As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, socioeconomic conditions for Catholics in southwestern Pennsylvania were slowly improving. Many recent immigrants and their offspring still toiled in the mills and mines, but a new generation was beginning to trickle into the professions. Their advancement was, in large part, fueled by the availability of a Catholic college education.
In 1878, a group of Holy Ghost fathers- themselves exiled from Germany due to religious intolerance- accepted a request from the Bishop of Pittsburgh to open a college. The Rev. Joseph Strub, C.C.Sp. and his confreres knew that three previous attempts had failed. Still, they took up the challenge. Bolstered by a few Spiritan colleagues from Ireland, they opened the Pittsburgh Catholic College on October 1, 1878.
Forty students showed up that day in rented rooms over a Hill District bakery. The following fall, 124 students enrolled. Slowly but surely, the college grew. In 1882, it received a charter from the state. By 1885, it had a home when the magnificent edifice now known as "Old Main" was completed. The traditions of student life evolved. By 1910, the college was firmly established with an enrollment of 375.
This success compelled the Spiritans to take a bold step. Historian Bernard J. Weiss later wrotes, "If preparation for the professions was not to be exclusively under non-Catholic auspices in the Pittsburgh area, it was incumbent on [the college] to move toward university status." Urban Catholic schools elsewhere- St. John's, Marquette, DePaul and Loyola of Chicago among them- had already reached the same conclusion, becoming universities between 1906 and 1909. Making the leap in Pennsylvania, though, would be an exercise in politics and perseverance.
Prior to 1895, obtaining a university charter in the Commonwealth required a relatively simple filing to the county court. Legislative action later specified a stringent list of requirements, including $500,000 in assets and approval from a council of educators from across the state—many of whom were associated with other institutions that would view a new university as unwelcome competition.
Undaunted, on June 18, 1910, attorneys from the firm of Watson and freeman submitted a petition asking that the Pittsburgh Catholic College be rechartered as the University of the Holy Ghost, with the power to confer degrees in law, medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. It was the first time a Catholic institution in Pennsylvania applied for such a designation.
Catholic organizations across Pennsylvania submitted enthusiastic letters of endorsement. Unfortunately, they could not back up their support with funding. The influential Carnegie foundation opined that the Commonwealth did not need any more professional schools. although 25 percent of Pennsylvanians were Catholic, not a single member of the council was.
Surprisingly, the members were ultimately moved by assurances that this Catholic university would be open to all, regardless of religious belief. After six months of hearings, and against all expectations, the council voted unanimously to approve the petition on December 30, 1910.
Still, the issue of assets had to be resolved. The council referred the matter back to the allegheny County Common Pleas Court, which ordered fact-finding. Assessors examined every aspect of the school’s operations and tiny campus, attaching dollar values to everything from the priests’ free labor to the stained glass windows in the chapel. They returned to court, reporting that Pittsburgh Catholic College had $730,485 in assets.
Finally, on March 30, 1911, Judge Robert Frazer granted a charter to the University of the Holy Ghost. No sooner had the celebrations on the Bluff subsided than another controversy arose. Some clerics questioned associating the sacred name of the Holy Ghost with such secular pursuits as athletics. Lawyers again approached the bench, securing approval to amend the name in honor of the French colonial governor who first brought Catholic observances to the region. On May 27, 1911, Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost was born.