Avila celebrates a century of Catholic education

Founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet a century ago, Avila University is a place where students can be inspired. Its students continue to embrace inspiration, service and education going forward into their future. (Photo courtesy Avila University)

Founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet a century ago, Avila University is a place where students can be inspired. Its students continue to embrace inspiration, service and education going forward into their future. (Photo courtesy Avila University)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — A two-year college for women was founded at St. Teresa’s Academy in 1916, 50 years after the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet arrived in Kansas City at Father Bernard Donnelly’s request to start a school. Six years earlier, the sisters had moved the academy from Quality Hill to Windmoor, at 5600 Main in the burgeoning Country Club district. Music and Arts, the sole building on the 20-acre campus, housed the Academy, St. Teresa’s College, boarding students and the Sisters serving as faculty. The first associate degree offered was in Education.

Today, St. Teresa’s College is a co-educational university offering more than 60 undergraduate and six graduate degree programs. Renamed Avila — still honoring its patroness, St. Teresa of Avila — it relocated to 119th and Wornall Road in 1963 and now, instead of one shared building, boasts multiple academic buildings, an administration building, four residence halls, theater, library, student commons, field house and playing fields, student center, chapel and walking paths throughout the transformational learning environment of the 50-acre campus. A bronze statue of St. Teresa of Avila welcomes all comers and watches over the campus.

Still under the Sister’s sponsorship, Avila celebrates a century of education, founded on faith and standing on the shoulders of its founders, former faculty and alumni as it goes onward.

Established to provide young women in Kansas City a Catholic college education, the first classes the college offered were in Christian doctrine, taught by a priest, English, French, Latin and German, history, botany, science, home economics, piano, violin, harp and art, all taught by the Sisters. Lay teachers taught voice, expression and dancing. Margaret O’Reilly became the first graduate in 1918.

The University of Missouri accredited the college in 1921. In 1930, St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing, also sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, became affiliated with the college. Enrollment jumped to 206, unsurpassed until 1950.

A plan in the works — expand the college to four years and offer Bachelor’s degrees — was approved in Dec. 1939, by Kansas City diocesan Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara, Reverend Mother Rose Columba, superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Mother Angela Hennessy, provincial superior, Sister Emerita Joseph, bursar general and Mother Simplicia Dailey, president of the college. In 1940, a groundbreaking ceremony for the new college building, to be named Donnelly Hall, honoring Father Bernard Donnelly, was held. Bishop O’Hara used the same silver trowel used to break ground for the Music and Arts Building 30 years earlier.

The 4-year college’s inaugural year, 1941, was busy. The Sisters of St. Joseph celebrated 75 years in Kansas City, during which they had founded St. Teresa’s Academy, St. Joseph’s Hospital and St. Teresa’s College, as well as teaching at several diocesan grade schools. Donnelly Hall’s cornerstone was laid Feb. 16, the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila; inside was a metal box of pictures, medals, a copy of The Register (the diocesan paper), The Kansas City Star, The Teresian school newspaper, The Gleam literary magazine, and rosters of the Sisters in 1910 and 1941.
New courses expanded the curriculum as needed for the college’s establishment, including home economics, education, psychology and philosophy.

The first commencement was held in 1942, when six students received Bachelor’s degrees in arts or sciences. The next several years would see 39 students graduate with degrees in a variety of programs, including home economics, English, education, sociology, music and art history.
The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited the college in 1946. More courses were added, including race and minority problems, child welfare, metaphysics, criminology, the New Testament and the Confessions of Augustine. In 1948, St. Joseph’s Hospital’s 3-year Diploma in Nursing program was transferred to St. Teresa’s College, making it the first baccalaureate nursing program in the city.

St. Teresa’s College lacked a new invention that was beginning to sweep the country: a television set. Then in 1951, the Sisters received a TV from a former student, installing it in the community room of the Music and Arts Building. Sisters and students could now watch shows like Dragnet, local and broader news, on WDAF, then Kansas City’s only TV station.

Some speakers who came to the College in those years were Ethyl Barrymore (1930), Eleanor Roosevelt (1937), Margaret Truman (1947) and Thomas Hart Benton (1950).

