Message From the President
Mission Made Manifest

Establishing Emmanuel was like a mountain that had to be moved. And, then again, it was like a dream.” So wrote Sister Helen Madeleine Ingraham, SND, in her Memoirs. Dean of the College from its founding in 1919 through 1950, Sister Helen Madeleine has long been considered the founder of Emmanuel for her leadership in moving the College from an idea to a thriving reality.

Recently, I spoke to the College community about Sister Helen Madeleine’s remarkable life and accomplishments. The address was part of our annual Founders’ Week, which celebrates the educational legacy of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Founders’ Week is one of the many ways students, faculty and staff deepen their understanding of the mission and values at the core of our community—an endeavor that takes on special meaning as we approach the College’s Centennial in 2019.

As I said in my address, Sister Helen Madeleine provides a fascinating lens through which to view the early history of the College and the social currents surrounding it. Her story also unites past and present: Just as she translated St. Julie Billiart’s vision into action in her time, so today Emmanuel continues to prepare students to lead lives of purpose and service in the 21st century.

Emmanuel’s founder, Sister Helen Madeleine Ingraham, SND, served as Dean of the College from 1919 to 1950. During her tenure, she established the College’s reputation for academic excellence as well as traditions that became hallmarks for future generations. She received an honorary degree from the College in its Golden Jubilee year, 1969.

An Education “Lacking Nothing”

When St. Julie Billiart established the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1804, she made education a vital part of the congregation’s charism. This commitment was partly in response to a scarcity of education in France in the wake of the French Revolution, as well as during and after the Napoleonic Wars. A century later and an ocean away, a similar lack of educational opportunity existed in New England. Although the region was home to many colleges at the turn of the 20th century, there was no Catholic college for women.

Once again, the Sisters of Notre Dame responded to the need. At the invitation of William Cardinal O’Connell, then Archbishop of Boston, the Sisters envisioned a college that would, as Sister Helen Madeleine would write, “provide a liberal education which would lack none of the advantages offered to women by colleges in or near Boston, which would at the same time be integrated with Catholic principles.”

It was a bold initiative, particularly in light of the mores of the time. Some believed that educating women was nothing short of dangerous, and many actively opposed the growing women’s suffrage movement. Not until 1920, a year after Emmanuel opened its doors, did women secure the constitutional right to vote in the United States.

A Spirit to Match the Moment

Sister Helen Madeleine and her contemporaries were undaunted. For one thing, they possessed a combination of practicality and perseverance that made them superb administrators. In a deeper sense, they believed passionately that education was not only essential to the public good, but also, in the words of St. Julie, “fundamental to bringing about the reign of God.” Their new educational enterprise would liberate minds, open doors of opportunity and empower women to make outstanding contributions to an array of professions, to the Church, and to their families and communities.

The history of the Sisters of Notre Dame in America provided further inspiration. After coming from Belgium to Cincinnati in 1840, the Sisters were invited to Boston’s North End by John McElroy, S.J. (who would later become president of Boston College), where they opened St. Mary’s School, the only Catholic school in the City at that time. From there, they established schools in Cambridge and Somerville and in mill towns such as Lynn, Lowell and Springfield, serving a largely immigrant population. Sister Helen Madeleine knew the stories of the women who had courageously gone where their vocations led them. She shared their pioneering spirit, along with their unshakeable confidence in God’s goodness.

Sister Helen Madeleine herself had earned a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., pursued graduate studies at Oxford University and taught for 11 years at Notre Dame Academies in Lowell, Roxbury and Boston—experiences that made her equal to the challenge of founding a Catholic college for women in the heart of a historic and vibrant U.S. city.

Building the Foundations

Following the Sisters of Notre Dame’s purchase in 1912 of 11 acres of land in the Fenway and the construction of the Administration Building, Emmanuel College welcomed its first students in 1919. As the first Dean of the College, Sister Helen Madeleine set about establishing programs and traditions that would come to define Emmanuel.

