knoerle Center is the first new building on campus since Hulman Hall was built in 1969. The estimated 45,000 square foot facility will include a NCAA regulation-sized gym seating approximately 1,000 spectators, a practice gym for auxiliary revenue and intramural sports, a 2,000 square foot lobby, locker rooms, a training room, a fitness room, offices and storage space.

The College added its eighth sports team, volleyball, and will be ready to compete in fall of 2015. Other sports include basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, hunt seat and western equestrian teams.

Celebrating 175 Years

As we celebrate this year leading up to the 175th anniversary of the College, we remember Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s mission and her commitment to this place. Although much has changed since 1840, SMWC remains dedicated to the education of women, empowering them to emerge as strong leaders prepared for life’s opportunities. Here, students choose to “Aspire Higher.”