On a cloudy June morning in 1958, students in the graduating class of the Boston College School of Nursing shuttled from their crowded quarters on the second floor of 126 Newbury Street, known those days as the “Boston College Intown,” to the University’s new Alumni Stadium.
In 13 years, the School of Nursing already had become one of the largest nursing programs in the country, with an enrollment of 900. It was about to launch a master’s program. Nevertheless, the school was hardly integrated physically or socially into the University. In fact, Boston College nurses were joining the rest of their graduating class on the Chestnut Hill Campus for one day only, commencement.
But things were about to change. Boston College President Michael P. Walsh, S.J., had announced a week before commencement that the University planned to break ground on a nursing school building on the Chestnut Hill Campus in 1961.
But after giving the benediction that formally closed commencement, Boston Archbishop Richard Cushing remained on the dais—and announced he would donate the cost of the new building. Construction could begin as soon as the following spring; the new nursing school would open for classes by 1960. After a standing ovation, Walsh took the podium and proclaimed the building would be named for the archbishop.
Cushing Hall was a signal advance not just for the School of Nursing but also for Boston College itself. As Walsh noted in a letter to Cushing shortly after his dramatic announcement, his was “the greatest single benefaction in the history of Boston College.”
The following morning, a Boston Globe headline declared, “Gift comes as surprise to graduates,” over a page-one story.
Those who had observed Cushing’s episcopacy may not have been entirely surprised. Cushing began urging Boston College to establish a school of nursing in 1945. He made a case to University President William Keleher, S.J., who complained to the Jesuit Curia in Rome that coeducation would hurt Boston College’s “ethos.”
The school opened in February 1947 with a class of 35. For the next 13 years, nursing students pursued their bachelor of science degrees in overcrowded classrooms making do with small desk-chairs and blackboards at 126 Newbury. Nursing faculty stayed downtown while their counterparts in the College of Arts and Sciences commuted from Chestnut Hill to the Back Bay to teach English, history, philosophy, and theology.
Richard Cardinal Cushing
As Boston’s archbishop from 1944 through 1970, Cardinal Richard Cushing was involved in the planning, development, groundbreaking, and dedication of several Boston College buildings. But he typically didn’t climb behind the wheel of an excavator while dressed in his ceremonial vestments as he did in February 1959, when he presided at the groundbreaking for the nursing school building. The nursing school was special to Cushing, who personally raised and donated $1 million toward the cost of constructing the building that would be named in his honor.
Spry and plain-spoken, a South Boston native and the son of Irish immigrants, Cushing was known throughout his priesthood for advocating tolerance and civil rights and supporting missionary work. Named Archbishop of Boston in 1944, he became a monolith of a Catholic fundraiser and a model for a sprightly, informal, and inclusive priesthood.
Cushing became Boston’s cardinal in 1958. During his tenure, he founded a South American-based missionary, delivered the invocation at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and said the slain president’s funeral Mass in 1963. He left the Vatican Council’s second session early, claiming his time would be better served fundraising for the poor. Over 20 years, he built orphanages, nursing homes, centers for the blind and deaf, 86 churches, dozens of parochial schools, and hospitals.
But Cushing’s appeals were pragmatic and spiritual. The Boston Archdiocese was in dire need of nurses to staff its burgeoning network of Catholic hospitals. Nurses, he maintained, answered “a call to work for God in service of a particular group of God’s creatures.”
“We loved our little, very cramped quarters. We felt like pioneers,” says Martha Cadigan Sullivan ’60, M.S. ’63, a member of the first senior class to graduate from the nursing school in Cushing Hall. There were no labs in the converted building on Newbury Street, requiring students to perform all clinical work in area hospitals, primarily Boston City Hospital in the South End.
The nurses did commute to Chestnut Hill on Tuesdays and Thursdays to take their lab classes in Devlin Hall. Such classes were offered to them exclusively, as there was no institutional intent to integrate the sciences or non-nursing electives at that time.
Elizabeth Grady ’59, M.S. ’64, recalls, “we didn’t have any place, as a distinct community of women, to call home out there [in Chestnut Hill]….”
“Forced into a separate, small place, we built very deep connections,” says Sullivan. “We thought of ourselves as nursing students, not Boston College students.”
Cushing dedicated his namesake hall before an audience of 5,000 on March 25, 1960. The following week, nursing students and faculty left 126 Newbury for good. “We finally felt like we belonged at Boston College. We had a home,” says Grady.
