By Jerome Oetgen
The period between the wars witnessed developments in both the organizational structure and curriculum of the college. In 1921 the Preparatory School was separated from the College of Arts and Sciences (the Seminary had been separated several years earlier), and the undergraduate curriculum was divided into two tracks: the old Classical Course, which furnished “the best foundation for advanced scholarship” and which led to the bachelor of arts degree; and a new Science Course which was “usually chosen by those . . . looking forward to professional careers in law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, agriculture and engineering” and which led to a bachelor of science degree. After two additional years of “professional, literary, or scientific studies,” and upon presentation of an acceptable thesis, students who had received the bachelor of arts were awarded a master of arts degree.
In 1927 the college was divided into the departments of art, biology, chemistry, economics and sociology, education, English, French, German, Greek, history, Latin, Mathematics, music, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and religion, and a bachelor of fine arts degree was instituted. Two years later an aviation course was added to the curriculum, and the college purchased a bi-plane to train student pilots at the nearby Latrobe Airport.
The year 1931 marked the first significant addition of lay professors to the Saint Vincent College faculty. Of the 35 faculty members in 1931, ten were laymen teaching in the departments of chemistry, psychology, music, art and education. With the Depression, however, student enrollment began a steady decline which continued till the end of World War II. There were 408 students in 1933 and 388 in 1934. To stem the decline the college opened extension campuses in Pittsburgh, Erie, and St. Marys, Pennsylvania, which for a time held enrollment steady. With the outbreak of war in 1941, however, enrollment dropped precipitously so that by 1944 there were only 230 students at Saint Vincent, most of them studying for the priesthood.
To offset the loss of revenue caused by the decline in enrollment, the administration secured a contract with the federal government to train pilots for the air force, and in 1940 the first student pilots arrived on campus. Three years later Father Felix Fellner, professor of history at the college and prior of the monastery, wrote to a friend that:
“Saint Vincent is now on the War-path with 350 air trainees and about a dozen officers within its walls. They occupy the Seminary (which was transferred to the College), but they can be heard everywhere. Drums and fifes and singing and shouting do not well harmonize with the Pax Benedictina, especially when we are at meals and several young men shout (to strengthen their lungs, they told me) right below the windows of our refectory . . . The corps has ten machines on the neighboring airfield for practice.
In 1946, a year after the end of World War II, Saint Vincent celebrated its centenary. The college was on the verge of its greatest expansion ever, and alumni and friends all over America warmly congratulated its faculty and administration on their one hundredth anniversary. Father James Reeves, president of nearby Seton Hill College, wrote of Saint Vincent’s excellent educational program:
“In the program of studies, the pre-professional courses are closely tied to the liberal arts core, in the conviction that the lawyer, doctor, engineer, teacher, political leader, statesman, public administrator, social worker requires breadth of knowledge and depth of thought if he is to relate effectively his professional efforts to life. This organization avoids the hazard attached to departmental specialization. Such specialization, the college believes, belongs to the graduate school, in the university, and in the professional school. Saint Vincent never succumbed to the free elective system . . . Neither ridicule and disdain nor the urge for larger numbers deflected this college from the liberal arts tradition with its correlated subject matter emphasizing those disciplines that constitute the common heritage of the educated person. Choice and specialization belong in the college of liberal arts, but only after the student has become acquainted with the highways of human thought.”
It was during this period of the mid-1940s that, following the lead of distinguished liberal arts institutions throughout the United States, Saint Vincent organized its curriculum into departmental majors and a core curriculum, the curriculum model which exists today. In 1948 there were 19 majors available to students in the Divisions of Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, and Busienss. The following year, benefiting like all American colleges and universities from the G.I. Bill, Saint Vincent enrolled 872 students, a radical increase from the World War II low of 230.
Change has continued to occur at Saint Vincent since the influx of former G.I.’s in the late 1940s so radically altered the composition of the student body and thrust the college into the mainstream of American higher education. In 1956, for the first time in its history, the college received a president who was not also superior of the monastic community. In accordance with a decision of the General Chapter of the American Cassinese Congregation of Benedictines, Archabbot Denis Strittmatter relinquished his title as chief executive officer of the college and appointed a faculty member to the presidency. Father Quentin Schaut of the English department was named president of Saint Vincent when it became clear that because of the growth and development of the college a single administrator could not adequately direct both its work and that of the monastic community. Father Quentin served as president until 1962, when he was succeeded by Father Maximilian Duman of the Biology Department.
It was during Father Maximilian’s term that Saint Vincent suffered a devastating fire in 1963 which destroyed many of the college’s buildings but which fortunately caused no loss of life. In the years that followed, a new age in the history of the college began. Out of the ashes of the past a new Saint Vincent emerged. New buildings rose, new challenges were met during the turbulent 1960s, new programs were introduced, and in 1983 women were admitted for the first time as students at Saint Vincent.
Ably led over the past twenty-five years by such presidents as Fathers Maynard Brennan (1963-1968), Fintan Shoniker (1968-1971), Cecil Diethrich (1971-1982), Augustine Flood (1982-1985), John Murtha (1985-1995) and Martin Bartel, Saint Vincent has grown into a flourishing institution of more than a thousand students where the past and present come together to promise a dynamic future.