Vibrant though it was, the French royal order of the Ancien Régime was awash in racism, chronic war, hierarchical privilege, and systemic injustice. Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac evaded many of the doctrinal and political battles of their day. They evangelized among the privileged and the poor with a message more radical, more demanding, and more effective than any command or sword:
- Every human being has dignity and worth.
- We must see the face of God in everyone we meet.
- True charity is never an act of condescension. It is always an act of love between equals.
This Vincentian message is the charism of the Sisters of Charity. It summarizes the moral foundation of democracy. It is the reason the Sisters of Charity founded the College of Mount Saint Vincent: to prepare themselves and others for lives of accomplishment, leadership, and service.
Democracy releases people from oppression—oppression imposed by power, exacted by privilege, or afflicted by circumstance. Excellent education is democratic. It enables people to employ their gifts both for their own well-being and in service to others.
In 1817, one hundred and fifty years after Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac inspired France, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton sent a contingent of Sisters of Charity from Maryland to New York City to staff an orphanage on Mott Street. Knowing that children need not only care but also education in order to thrive, the Sisters began founding schools, beginning at Mott Street and eventually spreading across the diocese. This was the beginning of the parochial school system of New York. Soon, they had what may well be the first system of truly free schools in the world, using revenue from those who could afford to pay in order to open free schools for those with no financial means at all.
In 1847, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul of New York became an independent congregation. That year, before there were public colleges or even high schools for women in New York, they founded the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent—the first institution to offer higher learning for women in New York. The Academy was located with the new Motherhouse at McGowan’s Pass at the northeast corner of what is now Central Park.
The Academy was no finishing school. Since ancient Athens, and certainly since St. Augustine, the liberal arts have served as preparation for a life of choice, responsibility, and service. The Sisters of Charity committed the Academy to liberal education, and it developed an extraordinary reputation for academic rigor and quality.
In 1859, the Academy and the Motherhouse moved to Riverdale, N.Y., establishing the Mount Saint Vincent campus overlooking the Hudson River. The Academy grew, and the Sisters opened schools, hospitals, and an array of services for the poor. One free school was at Mount Saint Vincent, where the great playwright Eugene O’Neill studied as a boy. By the close of the nineteenth century, the Academy was recognized among the finest institutions of higher learning for women in the region. By 1898, like Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and other “female seminaries,” the Academy changed its corporate status to prepare to claim its equal role and title as a college for women.
Reflecting the depth of their commitment to academic rigor and equality for women, the Sisters of Charity delayed the transition of the Academy to collegiate status until they had the facilities and faculty to offer a strong program in the sciences and mathematics. This commitment was unusual among women’s colleges at the time, especially Catholic women’s colleges, but the Academy made a promise to offer an array of robust programs, a commitment that continues today.
In 1911, the Academy’s charter was amended to change its name to the College of Mount Saint Vincent. The first collegiate residence hall opened that year. The first class graduated with the bachelor’s degree in 1914. Within three years, the College was sending graduates on to earn the Ph.D., truly extraordinary for women at the time. Indeed, in the case of the Sisters of Charity, graduates needed a special dispensation from the Cardinal Archbishop of New York to be permitted to study beyond the master’s degree.
For more than a century, the College has grown, revised curricula, become coeducational, added a constellation of majors, added undergraduate and graduate extension programs in what is now called the Office of Professional and Graduate Studies, and stayed abreast of and led innovations in higher education.
The College’s mission has been consistent throughout. It offers undergraduate programs of exceptional quality in the Catholic and ecumenical tradition. Its abiding commitment to liberal education is based on the conviction that the liberal arts offer the finest preparation for a life of accomplishment, responsibility, leadership, and service. Across all disciplines, therefore, students are required to develop a repertoire of analytical skills, critical thinking, and clear oral and written expression. Confident that a good life demands thoughtful judgment, the Mount calls every student to learn about religious, moral, and ethical thinking. It lives its motto: “Teach me goodness and discipline and knowledge.”