Do something: a history of fundraising, ground breaking and the people who built Ursuline College


Every year, the incoming class of students at Ursuline College learns the names Mullen, Besse, Fritzche, Wasmer, Pilla, Smith, Grace and Murphy. These names not only represent the buildings that comprise campus, but are a lasting testament to Ursuline’s history. The story behind the College involves a small but passionate group of people dedicated to the vision of Ursuline’s foundress, St. Angela Merici: Women’s education.

‘Once in a Century’: A New View

“Nearing the completion of a century of service to the community and to its members, Ursuline College, Ohio’s first chartered institution of higher learning for women, has never before sought financial assistance for operating or capital expenses. Now on the threshold of a new dimension in its scholastic endeavor, Ursuline College for Women, through its president and advisory board, announces embarkation upon its first comprehensive Development Program for capital expansion and academic enrichment…”
– ‘A New Dimension’ Brochure for the ‘Once in a Century’ Campaign, 1961-62

In the early ’60s, Ursuline College launched its’ first fundraising campaign, ‘Once in a Century.’ With enrollment growing, classrooms and laboratories in the College’s Cedar Hill campus in Cleveland had become overcrowded and inadequate. It was an opportunity for Ursuline to expand.

The College, realizing an obligation to students, hoped to develop the physical campus while remaining true to the Ursuline mission of educating women in the Catholic tradition and offering quality education at the lowest possible tuition. The new fundraising program was established to raise a total of $11.6 million over the course of a decade and take part in three phases, allowing for the move to a 112-acre campus in Pepper Pike and for the construction of core higher education facilities.


Ursuline had several locations before moving to Pepper Pike: Euclid Avenue to East 55th Street and Scovill Avenue in 1893; University Circle in 1922; and Overlook and Cedar roads in 1926. The only original building still standing is on University Circle, which is now Hitchcock Hall at Case Western Reserve University.

After Ursuline moved to Overlook, College President Mother Mercedes and the advisory board knew this was a temporary fix and that the College still needed a permanent home.

Fortunately, the Ursuline Sisters purchased property in Pepper Pike decades before the ‘Once in a Century’ plan was implemented. In 1927, Mother Eusebia Kelly purchased 50 acres of property on Fairmount Boulevard near Lander Road. Nearly 20 years later, in 1949, an opportunity arose for the Ursuline sisters to purchase an adjacent 62 acres. The purchase was an investment that established the College’s future.

The initial development plan included four buildings: An academic-administration building with 25 classrooms, a book store and the Little Theater; a science building equipped with 10 laboratories and a lecture hall; a dormitory accommodating 120 resident students; and a dining hall that would also house a temporary library. The buildings would neighbor the Ursuline Sisters’ motherhouse, which was built in 1957.

            “To begin a development program is to lift the veil of the future.”
– Mother Marie Sands, O.S.U., Ursuline College President

Stages that followed included the construction of a fine arts center, gymnasium, two additional dormitories, a chapel, library, outdoor theater and indoor pool. The total investment to complete the last two phases of the development program, scheduled to conclude in 1971, was $7.2 million.


With the construction of a new campus, Ursuline hoped to increase enrollment, size of faculty, establish endowment and attract more students within a 150-mile radius. At the same time, the College could continue the policy of never turning away a qualified applicant due to lack of funds.

The ‘Once in a Lifetime’ Campaign was made possible by the efforts of College President Mother Marie Sands, O.S.U., Vice President for Development James P. Conway, General Chairman M.J. Bernet, Jr., Chairmen Ralph M. Besse and Willard W. Brown, as well as the College’s Board of Trustees.

“My acceptance of this chairmanship is based on the firm conviction that if we are to have an educated society tomorrow, we must have educated women today.”
– Ralph M. Besse

Conway, one of the College’s first male employees, was a pioneer in development, helping several Cleveland universities with fundraising efforts. He helped Ursuline raise $6.5 million for the Pepper Pike campus. His daughters, Colleen ’74 and Mary Kay ’99, visited the expanding campus often as children.

“He did what he loved, and loved what he did,” Colleen said of her father. “He liked new projects and helping people do what he knew how to do. He knew how to contact the right people and had a gift for raising money.”

To design the College’s $1 million investment, Ursuline hired award-winning architect Peter Van Dijk. The many projects he designed include Blossom Music Center and the renovation of the Palace, State and Ohio Theaters in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square.


In an archived interview by Warren Straus, Van Dijk revealed that the concept of Ursuline’s campus was to be a “village-like” environment, with the lake serving as a unifying feature. The “U” shape of the Mullen Academic Building was designed to create an outdoor room of the courtyard, closed by the Dauby Science Center, creating a view to the lake, to Grace Hall and up the hill to the Fritzche Building.

