An Historical Moment: Gonzaga University

By Molly Pepper

Gonzaga University is named for St. Aloysius Gonzaga, an Italian Jesuit in formation who died at age 23 caring for plague victims in Rome in 1591. Gonzaga’s founder, another Italian born Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Cataldo (1837-1928), founded Gonzaga on 320 acres in Spokane Falls, later renamed Spokane. He purchased the land from the Northern Pacific Railroad for 936 silver dollars. Cataldo and other Jesuits had been serving among the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, so originally he intended to open a school for American Indian boys. City founders, however, encouraged him to open a school that would attract white students from around the West.

When Gonzaga College opened on Sept. 17, 1887, seven white boys enrolled. The entire school – living quarters for the students and Jesuits, classrooms, dining facilities, and the library – was contained in one building. The college grew and became a university with the addition of the Law School in 1912. Today, it has more than 105 buildings on 131 acres.

Gonzaga has maintained its connection to the American Indian tribes. The Center for American Indian Studies provides education and resources for undergraduate and graduate students. The center also is a gathering place for community meetings and works with the Tribal Advisory Board to develop cultural based curriculum at Gonzaga. Undergraduate students can pursue a minor or take classes in Native American studies to learn about tribal sovereignty and tribal histories and cultures. Gonzaga offers a master’s of business administration in American Indian Entrepreneurship that prepares leaders to effectively manage and support sustainable business on American Indian reservations.

Gonzaga expresses its mission to work toward social justice through many centers, institutes, and other actions. For example, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Gonzaga’s Law School provides research, education, and community engagement on topics of civil and human rights. The unique Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies advances the academic field of hate studies and engages scholars around the world in activities of inquiry, scholarship, and action-service. The Princeton Review recently ranked Gonzaga as being among the most environmentally responsible colleges, as No. 13 for “Most Politically Active Students,” and among the nation’s best-value universities for students seeking outstanding academic and superb career preparation at an affordable price with generous financial aid. It has ranked No. 1 for four years straight among small universities for alumni serving the Peace Corps. U.S. News and World Report ranked it the No. 4 best “Regional University” in the West.

The Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Gonzaga University.

The Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Gonzaga University.

The performing arts also played an important role in the history of Gonzaga. In 1924 and 1925, Gonzaga put on a production of “Golgotha,” a passion play on the life of Jesus from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. The prologue and seven scenes required a massive effort, including a cast of more than 200, an orchestra, and a choir. Despite its initial success, the production was deemed too large to continue annually. Nevertheless, the performing arts continue play a significant role on Gonzaga’s campus. In spring 2019, a 57,550-square-foot, two-story state-of-the- art Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center will open. The building will include a 750-seat performance theater, a 150-seat hall for music and dance, and plenty of space for instruction and collaboration in a variety of disciplines. The new center will create an arts village on the west side of campus overlooking the Spokane River with programs in music, theater, dance, and the visual arts.

Finally, the well-known men’s basketball team has made 20 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including eight Sweet 16 games, three Elite Eight games, and one National Championship game. Gonzaga ranks No. 1 in nation for graduation success rate at 99 percent and academic progress rate at 998, the two NCAA metrics for academic success by student athletes. Forty-one student athletes earned West Coast Conference All-Academic Honors last year. The new Volkar Center for Athletic Achievement, opened in the spring of 2018, continues this tradition.

All photos are featured courtesy of Gonzaga University.