High PursuitsAugust 1, 2020
By LEANN BURKE
Looking through Dubois County’s history, it’s impossible to separate the history of higher education systems from the history of the Catholic Church in the county.
In his “History of Dubois County Indiana,” the late local historian and education leader George R. Wilson links the early seeds of higher education in the county to Father Joseph Kundek, a Catholic priest who played a huge role in community and educational development. Although the priest did not live to see those hopes come to pass, Wilson claims it was Kundek’s dreams for a college in the county that eventually led to the founding of Jasper College — a men’s institution of higher education.
The founding of Jasper College kicked off the story of higher education in Dubois County that includes a women’s college operated by the Sisters of St. Benedict at Monastery Immaculate Conception and Vincennes University Jasper, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Today, VUJ stands as the lone institute of higher education in the county and serves as a connection between local industry and education.
In his history, Wilson describes Jasper College as thus: “Though Jasper College is in years but an infant institution, its existence forms nevertheless the realization of a fond hope entertained and expressed by Rev. Joseph Kundek.”
And like the priest who first dreamed of its existence, Jasper College was deeply rooted in the Catholic faith.
An offshoot of the college and seminary operated by the brothers at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Jasper College rose from the ashes of an 1887 fire that destroyed the abbey, seminary and college, according to “History of Jasper College/Academy” by Charles Theile.
Following the fire, a delegation of community leaders from Jasper traveled to the abbey to request that the brothers found an institution of higher education in Jasper. Abbey leadership opposed moving the seminary to Jasper as it would separate the school from the abbey, but they did agree to establish a school for young men who wished to pursue a secular career.
Located on Bartley Street near St. Joseph Catholic Church, the college welcomed its first students in the fall of 1889 and graduated its first student — Gustave Gramselspacher — in 1891.
Although the students at Jasper College were studying in pursuit of secular careers, the Catholic faith was integral to their life on campus.
Over its years in operation, Jasper College became a prominent institution that attracted students from Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. In 1931, two years before the college closed its doors, it was admitted to the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, which “History of Jasper College/Academy” says placed the institution among “the highest class of schools in America.”
Despite its prominence, Jasper College struggled to attract large numbers of students due to its location far from cities, so in 1933, leaders in St. Meinrad decided to move the school to Aurora, Illinois, where it combined with Fox Valley Catholic High School to form Marmion Military Academy.
The Jasper buildings were purchased by Fathers of Divine Providence who established Providence Home, which served elderly and sick men. Providence Home moved out of the buildings in the 1970s and the structure was auctioned off.
St. Benedict College
Twenty-five years after Jasper College opened its doors to men in search of higher education, the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand set out on their own journey of higher education. After years of training sisters to serve as teachers in the monastery’s education ministry, the sisters decided to establish a formal teachers college — St. Benedict Normal. According to documents in the archives at Monastery Immaculate Conception, St. Benedict Normal opened as a two-year teachers college in 1914 and served only members of the Sisters of St. Benedict. That kept class sizes small, the archives say, with total enrollment rarely reaching 50 during the regular term. In the summers, about 200 students would enroll.
St. Benedict Normal expanded its curriculum to offer four-year Bachelor of Science degrees in teaching in the early 1940s following changes in teacher requirements from the Indiana Teacher Certification Board. At that time, the school changed its name to St. Benedict College. In 1958, the college expanded again when it opened its doors to lay women. Two years later, Sister Mary Philip Berger entered the college as a lay person. She would be the first lay woman to attend the college and then decide to become a sister.
At the time, Berger recalled, the decision came as a bit of a surprise. “I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I didn’t have in mind to be a nun.”
But the postulants she got to know in her classes during her first year had an impact on her. Although she was living with family in town, she soon found herself spending weekends at the monastery. Soon, she realized monastic life appealed to her.
“It was a wonderful time in my life,” she said. “In all our lives. We thanked God that we had it at that time.”
Berger graduated in 1964 and was sent to Kansas to take classes at a university there to become a French teacher at Marian Heights Academy, the girls high school the sisters operated for many years.
Shortly after Berger left St. Benedict College, it became coed, opening its doors to male students in 1967. Then, in 1968 the college partnered with the Committee on Higher Education and Related Events — called COHERE Inc. — which was a group of businessmen from Jasper who sought to establish a college in Jasper. Plans to move St. Benedict College to Jasper quickly got underway and construction on the new campus began. According to the monastery’s archives, six faculty houses were constructed on the 125 acres of land off Jasper-Bretzville Road that were meant to become the new campus.
But construction of the new campus halted in April 1969 when the board of St. Benedict College voted to exit the agreement with COHERE due to financial shortfalls. Less than a month later, the board voted to close the college completely at the end of the 1970 summer session.
Vincennes University Jasper
The partnership with St. Benedict College was one of a handful of false starts COHERE Inc. ran into while working to establish a college in Jasper.
The 25th anniversary history of Vincennes University Jasper, “The Continuing Quest,” lists a partnership with the Christian Brothers as the first attempt to make the dream a reality. After that partnership fell apart, COHERE sought out St. Benedict College. When that partnership fell through as well, the organization began reaching out to other universities in Indiana, including Purdue University and Indiana University, but nothing came to fruition. Then, COHERE reached out to Vincennes University, and by 1970, the goal of bringing a college to Jasper was reality.
