“For a number of years, the Benedictine Fathers of Oklahoma have desired to establish in the Southwest an institution of higher instruction, which would rank with the foremost in the land. The Fathers realized that the State of Oklahoma, and those bordering on it, offered a fitting field in which to serve and advance the cause of Catholic education; they felt that the rising generation of this vigorous, progressive state should have the opportunity to secure at home, knowledge and moral training of the highest and soundest nature.”
-Opening paragraph of The Catholic University of Oklahoma student handbook, 1915
In 1875, French monks Dom Isidore Robot and Frere Dominic Lambert came to Indian Territory with the intention of building a safe haven where both Native American and settlers’ children could come to strengthen their minds, nourish their bodies and fortify their souls.
It was the beginning of a complicated, rewarding journey that has positively impacted generations of students and their families.
Dom Isidore and Frere Lambert were of the Benedictine Order of Monks. The Benedictine value system had for centuries focused on the importance of education and, in particular, education in the arts and sciences. It was the monks’ belief that every human mind should be developed to its highest ability, both morally and intellectually. Providing an educational option for children who otherwise might not have had the chance to learn was a natural dream for Dom Isidore and Frere Dominic.
The Monks’ strongest allies in their intended work were the Potawatomi Indians. In 1876, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation agreed to a tribal land grant with Dom Isidore, and construction began on the first log buildings of Sacred Heart Mission.
Throughout the next 20 years, Sacred Heart hosted a number of schools for a wide variety of students. Native American Day School, St. Mary’s School for Girls, St. Benedict’s Industrial School—all operated alongside Sacred Heart Monastery.
Eventually, additional Benedictine Monks and Nuns from the Sisters of Mercy joined Dom Isidore and Frere Lambert in Oklahoma, and in 1896, Sacred Heart Monastery was elevated to Abbey status.
Sacred Heart was by then a cluster of fine frame buildings, a model farm, barns, a convent, a church and a stone bakery. It became known as an “Oasis of Culture” in the middle of Indian Territory, but the oasis was soon threatened by one of Mother Nature’s most consuming elements.
In 1901, fire broke out at the mission, destroying all of Sacred Heart’s structures, except for the bakery, barns, convent and a few of the original outbuildings. It was a devastating loss that made the monks ponder their futures in the territory.
A brick monastery and a frame grammar school were quickly rebuilt at the site; however, the monks decided it was time to take their mission one step further. They would construct an institute of higher learning—a college—in a different location.
Indian Territory officially became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, and the town of Shawnee, which was located approximately 30 miles north of Sacred Heart, offered easy access to the railroad and to the Oklahoma City area. Plus, there was plenty of room to grow.
The Sacred Heart monks chose this centralized location to become the home of their newest educational venture, The Catholic University of Oklahoma.
This time, instead of log or frame structures, the monks commissioned a building that would embody the hope and importance of a liberal arts education, something impressive and inspiring.
Plans were drawn for “a five-story structure, 220 by 70 feet, covering a floor space of approximately 70,000 square feet and fire-proof throughout. It would be completed in “beautiful Tudor Gothic style” and would “contain all modern conveniences, including the latest improved system of vacuum steam heating, electric lighting and natural gas.”
The new building was crowned by four distinct towers that were visible for miles, and it was christened with a name that honored those who were responsible for its existence—Benedictine Hall.
Construction on Benedictine Hall began in 1913 and was completed in 1915. The first high school and college classes were held in September of that year, and Dom Blaise Haritchabalet was named The Catholic University of Oklahoma’s first president.
Within the next 15 years, the college would grow in prominence and be blessed with a new, distinctive name—St. Gregory’s University.
The grammar school at Sacred Heart was closed in 1926, and the monks officially moved to the St. Gregory’s college campus in 1929. St. Gregory’s Church, which sits adjacent to Benedictine Hall, was built in 1941, followed by the monastery building in 1954.
St. Gregory’s High School was officially closed in 1965—the same year women were first admitted to the college. St. Gregory’s was now ready to focus solely on providing college-level educations.
In 1996, St. Gregory’s was named Oklahoma’s fastest-growing college or university, although it had yet to receive the accreditation to become a four-year university. That distinction came in 1997.
Several other buildings, including a museum, theatre and aerobic center were added to St. Gregory’s campus over the years, but Benedictine Hall has remained the heart of the school and a treasured landmark in Shawnee. Never was its iconic status more apparent than in November 2011, when a 5.2 magnitude earthquake resulted in the loss of the building’s four trademark turrets.
As it did following the 1901 fire, the school turned the natural disaster into a rallying point. More than 3,400 alumni, students, friends and donors offered support so the grand old building could be restored to its original glory.
Reparations on Benedictine Hall began in March 2013. The university hopes to have all the restoration work finished in time for Benedictine Hall’s 100th birthday in 2015.
As the history of St. Gregory’s continues to be written, its goals have never changed. The current faculty and staff continue to uphold the Benedictine tradition of educating students in mind, body and spirit and encouraging them to be the best people they can be.
It is a timeless theory that speaks to the dreamer in everyone and the endless possibilities that come with faith in God.