Marylhurst's legacy of growth & renewal
Nestled between the cities of Lake Oswego and West Linn, Marylhurst University is not only the oldest Catholic university in the state, but was also the first liberal arts college for women in the Northwest.
The campus is sited between Highway 43 and the Willamette River, next to the Mary's Woods senior living community (the two institutions are separate, although they share a lot of history). The university's legacy has been one of continued growth and change, but school officials announced Thursday that it would close by the end of 2018 because of declining enrollment and other factors.
The institution dates back to 1893, when a group of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary opened St. Mary's Academy and College in downtown Portland. The Catholic congregation arrived in Oregon in 1859 and began teaching girls and young women.
"Most congregations were founded for a critical reason such as health care or education," says Sister Carole Strawn, an historian and former longtime employee at Marylhurst. "(The Sisters of the Holy Names) started out with grade school and high school, but eventually they wanted to expand."
Strawn attended Marylhurst University as a student in the late 1960s, and later returned and worked on the campus for 25 years until 2013. She now works at the Holy Names Heritage Archives at Mary's Woods.
The Sisters were looking for more space, she says, and in 1908 they purchased a 63-acre property that would eventually become a new home for the college campus. They named the area Marylhurst, which is a combination of Mary and "hurst," the old English word for woods, meaning Mary's Woods.
The property originally housed an orchard and farm, and Strawn says both features persisted for years even after the college was established.
"We did have cows out here," she says. "And even when I arrived in the 60s, we still had the orchard."
The Sisters quickly built an orphanage and a provincial house on the campus, but plans to relocate the college were put on hold for several years while the church focused on expanding its primary education efforts in Oregon and Washington, Strawn says.
Eventually the Sisters were able to move forward with a plan to construct three new buildings at Marylhurst for the college. The project broke ground in October 1929 — mere days, as it turned out, before the stock market crash that plunged the world in to the Great Depression.
"They went ahead anyway, against the tide," Strawn says. "And at great sacrifice, too."
The college opened in its new location in 1930, and was renamed Marylhurst College. It was initially staffed entirely by the Sisters, but the faculty expanded over the years along with the number of programs offered by the school. In 1959, Marylhurst College became a separate corporation.
Strawn attended as a Sister, although she says there were always students from other denominations there as well. The campus grew dramatically during her time as a student, with the addition of St. Anne's Chapel, the Shoen Library and new dorms.
That growth continued over the next several years with the addition of many new majors and options for students. The expansion mirrored changes in the Catholic Church at the time, Strawn says, as well as changes in society overall as many new professional fields became open to women.
"People say, 'Why did Marylhurst change?'" she says. "Well, it was the '60s. A lot of things changed in the '60s. In Marylhurst's case, we chose to transition, to see if we could continue the program with a co-educational component."
The college became co-educational in 1974, and also began to shift its focus toward lifelong learning, included classes aimed at older students who wanted to obtain new degrees or complete unfinished ones.
"Research showed that what was needed — and lacking — was opportunities for people to return to school," Strawn says. "It could be at 28, or it could be at 48."
The college continued to be a pioneer during the next several decades, introducing concepts such as the Prior Learning Assessment Program in 1976 to grant credit for existing career skills. It began offering online classes in 1996, followed by full online degrees two years later. 1998 was also the year the college became Marylhurst University.
Whikle the university may be closing, the surrounding area is bustling. Mary's Woods was established as a continuing care community in 2001 using an adjacent portion of the land owned by the Sisters of the Holy Names, and has grown alongside the university since then.
The Sisters remain active at Mary's Woods, both as residents and in its administration as board members and staff. The Holy Names community is currently in the process of constructing The Village at Mary's Woods, a much larger retirement center adjacent to Marylhurst University.
All the new changes are spurred by the same conditions that spurred so many of Marylhurst transitions, says Karen Pederson, the school's communications and content manager — dating all the way back to the Sisters' original trek out to the west coast to provide education.
"The evolution has always been in response to the needs of the community," Pederson says.
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