On Chestnut Hill, nursing students and faculty settled into spacious, comfortable quarters with ample room to expand. Many spent their limited free time in a first-floor student lounge, filled in those days with cigarette smoke. More often they gravitated to the bright and spacious nursing library on the top floor.
When Sullivan thinks back to the building, she says: “I think of the people who filled it. That library was all because of Mary Pekarski,” the nursing school’s genial, bespectacled founding librarian, who built one of the most expansive nursing collections in the country before she retired in 1978.
Students also gathered in the office of School of Nursing Chaplain Edward Gorman, S.J., who taught theology at the school for 25 years, recalls Grady. “It was a mess—he let us hang our laundry and lunch there all the time—but a wonderful mess for us all to camp out.”
No one, however, left a larger imprint on the School of Nursing in its first decades than Rita P. Kelleher. In 1947, when the now-legendary dean arrived at the University’s main gate to interview for the school’s first faculty position, she was told that the president did not meet with potential kitchen employees. Within a year she was the nursing school’s dean.
“She provided the school, the students, and the faculty [with] a sense of continuity from the downtown setting to the main campus,” says Laurel Eisenhauer ’62, who earned her Ph.D. in 1977 from Boston College’s School of Education and was on the SON faculty from 1970 to 2005.
“She was a lady to the nth degree, incredibly sophisticated,” says Grady. “She took a lot of hard knocks from the Jesuits for being a woman leader, but she always rose above it.”
Kelleher hosted regular student-faculty teas, where she spoke of the importance of comprehensive nursing care and treating patients as humans, recalls Grady. “We were always most enamored with the faculty who were great clinicians. In spite of the fact that Dean Kelleher never did anything clinically, we thought she knew more about nursing than anybody.”
As nurses went from wearing crisp white uniforms to scrubs in the 1970s, capping ceremonies lost their significance and disappeared. Starting in the 1980s, the faculty grew, the curriculum evolved, and classroom use changed as the school began adding master’s programs in fields from pediatric nursing to gerontology as well as the first doctoral program in nursing at a Jesuit university. The nursing library collection outgrew its space on the top floor and moved to O’Neill Library in 1991. The Connell School now offers post-master’s certificate programs in fields from forensic nursing to palliative care as well.
Change is now afoot once again. The Connell School of Nursing has outgrown its beloved home of 55 years. Next summer, the school will leave the four-story granite complex on Middle Campus, where hundreds of faculty members educated and trained more than 10,000 nurses for more than a half century. By September 2015, CSON expects to have settled in its new home on the second and third floors of Maloney Hall.
Announcing the move in a letter to students, faculty, staff, and alumni last fall, Dean Susan Gennaro wrote, “We will carry the traditions of Cushing Hall with us to our future home in Maloney, where we will train the next generation of extraordinary nurses as they build their dreams and careers.”
For alumni like Sullivan, “it is hard to imagine the building being abandoned. But back then, we couldn’t have imagined what the building would come to mean.” After all, she observes: “We were on the cusp of a new age too.”
William F. Connell
An astute businessman who made the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, William F. Connell often joked that he was just a “junk man.” (Connell Limited Partnership, the metal recycling and equipment manufacturer he founded, was one of the country’s largest privately owned companies.) A graduate of Boston College and Harvard Business School and vice chair of Boston College’s Board of Trustees, Connell was active in civic life. He quietly helped steer the merger of FleetBank and BankBoston and orchestrate the deal that kept the New England Patriots in Massachusetts.
The son of Irish immigrants—his father was a bus driver, his mother a seamstress—Connell studied accounting at Boston College, graduating magna cum laude in 1959. He was a daily communicant, who often said he lived by three rules: “Be good, do your best, and go to Mass.” He also said, “If you get lucky, you’re supposed to share.”
University President William P. Leahy, S.J., presented him with Boston College’s highest award, the Ignatius Medal, in a bedside ceremony the day before he died. Connell was only the 10th recipient of the honor.
William F. Connell lost his battle with cancer on August 22, 2001, leaving his wife Margot and six children, all Boston College graduates, including CSON alumna Lisa McNamara ’89. On September 12, 2003, the Connell family gathered at the University for the formal dedication of its school of nursing in his honor.
Margot C. Connell, William’s widow, carries on his dedication to Boston College by serving on the University’s Board of Trustees. She is a convening cochair of the Light the World campaign and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2009.
—Zak Jason, pin photograph by Gary Wayne Gilbert, archival images courtesy University Archives