The style, defined by Van Dijk as “Ursuline College,” was intended to be simplistic and natural. The brick, slate windowsills, strained wood and overall landscape of the College’s facilities were designed to mesh with the topography of the land and surrounding neighborhood. The manmade lake would serve as a serene focal point for the campus.

By 1966, Dauby, Mullen, Fritzsche and Grace Hall were complete and open for administrative operations, classes, special events and alumnae meetings. The College offered undergraduate degrees in 12 areas, including teaching, social work, medicine and retailing. The approximate cost per year was $2,000 dollars for room, board, tuition and fees, and the College annually granted financial aid and scholarships to more than 50 percent of the student body. Even though much of the new campus was developed, the College had more to do, including finishing a second dormitory and building a library and a gymnasium.


“I think the history of the College is really interesting. It just started in a building that the sisters found in Cleveland, and then they found another building and then they found land. They had an idea and a dream in the ‘20s, and knew it would take a while to get there, but they got it done.”
– Mara Dabrishus, Ursuline College Archivist

Blueprints to Bookshelves

The ’70s and ‘80s for Ursuline were defined by academic progress that helped guide the future direction of campus development. In the fall of 1974, St. John College announced its closing. Bishop James A. Hickey asked Ursuline to absorb the nursing program, bringing an additional 400 students and faculty to the College. Under the leadership of Sister Kenan, the College established its first graduate programs, including a Master of Educational Administration for Nonpublic Schools and a Master in Art Therapy.

With the construction of Murphy Residence Hall complete in 1973, plans were made for a physical education center. O’Brien Athletic Center, also designed by Van Dijk, was constructed as a recreational facility accommodating the College’s then-student population of 400. The athletic center was blessed on Nov. 10, 1974.

Shortly after, Ursuline made headway in the area of fine arts. In 1980, a groundbreaking took place for the Florence O’Donnell Wasmer Art Gallery. The building was dedicated on Oct. 6, and the first exhibit, “Ursuline Images,” featuring artwork by the Ursuline Sisters, was presented in December.


Five years later, the College began the construction of a new library, which had tempoarrily been housed in Fritzshe. Named for Ralph M.Besse, who worked tirelessly to raise funds for Ursuline, the library’s rooms represent the history of the College.

Dedicated rooms include the Sister Dorthy Kazel Center for Global Awareness of Peace and Justice, the Sister M. Gozaga Haessly Board Room, the Sister Kenan Dulzer Room, the Mother Marie Sands Reading Room and the Louise E. Mellen Lounge. The library was dedicated on Sept. 29, 1985.

The College continued to develop, both academically and physically. With time however, existing buildings grew tired. The forthcoming phase for the College would usher in a new era with renovations and state-of-the-art buildings to meet the needs of the next generation of 21st Century college students.

“We had three presidents that were builders. Mother Marie, Sister Kenan Dulzer and Sr. Diana Stano. Each one of them was a much beloved leader of the College and were able to have people of wealth and influence help them to build.” 
– Pat Riley, Director of Development

The heart of campus

“Standing at the dawn of a new century, and a new millennium, one tends to look to the future and not to the past. On the campus of Ursuline College today, new challenges, new programs and new buildings heighten excitement.”
– Anna Margaret Gilbride, O.S.U.
Cradles of Conscience: Ohio’s Independent Colleges and Universities

After taking office in 1997, one of Sr. Diana Stano’s goals was to renovate existing buildings. The campus began the process of $5.3 million in renovations two years later. The College went building by building, looking at roofs, ceilings and infrastructure. Campus was inventoried and projects were prioritized. That summer, the first round of improvements began, as well as the construction of athletic fields and tennis courts.

Around the same time, Ursuline launched a $21 million capital and endowment campaign, ‘Building on… Values. Voice. Vision.’ The campaign would allow for the College to construct a new residence hall and a classroom building, as well as to renovate existing buildings.

Soon after, plans were underway for the construction of a new student-centered building that would include 14 classrooms, space for distance learning and video conferencing, a nursing lab, the 1871 Grill and a campus bookstore, as well as social spaces. Ground was broken Nov. 17, 1999, and the building, named the Bishop Anthony Pilla Student Learning Center, was dedicated on March 25. The first classes were scheduled to start May 2001. The center was designed by architects Biolsky and Partners, who aimed to bring “the outside in.”


“For much of my time as a student at Ursuline College, the Pilla Student Learning Center was being built. I recall the day it was opening to the community and the excitement there was for the new building to be used by students, faculty, staff and visitors of the College,” said Director of Alumnae Relations Tiffany Mushrush Mentzer ’03. “There was newness with Pilla and a place all of us as students wanted to have class in. It was the ‘trendy’ new place in the Ursuline community.”