COHERE’s determination to see a college in Jasper grew out of an idea from eight men — Raphael Blessinger, Father Auguste Fichter, Robert Gramelspacher, Richard Henderson, Arnold Kremp, Edward Lorey, John T. Rumbach and Robert Schnaus — who wanted to see higher education return to Jasper. The men founded COHERE in 1958 and undertook a study that cited Jasper’s growing industrial base as a signal of the need for a college in the community. By 1961, the men of COHERE were putting their ideas into action. They held a public meeting to gauge community interest in the idea that an article in the March 4, 1961, edition of The Herald dubbed “probably the most ambitious undertaking ever attempted in the area.”
Energy around the idea built quickly. The Christian Brothers committed to opening the college by 1966, but said they’d need around $1 million to make it a reality. That led to a flurry of activity as COHERE kicked off a financial campaign that drew more involvement in the movement from prominent community members including Alvin C. Ruxer. Ruxer headed up the special gifts section of the capital campaign and remained involved with and a major benefactor of the university until his death in 1991.
Although there were starts and stops along the way, the team never gave up. When COHERE and Vincennes University entered a partnership in 1969, COHERE came to the table with $934,636 of assets that included cash and land. By 1970, the assets were transferred to Vincennes University and Vincennes University Jasper Center — later renamed Vincennes University Jasper Campus — opened to students in the fall of 1970.
VUJ’s inaugural year saw 20 full-time and 61 part-time students enrolled in classes that met in spare rooms around Jasper’s downtown.
VUJ grew quickly. The school added an adult basic education program in the fall of 1974, and by 1975, enrolled 300 students, 75 of whom were full time. In 1974, VUJ moved to its current campus on College Avenue on Jasper’s southeast side. At that time, the campus consisted of a single building that held offices and classrooms.
By 1980, 126 full-time students and 1,631 part-time students were enrolled in VUJ courses, and the following decade would see continued growth for the university, including the construction of additional buildings.
“The place was really booming,” said Jeanne Melchior, a former VUJ professor. “It was going through a growth spurt at that time.”
Melchior began teaching at VUJ as a part-time instructor in 1981. She taught courses at area high schools, spending a lot of time in a white VUJ van, traveling from place to place to meet her students where they were.
After a few years as a part-time instructor, Melchior joined the full-time staff and taught for about 30 years before retiring in 2010. When she began, VUJ used mobile classrooms, and her office was in a room about the size of a broom closet.
“I think today, students would think of that as a bit “Little House on the Prairie,” she said.
By the time she retired, three more buildings had been built, one of which was the Alvin C. Ruxer Student Center, which was funded in large part by Ruxer.
A decade into retirement, Melchior still remembers the congenial atmosphere at VUJ. There was a sense of connection to the communities VUJ served, and the campus itself felt like a community. Melchior remembers former Dean Jerry Altstadt often playing games of pool and basketball with the students in the Ruxer Center, and one-on-one interactions between faculty and students were a focus.
“In many ways, it brought out the good things of higher education,” Melchior said.
When Altstadt looks back on his tenure as VUJ’s dean, he too sees a lot of good times. Altstadt served as the third dean for the school from 1976 to 1996, during which time the university saw the addition of new programs, including an industrial furniture production and management program and a practical nursing program. Both programs grew from needs in the communities VUJ served. The nursing program, in particular, saw great success.
“We did not have one failure from our nursing program,” Altstadt said. “For 13 years, not one student from our nursing program failed to pass the state boards.”
By the time Altstadt retired in 1996, VUJ had grown from one building to four and enrolled over 1,000 students.
The last 25 years at VUJ have continued to see growth in the partnerships between the university and local high schools and industry. The most recent addition to the campus — the Center for Technology, Innovation and Manufacturing — opened in 2013 in direct response to local industry’s need for specialized training. The center now offers dual credit courses to high school students and associates degrees in fields necessary for Dubois County’s many factories, such as robotics and production management.
“Blending those links between K-12 and higher education and connecting students to jobs, I think that is a huge success for our area,” said current VUJ Dean Christian Blome. “It’s what so many communities across the country are grappling with.”
VUJ’s continuing education and associate degree programs continue to be popular as well, especially the health care programs. This fall VUJ will launch a new certified nursing assistant program to help students interested in nursing get their starts in health care.
As VUJ moves into the 2020s, it looks as if the campus is entering another period of growth. For the last few years, Blome said, VUJ’s enrollment has held at about 500 students, but admission estimates expect to surpass 500 this fall. The school is already seeing a 13% increase in enrollment in associate degree and certificate programs, and admissions are still open for the fall term. If the numbers hold, this coming semester will be the third semester of continued growth for the university, Blome said.
In addition to higher enrollment, VUJ is also seeing more students complete their programs, Blome said. He attributes that to the work of the student services department. About a year and a half ago, the department revamped its services and added a student success counselor dedicated to helping students who are struggling.
When Blome looks to VUJ’s future, he expects to see continued partnerships with local high schools and industries to ensure that VUJ is providing a local pathway from high school graduation to high paying jobs in local industry.
It’s a fitting future, considering the same need inspired COHERE to bring a college to Jasper 50 years ago.
“That connection between the community and our campus is really woven into our identity,” Blome said. “The wheels of change in business and industry move so fast. It’s really forced us in higher education to do the same.”