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the Harvard of Webster Groves

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Sep 15, 2007

Maybe you're celebrating the birthday of James Fenimore Cooper, but other people have more momentous anniversaries in mind.

Take Webster University: a school that is known today for nothing in particular, except perhaps its claim to have more than 100 campus locations, with the main one in Webster Groves, Missouri. (Wait a minute! Haven't we heard something else about Webster Groves recently? Oh, right; that.)

But 40 years ago, Webster was in the headlines when its president, an ex-nun named Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, led the institution in a decisive move. Now Webster is celebrating the anniversary of that move, as the current leader explains:

Webster President Richard Meyers said that under Wexler's direction, Webster became the first Catholic institution to cut ties to the church.

Always a relief to get out from under the Nasty Old Church, of course. But isn't there something wrong with that sentence? Once you cut your ties with the Church, you're not a Catholic institution.

Wexler was the key figure in the move, and the focus of adulation at the 40th anniversary. An old student remembers:

"She was doing things that nuns simply didn't do," said Karen Luebbert, now Webster's vice president and a student at Webster in the 1960s.

Things that nuns simply didn't do. Like, for instance, getting married.

She still considers herself a Catholic, although she said she disagrees with many of the church's teachings, including its stance on abortion.

Gosh, I bet you didn't see that one coming.

Today Jacqueline Grennan Wexler is the main reason we constantly hear comparisons between Webster and Harvard. (Oh, you don't hear those comparisons? How odd!) But 40 years ago, believe it or not, this educational pioneer encountered some resistance.

Not all members of the Sisters of Loretto supported the change, Barbato noted.

"Part of it is because they could not see into the future," she said. "But she could see where things needed to go."

She could see into the future, and anticipate an adulatory newspaper article for the 40th anniversary of Webster's break with the Catholic tradition. That wasn't such a trick, really, since there were adulatory newspaper articles at the time, too. But if you look far enough into the future, you can anticipate how this story will play at the Pearly Gates. The coverage may be different there.

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