In 1952, the first male students were accepted as part-time, evening students.

Students, faculty and organizations continued to win trophies, awards and honors. By 1959, the college had 76 full-and-part-time faculty, teaching 515 full-and-part-time students.

In Nov. 1960, Sister Mary Daniel Tammany, newly appointed president of the college, announced that the College would move to south Kansas City while the Academy would stay at 5600 Main, a move benefitting both schools, allowing for separate identities and expansion. The college anticipated enrolling and accommodating 700 full-time students in the new facility.

In April 1961, 50 acres at 119th and Wornall Road were purchased, made possible by a bequest of the college’s first graduate, Margaret O’Reilly, who died in 1952. Sister Olive Louise Dallavis, who had served as acting president of the college since Sister Mary Daniel had stepped down and later died due to leukemia, was named president that August. She would oversee the initial $12 million building program, the move to the new campus and serve as president until 1985, when she “retired” to the college’s development office until 2009.

Almost 50 years later, Sister Olive Louise recalled never fearing the role of college president despite the fact that she was still considered a young music teacher by some of the older Sisters.

“They were flabbergasted,” she said. But she knew she had to learn to drive a car.

Sister Marcella Marie Holloway CSJ, teaches an English class in Donnelly Hall, on the St. Teresa’s Academy campus, Dec. 1960. The college moved to 119th and Wornall Road in 1962. (Photo courtesy Avila University)

Sister Marcella Marie Holloway CSJ, teaches an English class in Donnelly Hall, on the St. Teresa’s Academy campus, Dec. 1960. The college moved to 119th and Wornall Road in 1962. (Photo courtesy Avila University)

“Fortunately, I was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet,” one of the first religious orders to permit sisters to drive.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in Nov. 1961, beginning with the arrival of a 13-block long motorcade from Brookside at the new campus site, presided over by diocesan chancellor Father James V. Sullivan, with the first shovel turned by Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle.

Construction began on the first building, to be named O’Reilly Hall, along with the administration building, in January 1962. Classes began in September, even though the buildings were only 70 percent finished; painting was still ongoing and many windows had no glass.

At the groundbreaking, it was announced that St. Teresa’s College would be renamed Avila College, still honoring its patroness, St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Discalced Carmelites, scholar, writer and Doctor of the Church. Avila College became official Jan. 1, 1963.

The year 1965 saw Blasco Hall administration building completed, as was the first residence hall, Carondelet Hall, and Marian Center, a student commons and dining hall. Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter, Archbishop of St. Louis, dedicated O’Reilly Hall and the three new buildings that year.
Men were first admitted as part-time day students in 1966, Avila’s 50th anniversary.

Former President Harry S. Truman gave Avila College exclusive rights to the Truman Lecture Series in 1971. The annual Lecture has featured such noted speakers as William F. Buckley, Coretta Scott King, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, Clarence Kelly, Joseph Califano, Louis Zamperini and most recently, investigative journalist and author Jonathon M. Katz.

Construction on the Goppert Theater/Borserine Nurse Education Center complex was begun in 1973. The complex was dedicated by Cardinal John Cody in Nov. 1974. A few years later, the Hooley-Bundschu Library – Whitfield Center- Thornhill Art Gallery complex was built.

Sister Olive Louise received a surprise gift from several area businessmen in 1977, a gift that would steer the college’s scholarship program then and in the future. The men purchased Jimmy C., the American Royal grand champion steer, for her. She had been juggling ideas for raising money for student scholarships; the 4-legged gift put steak dinners in mind. She decorated the school cafeteria, sold tickets for $50/person and served steak dinners, raising scholarship funds by auctioning off additional steaks. The Steer Dinner was born.

The dinners grew fancier, better attended and raising more money as the years passed. In 2015, the dinner at the Marriot-Muehlebach Tower Hotel raised more than $1 million for scholarships. Each year, scholarship students speak at the dinner. The 2016 Steer Dinner, celebrating 150 years of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Kansas City, Avila’s centennial, and the 40th annual Steer Dinner, raised $1.7 million.
In 1978, the college began offering graduate degree programs in business, education and psychology. The following year, enrollment rose above 2,000.

