The first half of the 19th century was a less-than-auspicious time for Catholic higher education in America.
In the 1830s, there were only a handful of Catholic colleges in the country, and none in the Northeast. They faced endemic hostility; when a college begun by Bishop John Dubois in Nyack burned down in 1837, a crowd of Protestants stood by cheering. Jesuit schools faced particular difficulties—as of 1813, there were only 50 members of the Society of Jesus in America.
Then, Bishop John Hughes of New York—a bold leader who was fiercely protective of his flock—set out to establish a seminary and a college on a 106-acre tract he had purchased at Fordham Manor, inthe town and county of Westchester. The school would eventually flourish, overcoming its initial administrative and staffing difficulties to become the first Catholic institutionof higher learning in the Northeast.
But in the beginning, there were all of six students at the college, initially named for St. John the Baptist, which opened on a date that also happened to mark Hughes’ birthday: June 24, 1841.