College of Notre Dame President, 1956-1980, Chancellor 1980-1984
Sister Catharine Julie Cunningham was not the first president of College of Notre Dame, but she can be credited with making it what it is today. Visitor, student, professor or alumni, you can look around and see the evidence. She oversaw the building of St. Joseph’s Hall and the Gellert Library. Sister was also the driving force behind construction of the Cunningham Memorial Chapel. The chapel was completed in August 1961, and in 1987, named in memory of her and her family, who were major contributors.
Sr. Catharine Julie’s leadership at CND spanned 26 years from the Eisenhower administration, through the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam era. In its early years as a four-year institution, she established the integrity of its programs and the professionalism of its faculty. She saw CND through the changes that the Vatican Council called for in religious life, Catholic education, spirituality, and theology. Astutely tuned to her times, she led the transition from a small women’s college to a co-educational institution offering graduate degrees and professional certifications. She gracefully led the transition from a totally religious board to the introduction of laypersons on the board.
Sister had an unwavering vision of the college as part of Notre Dame’s educational heritage. The first residence hall, had been named after St. Julie Billiart, the foundress of the Sister’s congregation. St. Joseph’s Hall was named for Mére St. Joseph, St. Julie’s friend and the co-foundress. The main lounge of St. Joseph’s Hall has a large fireplace with the image of the small sailing ship, the Indefatigable, above the hearth. It is the Indefatigable that brought the Sisters to the West Coast in 1844. It is with indefatigable courage that Sister Catharine Julie led the college at a critical time in its history.
Most of all, Sister “C.J.” loved the college and she loved the students. An alumna recalls, “I never thought I’d be in a college where I could walk into the President’s office and say almost anything to her.” No one was ever condemned for what could have been seen as academic or personal failure. She understood students and cared deeply for them. Among her peers, faculty, and leaders of other colleges, she was loved and respected for her forthrightness and intelligence.
Sr. Catharine Julie would want us to be sure to tell you that she was a native of San Francisco, born and raised there. She was proud, too, that she was educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame in San Francisco and at the college, then a two-year institution. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a major in history.
Sister died in Belmont on October 15, 1984.