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GU History: 1887-1895

A guide to the history of Gonzaga University


Gonzaga officially opened its doors on September 17, 1887 to a small group of boys and slightly larger group of Jesuit faculty.  Six years earlier, citizens from Spokane Falls wrote to Father Joseph Cataldo, Superior of the Rocky Mountain Jesuits, requesting that the Jesuits open an educational institution for white students.     Fr. Joseph Cataldo lived at St. Michael’s Mission on the Peone Prairie.  This request fit in nicely with his concern that the Protestant missionaries were competing with the Catholics over mission schools.  The city of Spokane Falls was a central location to achieve his goal.  After receiving this letter, he purchased a 320 acre tract of land for $936 in October 1881 along the Spokane River.  

Fr. Joseph Cataldo, S.J.

Fr. Joseph Cataldo, S.J.

 Father James Rebmann
Father James Rebmann, S.J.
First President of Gonzaga,
1887-1890 and 1896-1899;
Photo courtesy of the Jesuit Oregon
Province Archives, 937.02

At first, the idea of Gonzaga College was proposed to teach Indian boys from the various Jesuit Northwest missions.  However, by the time school opened in the fall of 1887, Gonzaga College only accepted white boys.  It was named Gonzaga College after Italian Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of youth.

Original College Building, ca. 1887
Original College Building,
ca. 1887

 Located on a large site with no other structures nearby, the original college was built and finished for the 1887 September opening.  Taking a few years to complete, this two story structure was the largest building in the area, except for the County Courthouse.  The basement contained the refectory, the boy’s recreation room, and kitchen.  The first floor had 2 parlors, the chapel, the president’s room, 2 classrooms, and an infirmary.  The second floor contained 8 professor rooms, 2 large classrooms, the library, and bathrooms.  The attic with cupola was divided into 2 large dormitories that could house 40 boys. 

First student body and faculty, 1888

 First student body
 and faculty, 1888

On opening day, September 17, 1887 there were 7 students; by the end of the year the number had grown to 20.  The Jesuit community of 17 members at Gonzaga almost outnumbered the students.  Fr. Joset, S.J. appeared after the opening of the school to register 2 Indian boys.  Gonzaga’s first President, Father James Rebmann refused them.  

 Student body and faculty, 1889-1890
Student body and
faculty, 1889-1890

The curriculum was typical of the day.  In its early years, Gonzaga College included three types of schools:  college, high school, and elementary.   It included a commercial course, the classics, the elementary course, literature, philosophy, theology, and natural sciences.  The following information was listed in the prospectus for that first year:  “Applicants for admission must know how to read and write, and not be under ten years of age.”  Tuition and board for a ten-month session was $250.  School went from early September through late June.  No student advanced unless he passed an examination at the end of the year.  

 Sodality, 1891-1892
Sodality, 1891-1892

The boys staying at Gonzaga College lived a life like a monastery.  There was a regimented schedule for the day from 5:30 a.m. wake up until 8:30 p.m. night prayers and bedtime, six days a week.  On Sunday they attended two masses and other religious activities instead of classes.  Extracurricular organizations included sodalities, debate, drama, band, choir, orchestra, and athletics. 

 Gonzaga Campus 1892
Gonzaga Campus:
Recreation Hall, Original
College Building, and
St. Aloysius Church,

The student body continued to grow over the next few years.  By 1891 more students than expected appeared and space was a problem.  The following year new plans were drawn up for a two-story framed hall designed to serve as a recreation center on the main floor and a dormitory upstairs.  In the fall of 1892, two scholastics and 18 boys moved into the new building.  A framed church St. Aloysius church was built and dedicated in November of that year.  It was capable of handling a few hundred people.  Electricity and city water became available to the neighborhood in 1892 as well. 

 1898 Football team
 Football team, 1898

On Thanksgiving Day of that year, the first football game was played on campus with 500 in attendance.  The Gonzaga team had been put together only weeks before the event.  They were coached by Henry Luhn, who had played at Notre Dame.  He taught the boys what not to do.  They played the Spokane Amateur Athletic Club (SAAC), which consisted of young lawyers and other professional men, who had graduated from universities on the East Coast.  The football field measured one hundred and twenty yards from goal to goal and the period of play was two 35 minute halves.  It was 3 downs to make 5 yards.  The game ended in a tie: 4-4.  

Football became a major attraction for the student body.  For the next five years they would play a couple of games against Spokane High School.  However, the style of play led to many injuries.  This forced authorities at Gonzaga to limit football except for intramural football.  By 1905 when the forward pass was introduced, a more open style of game was played; Gonzaga continued to play the game on and off until World War II.

 Baseball Team, 1897
Baseball Team, 1897

Another athletic sport available to the boys was baseball.  It had been played since the school’s inception.  The first baseball field with grandstand was erected in the 1900 and could seat 130.  There were no fences.  Over 800 people attended various baseball games on campus.  In the early years, there was no set schedules of games or league play; opponents ranged from Blair Business College, University of Washington, Gonzaga alumni, and Gonzaga High School.  The six smaller baseball fields on campus were in constant use by intramural teams.

 Original College Building, ca. 1890

 Original College Building
 with students, ca. 1890

Gonzaga’s first graduation ceremony was held June 28, 1894.  Two matriculated that year: Richard Ganahl and Dennis O’Rourke, with the former serving as valedictorian.  Previously, Gonzaga held annual closing ceremonies to award prizes for various achievements.


Updated March 2015



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