The Woman Who Built Fontbonne

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In April of 1924, a small group of women held a groundbreaking ceremony at the corner of Wydown Boulevard and Big Bend in St. Louis, Missouri. Just 18 months later, five beautiful brick buildings stood at the center of Fontbonne College’s brand new campus. This impressive feat was accomplished thanks to the leadership of one extraordinary lady: Mother Mary Agnes Rossiter, CSJ.

Creating a College

Mary Agnes Rossiter joined the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) in 1875 and served as the Carondelet province’s Superior General for 19 years (1917–1936). In that role, she was responsible for starting Fontbonne College in 1923. For the first two years, classes were held at St. Joseph’s Academy in the Carondelet neighborhood while the Clayton campus was being built.

The property where Fontbonne now sits was purchased by Mother Mary Agnes’s predecessor, Mother Agnes Gonzaga Ryan, in 1908, but a variety of issues delayed construction. Mother Agnes Gonzaga retired in 1917 and passed away shortly thereafter, but her brother — John Ryan — remained a devoted supporter of his sister’s order. He donated over $1.4 million to the Sisters of St. Joseph over the course of his life, designating $150,000 specifically for the development of Fontbonne’s campus. (Although John Ryan sought no recognition for his gifts, Ryan Hall is named after him.)

Mother Agnes Gonzaga initially planned for the college to be housed within a single structure — Administration Hall — but her successor’s vision was even grander. In a bold and ultimately prescient move, Mother Mary Agnes asked the architects to draw up plans for five buildings instead.

This decision seemed strange at the time. When the Sisters had started offering classes in 1923, only nine young women enrolled. Mother Agnes knew, however, that once the campus was ready, more students would arrive. She was right.

Perhaps most importantly, she was able to convince others to believe in the school as well. In addition to John Ryan’s support, she secured a loan from Rome for a significantly greater amount than was initially requested.

When the time came to proceed with construction, Mother Agnes decided to serve as general contractor to save money. Her father had worked in construction so she understood what was involved, and overseeing the project guaranteed her close access to the crews’ progress.

“Mother Mary Agnes took an active part in directing the work and spent much time on the grounds to see that the specifications were carried out,” wrote biographer Mary Lucida Savage (CSJ). “She was solicitous about the care taken of the workmen during the great heat of the summer and had installed on the grounds a lunch depot, from which fresh milk and pies were daily distributed to all workmen who wished them.”

“Serious-Minded” Leader

Mary Agnes Rossiter
Photo of Mother Mary Agnes Rossiter, courtesy of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet — St. Louis Province Archives.

In 1929, Mother Mary Agnes received special permission from Rome to serve an extra term (plus one year) as the Superior General at Carondelet. She made the most of every moment of her 19 years in St. Louis, where her love for the Sisters of St. Joseph and passion for education were made abundantly clear in the relentless energy with which she approached her work.

“She was just, faithful, and prudent during her three long terms of office,” Reverend John Cardinal Glennon wrote. “Her duties she took very seriously and calmly, and proceeded to execute them with that firmness and faith which were peculiarly hers.”

He went on to describe Mother Agnes as a “serious-minded” leader whose efforts in the development of Fontbonne College were responsible for creating an institute that “impart[s] real knowledge instead of merely the semblance of knowledge which is supposed to be in a degree.”

Her can-do spirit led the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Fontbonne, through two tumultuous decades where World War I and the Great Depression could have had a devastating effect.

Never one to back down from a challenge, Mother Agnes cultivated an atmosphere of self-sufficiency at Fontbonne. For the first several decades of its existence, the school did not rely on the city for utilities, choosing to supply its own power needs instead with a physical plant onsite. When Mother Agnes’s driver expressed concern about running out of gas between the Mother House in Carondelet and Fontbonne’s campus in Clayton, she solved the problem by installing a gas station on campus. The area behind Ryan Hall (now home to Medaille Hall and the Golden Meadow) was originally a garden where staff and students grew vegetables for use in the cafeteria.

Mother Mary Agnes was known not only for her industriousness, but also for her kindness and generosity. In “A Sketch of the Life of Mother Mary Agnes Rossiter,” Sister Mary Lucida Savage remembered her fondly, writing:

“Mother Agnes was a good listener. No Sister, presenting herself for comfort or advice, was left unheard. Reverend Mother might be in the midst of an important letter; it was set aside. That could wait. She rejected, almost indignantly, a suggestion made to her to appoint office hours so that she might not be disturbed at a busy time. All her time, said Mother Agnes, belonged to the Sisters, who were not to be denied entrance to her presence at any hour convenient to them.”

Legacy

Mother Mary Agnes died of a heart attack on May 19, 1940. She was 82 years old.

Her final days were spent in Kansas City, Missouri, where she served at St. Joseph Hospital from 1937 until her death in 1940.

In her obituary, she was remembered as an accomplished pianist, teacher, and educational visionary. Even in her few short years in Kansas City, she made a lasting impact, prompting the paper to write:

“Sister Agnes made her gentle executive influence felt by thousands of Catholic laymen in addition to the more than 3,000 members of the congregation. While serving in the hospital, she made it her practice to visit each patient at least once.”

Her friend and colleague of several decades, Reverend John Cardinal Glennon, shared the following at her funeral in 1940:

“…[S]he does not need any words of praise, nor does her life need an explanation by me, because it was a life lived among you, open as the day, faithful to its work as the course of the starts in the heavens — a life worthy of such praise as I would be incapable of rendering.”

A Strong Foundation

Fontbonne’s rich history is filled with stories of remarkable women like Mother Mary Agnes Rossiter. Her contribution to the university cannot be overstated, and her legacy lives on in our commitment to serving the dear neighbor without distinction.

As we celebrate the legacy of leaders like Mother Agnes this month, let us keep in mind the following words of wisdom, which she left behind in a handwritten note:

“It is to the spirit of sacrifice as well as to the spirit of faith… that we must attribute the heroic virtues and wonders of self-devotion which we admire in the great servants of God… Let us strive, then, to be generous with God, giving Him wholeheartedly what He asks from us — that we may enjoy peace of soul and approach nearer to our Divine Model.”

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