Fordham’s long and occasionally bumpy journey from its founding to the present was the subject of a luncheon talk on Sept. 10 by Monsignor Thomas J. Shelley (GSAS ’64), professor of church history and associate chair of graduate studies in the Department of Theology.

In “Dagger John’s Dream: From St. John’s College to Fordham University,” Monsignor Shelley previewed material from a book he is writing about Fordham’s history. He made the presentation to members of the 1841 Society, which recognizes people who establish a life income gift at Fordham or include the University in their estate plans.

His research, which was inspired by a project marking the 200th anniversary of the Archdiocese of New York, opens in 1839 with what today would be considered a real estate coup: New York Archbishop John Hughes bought 100 acres and two buildings in what was then the Fordham section of Westchester for $29,750.

“However, Hughes said, ‘I had not, when I purchased the site of this new college … so much as a penny to commence the payment for it,’” according to Monsignor Shelley. “After a nine-month campaign, the most Hughes could raise was $10,000, so he went to Europe on a begging trip to get the money he could not raise at home.”

This was not especially surprising, as Monsignor Shelley noted that the Catholic community in New York was very poor at the time, and its collective wealth was strained by the needs of more immigrants who arrived daily.

“It took a brave man to start a college under such circumstances, but Hughes saw education as the indispensable means for his immigrant flock to break out of the cycle of poverty and better themselves economically and socially in their adopted homeland,” Monsignor Shelley said.

In detailing the University’s growth under the Society of Jesus, which took over the school from Hughes in 1846, he cited Fordham’s most prominent alumnus, Francis J. Spellman—who would later become the sixth archbishop of New York—as the driving force behind its transformation from a small college to a full-fledged university.

Graduate schools in law and medicine had been started two years before Daniel J. Quinn, S.J., became president in 1907. Although the medical school closed after 16 years, the law school, Monsignor Shelley noted, was a roaring success.

“In 1913, 600 aspiring attorneys from across the state took the New York bar examination. Of those 600 applicants, only 70 passed it, or about 11 percent of the total,” he said. “However, 80 percent of graduates from Fordham Law School who took it passed it, and this was only eight years after the founding of the school.”

But it was Robert I. Gannon, S.J., who helped transform Fordham into the institution that is most recognizable to students today. He became president in 1936, served until 1949, and played host to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he visited Rose Hill on Oct. 28, 1940. A prolific fundraiser, Father Gannon laid the foundation for Fordham’s expansion at Lincoln Center, which was overseen by his successor, Laurence McGinley, S.J.

The original plan, Monsignor Shelley said, was to rent five floors within the Coliseum at Columbus Circle, which has since been replaced by the Time Warner Center. But Robert Moses, the master planner of New York City’s infrastructure for much of the 20th century, denied Father McGinley’s request. Instead, Moses suggested the school become involved in an “urban renewal” project a block west.

“The innocent Father McGinley said to Robert Moses, of all people, ‘What is an urban renewal project?’” Monsignor Shelley said. “Then Robert Moses said to McGinley, ‘Let’s see. How much room would you need? Ten acres?’ At that point, Father McGinley admitted, ‘I almost fell out of my chair. When he mentioned acres, I couldn’t believe it. I never heard anyone talk about New York City in terms of acres. I gulped.’ Robert Moses was not kidding.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.