“With the stained glass, the tower, gathering space, many windows and glass, dining area and the bookstore, Pilla is truly the heart of campus,” said Dave Steiner, vice president for finances and chief financial officer.

In 2005, Ursuline celebrated Founder’s Day by breaking ground for the College’s newest residence hall, Smith Hall, named for Board of Trustees Chair Thomas and Kori Smith. The College’s 30,691-square-foot dorm was built to house 72 students in a suite-style configuration. The design was guided by student suggestions, including suites that allowed for groups of four students to have their own bedrooms, shared living space and kitchenettes.

After a decade of use and a growing need for new dining options, Ursuline broke ground for a $3.6 million Pilla Renovation Project in October 2012. The project consisted of the construction of building additions and renovations to the Pilla Student Learning Center, including new additions to two locations of the building totaling about 5,000 square feet and an extensive renovation of an additional 5,000 square feet for dining room, kitchen, classroom and office operations.

“It’s a pretty campus, a great location,” Steiner said. “Open space, a good set of buildings, reasonably easy to maneuver. But, really it’s the people, the personality, the mission of the College and the philosophy that make this campus special.”

With stunning new buildings designed to bring the “outside in” and under the leadership of College President Sister Diana Stano, Ph.D., O.S.U., the campus evolved with the new millennium. However, it was an unexpected moment in the College’s history that would challenge the community and alter the course of campus development.

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Building and rebuilding

“There’s a calmness when you come to Ursuline. Because of the beauty of the campus, there’s a feeling that this is a special place. And the people add to that,”
– Kevin Gladstone, Vice President for Institutional Advancement

In March 2013, Ursuline received its largest single gift in the College’s history—$5 million from an anonymous donor. This gift went towards the construction of the College’s new Center for the Creative and Healing Arts and Sciences, renovation of existing space and endowment. With the gift, $15 million had been raised for a capital campaign.

Currently under construction, the Center for the Creative and Healing Arts and Sciences will house the Art Therapy and Counseling department and The Breen School of Nursing’s undergraduate and graduate programs. Architects Biolosky and Partners proposed a building with 28,000 square feet of classrooms, labs and conference and meeting space equipped with the latest technologies.

Dollars raised toward the capital campaign will allow Ursuline to renovate science labs in the adjoining building, the Dauby Science Center, which have not been updated since the College moved to its Pepper Pike campus.

Plans were in motion and a groundbreaking ceremony was planned for Sept. 12, 2013. Over the summer however, the College would experience an unforeseen challenge.

On July 20, 2013, Ursuline’s campus was struck by an Enhanced Fujita-1 tornado. The O’Brien Athletic Center was hit with the most severe damage, with the exterior wall of the gym collapsing. Additional damage occurred to Dauby and Besse Library with minor damage to an entrance in Pilla and the Mullen roof. Nearly 170 mature trees were uprooted or destroyed, and several other areas of campus were impacted.

sr diana writing on pilla construction

With the campus’ terrain altered, it was a chance to go back to the drawing board. The College now had the opportunity to construct a new NCAA Division II-standard facility that will host Ursuline’s 11 athletic programs. The proposed $10 million facility would replace the original athletic center.

In March 2014, Ursuline College reached a $5.3 million settlement with the College’s insurance provider. To supplement the cost of the new athletic center, the ‘Rebuilding Campaign” was launched to raise an additional $5 million. With a $1 million dollar gift from an anonymous donor, the College raised $2.6 million. The goal is to raise an additional $2.5 million.

“With the construction of two new buildings, we have an opportunity to make an impact on this campus,” Vice President for Facilities June Grayck said. “We will be able to recruit more students for two of our largest academic programs, and the athletic center will help our athletes be more competitive.”

Demolition of Ursuline’s O’Brien Athletic Center began in early spring, and a groundbreaking celebration for both buildings took place April 29. The construction of the new athletic center, as well as the Center for Creative and Healing Arts and Sciences, will continue simultaneously until completion in June 2015.


“This construction will be the largest project the campus has undergone in over 40 years,” Ursuline College President Sr. Diana Stano, O.S.U., Ph.D said. “The new facilities will reinforce Ursuline’s strength as a leader in women’s education.”

As Ursuline looks to 2015 and beyond, the College continues the legacy of those who worked tirelessly to build an environment that fosters academic excellence, social justice and leadership. They built a serene atmosphere that inspires future generations to continue to live the motto of St. Angela Merici: “Do something, get moving, be confident, risk new things, stick with it, then be ready for big surprises.”


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