Growth continued, with new capital campaigns and matching grants from foundations to build and expand the college. In 1985, Dr. Larry Kramer took the reins as president, the first male and first layperson to lead the college.

Dr. Kramer was followed by Tom Gordon, who stepped down in 2007 to take a federal judgeship. He was succeeded by Dr. Ron Slepitza. When he took the reins, growth, expansion and inspiration began galloping toward the future.

Dr. Slepitza can point to record student enrollments, more educational opportunities – Avila now offers 60 undergraduate and 6 graduate programs from seven Schools; more new construction and renovation in his first decade as president than in the previous 50 years – two new residence halls, an entry plaza in front of Blasco Hall, renovated Marian Center and food service areas, the Marie Joan Harris, CSJ, Ph.D. Science and Health Complex, named for Sister Marie Joan Harris, provost and Vice President for Student Affairs, who began as a chemistry professor nearly 50 years ago.

With eyes toward the future, Avila launched a $43.3 million Centennial Campaign in 2011, comprised of six educational initiatives intended “to inspire students to transform the world.” A few years later, the transformed Hooley-Bundschu Library was rededicated. Now a Learning Commons, combining 21st century technology with the heritage of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. One wall of the Learning Commons honors the history, legacy and future of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a wall leading into the Martha Smith CSJ, Ph.D., Religious Archives. The archives are open to those wanting to learn more about U.S. religious orders.

Seventy seven percent of the full-time faculty holds the highest degrees in their field.

The co-ed student body is diverse – 20 percent African-American, 1 percent Native American or Alaskan Native; 4 percent of two or more races, and the remainder Caucasian. International students hail from all over the world. More women are enrolled than men, and 17 percent of the students are married. Avila is a Catholic university but respects all faith. Catholics comprise 25 percent of the student body.

Dr. Slepitza reflected that if Sister Olive Louise visited the campus she “would see that we have been faithful to our character as a Catholic university in the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet … our continued emphasis on … love of the dear neighbor without distinction … focusing on helping our students and alumni become the best version of themselves, and inspiring others to do the same. She would see her University as one that has also been responsive to the changing signs and circumstances of these times. This is present in what we teach and how we teach it.

“Over 50 years ago, when Sister Olive looked out over the pasture land that is now Avila, I believe she would have hoped that this University would be all of these things for the students of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In gratitude, she would say we have been blessed by a gracious and loving God who hopes all of his children can be fully alive and contributing to His creation and that the University is still deeply committed and involved in doing so.”

Dr. Slepitza continued, “Of course, I want to continue to increase enrollment, grow our beautiful campus and have the best educational offerings … in the end, it’s about the success of our students and alumni. I hope … the continued generosity of our alumni and the community (will) continue to offer this very personal, meaningful, and significant education to those who might not otherwise afford it.

“I hope that we are always vigilant in asking what more can we be, can we do, can we offer to best prepare those who come to be ready to make a profound influence on their world through serving the needs of others.

“I hope,” he said, “that we are ready to change anything that will enable us to deliver this education in a relevant, timely, affordable fashion while holding dear those values that … guided and shaped us. … I hope that we are forward looking, innovative, and responsive to that changing — never satisfied with what is, always pushing ourselves just as we push our students to be our best version of Avila.

Dr. Slepitza concluded, “The Avila of tomorrow will look different — classrooms and technological tools to deliver learning in an engaging, responsive fashion … courses, majors, and programs will have different names. Its ability to connect students with the world will have also changed. What will not have changed is a student body … able to think clearly and critically, write and speak well, who understand the values inherent in a situation, and who … work collectively and cohesively for a solution to whatever situation or problem they face … people who make a difference in their community and their world.

“I believe Sister Olive Louise, and those before her … would be pleased with the university Avila has become.”


  1. April 1, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

    If only Avila actually kept and practiced the faith of the Church.

  2. April 3, 2016 at 9:53 am #

    Anyone who invites Califano and Buckley as speakers is questionable as an organization.

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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph