Wheeling University was founded in 1954 to provided ‘spiritual enlightenment for tomorrow’s leaders and to seek God and find in all things” whether in the classroom, the chapel, liturgy or laboratory. Originally named Wheeling College, the University was founded in partnership between the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). While its name may have changed, Wheeling University remains true to its roots of providing its students with educational opportunities grounded in the Ignatian principles. Wheeling remains the only campus-based Catholic institution of higher education in West Virginia.
The thought of opening a Catholic college in West Virginia dates back to the late 1800s, but it was Archbishop John J. Swint who, in 1951, revived the idea and moved his plan forward. In October 1951, Archbishop Swint asked the Maryland Province to begin a two-year feasibility study, which was initiated by Rev. Clifford M. Lewis, S.J., the first Jesuit to be affiliated with the college. Archbishop Swint offered to provide the funding to purchase the land and fund the physical plant, if the Jesuits would operate the college. A year later, the Jesuits approved the Archbishop’s plan and the Diocese purchased land owned by Mount de Chantal for the site of the college. In early 1953, Fr. Lewis arrived to take up residence in Wheeling and began to work with Archbishop Swint on plans to establish the college.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the college was held on November 24, 1953, and construction of Swint, Donahue and Whelan halls began in the spring of 1954. During the summer of 1954, a Jesuit organizing committee set up a temporary college center in the former St. Michael’s rectory and church on Edgington Lane. The college was officially incorporated on Sept. 25, 1954 and Rev. Lawrence McHugh, S.J. was named the first president the next day.
On November 21, 1954, the cornerstone was laid for Donahue Hall, which was named after Bishop Patrick J. Donahue, the third bishop of the Wheeling Diocese. It was a legacy left to Bishop Donahue that was eventually used to finance the building of Wheeling College. Formal dedication ceremonies were held in October 1955, with more than 2,000 people in attendance. Festivities began with a Solemn High Mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, followed by a colorful procession from Swint Hall to Donahue Hall, where the dedication took place. Speakers at the ceremony included Archbishop Swint and Rev. William F. Maloney, S.J., Provincial of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.
Since its founding, Wheeling has grown in the number of buildings, programs, athletic offerings and students. First staffed by 12 Jesuit priests and four lay professors when it opened September 26, 1955, Wheeling has more than 100 faculty and staff today. In 1955, 90 freshmen made up the original class and today’s classes average about 250 each year. The original buildings – Swint, Donahue, Whelan, McHugh and Sara Tracy – remain, but the campus has grown to include additional academic buildings, athletic facilities, residence halls, and administrative buildings. Academically, Wheeling offers more than 12 undergraduate majors and 6 graduate degrees, as well as 10 certificate programs. And the two athletic teams, men’s and women’s basketball, have grown to more than 20 intercollegiate teams for both men and women, that participate in NCAA Division II. The Cardinal was selected as the symbol by a vote of the student body in 1955 and today’s athletic teams continue to be known as the Cardinals.
Wheeling believes that education doesn’t solely happen inside the classroom. At Wheeling, conducting research alongside faculty has been a staple of the undergraduate and graduate experience. Additionally, students have long been a part of service learning with community partners throughout the region. Graduate and undergraduate students gain valuable, hands-on learning through internships with local companies and health care providers.
The first class of graduating class, known as the co-founders, was made up of 50 individuals, including Clayton Hudnall, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Rhodes Scholar finalist. The alumni of Wheeling University, a number more than 11,000 today, make an impact in every walk of life – in the classroom and courtroom, in hospitals and research labs, in local, state and federal government, in business and science, and in non-profit agencies and service organizations. Wheeling alumni live the mission to be men and women who have an appetite for life-long learning, are leaders in their communities and serve with and among others.
The campus has been hosting celebrities and political figures, as well as cultural and student activities since the beginning. Gambol, the student-lead spring musical, was first held in 1955 and that same year theater productions began. In June 1958, Entertainer Danny Thomas gave a benefit performance at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling, with the proceeds going to fund a dormitory project at the campus. Former U.S. Senators Hubert Humphrey (1960) and Robert C. Byrd (late-1990s) gave lectures to the students in Troy Theater and future president Ronald Reagan spoke inside the field house in May 1976. Musical performers The Letterman, Chubby Checker and Jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie all held concerts on the campus over the years. The University is the principal organizer of the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration held each January in conjunction with Wheeling area churches and community groups. Additionally, the campus is host to a number of community activities each year, many of which our students volunteer.