St. Mary's College of Maryland, The Public Honors College
About St. Mary's

About St. Mary's: Our History

History of the College


Situated where English colonists first arrived in Maryland in 1634, the College has enjoyed a rich history from its origins in 1840 as a boarding school to its present prominent status as Maryland's public honors college.

Calvert Hall c. 1980

1890 photograph of the main building. (St. Mary's Archives)

Steamboat on the river

Students arriving on campus in 1900. (St. Mary's Archives)

Old aerial of the campus

An old aerial shot of the campus. (St. Mary's Archives)

The land now occupied by the campus of St. Mary’s College has played an important role in the evolution of the community and in the history of Maryland. The campus, lying on a broad bend of the St. Mary’s River, was the home of the Yaocomaco people during the 1600s. English colonists arrived aboard the Ark and Dove in 1634, determined to establish a settlement under a charter from King Charles I, authorizing them to take dominion of the lands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Led by Leonard Calvert, second son of Lord Baltimore, they came ashore within sight of where the College stands today, signed a treaty of peaceful coexistence with the Yaocomaco, and named their town St. Mary’s City. Though the settlement had ceased to flourish by the end of the 17th century, it was the capital of Maryland for 61 years (until 1695) and saw the beginnings of civil rights and representative government on this continent.

From the very first, St. Mary’s embraced the ideal of making an excellent education affordable. In 1846, the first board of trustees designed tuition and living costs to be substantially lower than those at similar schools. After 1868, when the General Assembly began giving the school annual appropriations, the seminary frequently educated up to half of its students—representing every county of the state and each legislative district of Baltimore City—free of charge. Although it struggled for survival in its first two decades, the seminary enjoyed a successful half-century following the Civil War, benefiting from state funding, popular approval, and conscientious trustees, many of whom served for as long as 30 years. During the 20th century, the school expanded its campus and enriched the quality of instruction to serve the growing numbers of young women, and eventually men, who desired a fine education. Adding to the stability of St. Mary’s was the fact that it has had only 11 principals/presidents between 1900 and 2013.

Twice in the 20th century—in 1924 and in 1947—crises threatened to destroy the school. Each time, the people of the county and the state rallied to save their “monument school” and to improve it. In January 1924, during a freezing blizzard, fire gutted the majestic 80-year-old Main Building, despite the valiant efforts of local residents. Trustees, state officials, and hundreds of alumnae and friends quickly rebuilt the school as students lived in temporary quarters. In 1927, their efforts were rewarded when St. Mary’s became Maryland’s first junior college, affording students the unique opportunity to complete four years of high school and two years of college at the same institution.

In 1947, the Maryland Commission on Higher Education slated St. Mary’s Female Seminary-Junior College for dissolution although it was fully accredited and had begun admitting male students. Before the governor could act, a large public outcry, prompted by tireless alumnae, not only saved the school from extinction, but created the momentum for removing the word “Female” and renaming it St. Mary’s Seminary Junior College (1949), and its eventual evolution into a four-year baccalaureate college (1967). In 1992, the Maryland legislature designated it the state’s public honors college.

Under the leadership of six presidents—M. Adele France (1923-1948), A. May Russell (1948-1969), J. Renwick Jackson, Jr. (1969-1982), Edward T. Lewis (1983-1996), Jane Margaret O’Brien (1996-2009), and Joseph R. Urgo (2010-2013)—St. Mary’s College of Maryland has developed into the finest public liberal arts college in the Mid-Atlantic. In the past decade, the College has received national acclaim for the quality of its programs, the excellence of its faculty and students, and the magnificence of its waterfront campus.