Building the faculty was a top priority, and she quickly appointed excellent professors—many of them Sisters of Notre Dame—who taught exceptionally well and who were wholeheartedly dedicated to their students. She also sought degree-granting approval from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Her efforts are reflected in the College’s charter, which authorizes Emmanuel to grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a latitude that would enable Emmanuel to establish Graduate & Professional Programs in the 1970s.

To create the College seal, Sister Helen Madeleine turned to Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, a member of Harvard’s faculty and a renowned expert on ecclesiastical and college heraldry. Their collaboration resulted in a seal symbolizing the College’s mission, location and heritage. Emblazoned with “Emmanuel” in ancient Hebrew, the seal continues to be used today on diplomas and in other formal contexts. In response to students’ desire for a class ring, Sister Helen Madeleine engaged Tiffany & Co. in New York to design the famous lapis lazuli ring, which has been worn by generations of alumni.

The influence of this amazing woman is evident even in the name of the College. In her reflection and prayer, one name rose above all others. “I thought about it very often,” she wrote later, “but I never thought beyond my original thought, Emmanuel College. Emmanuel, God with us.”

“The Emmanuel Effect”—Then and Now

During Sister Helen Madeleine’s tenure as Dean, many of the students at Emmanuel were the first in their families to attend college. Each day, they commuted from throughout Greater Boston to 400 The Fenway, an address they saw as a springboard to careers and lives that they could only dream of previously.

During the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the College created a Placement Bureau—a forerunner of today’s Career Center—to help students and graduates find professional positions, further propelling them to the forefront of new opportunities. Graduates found that their liberal arts and sciences education gave them an edge in the job market. Several of the first woman judges, for example, came from the classes of the 1930s and 1940s. Students who majored in the sciences in the 1940s went on to work for organizations such as RCA, General Electric and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The achievements of graduates then—and throughout the decades that followed—attest to the extraordinary value of an Emmanuel education. As the feature stories in this issue of Emmanuel Magazine make clear, the College today continues to act as an engine of mobility for promising young women and men. While they hail from a much broader array of backgrounds, states and countries than did the first students, our current students experience the same profound impact of the ideals that Sister Helen Madeleine did so much to advance.

In two years, the College will mark its 100th anniversary. As we prepare for this historic milestone, we are filled with gratitude for the countless graduates whose Emmanuel education has inspired them to make a positive difference to people and causes throughout our nation and beyond. We look forward to joining with all who love the College to celebrate our distinctive mission and heritage—and to ask our loving God, in the words of Sister Helen Madeleine, to be with us “as yesterday, today and forever.”

Sister Janet Eisner, SND

The Early Years

Emmanuel Opens Its Doors

The first Catholic college for women in New England quickly takes its place among other rising stars in the Fenway and Longwood neighborhoods of Boston. Harvard Medical School, the Museum of Fine Arts, Fenway Park, the forerunners of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and other future world-renowned institutions had recently opened nearby.

Graduates Excel in the Liberal Arts and Sciences

At a time when women’s educational options are limited, Emmanuel offers a curriculum rooted in the liberal arts and sciences. The College’s first 29 graduates receive degrees in chemistry, English, French, history, Latin, mathematics, political science and Spanish. Emmanuel continues to add academic programs throughout the decade.

Advancing Social Justice

Students invite activist and journalist Dorothy Day to campus in 1933 for lectures and discussions. Many students become committed to the Catholic Worker Movement that Day co-founded.

Campus Expands

After acquiring two more parcels of land, Emmanuel constructs a dedicated sciences facility, Alumnae Hall, named for the generous charitable support it received from graduates. Dedicated in 1949, the building reflects the College’s strength in education and research in the sciences, which continues today.

Centennial Planning Advances

Momentum is building toward Emmanuel’s Centennial in 2019. Plans are in progress for a range of events that will celebrate the College’s impact on higher education, the City of Boston and generations of students. In addition, the Centennial will provide opportunities for alumni, friends, students, faculty and staff to join in advancing Emmanuel’s Catholic educational mission and ensuring a second century of excellence.

Emmanuel seeks your input on how to make the most of this celebration of our past, present and future. Please e-mail your ideas to