It’s been 75 years since the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many Americans alive today are too young to remember much or weren’t even born yet. But with approximately 492 World War II veterans dying daily, it is imperative that we continue to honor their service and educate younger generations by telling their stories. This includes the rich, multi-faceted story of Immaculata during World War II—a history of which you may not be aware.
Although Immaculata College was thousands of miles away from the front lines, the community’s impact was mighty. During the war years, Rev. Francis J. Furey, D.D., Ph.D., served as president and guided Immaculata through those dark and difficult days. The war permeated every aspect of college life. Nylons, gas, metals, and rubber were scarce commodities that were used directly for the war effort. Students were required to turn in their ration books from home to the College for certain foods. Social activities were curtailed or eliminated, and even the beacon on the dome was extinguished for a time. However, the Immaculata spirit remained bright as ever.
In 1943, the federal government suggested that all colleges initiate accelerated courses by which three summer months would constitute one semester. In this way, two summer sessions would shorten college completion time by one academic year. After attending the National Catholic Education Association meeting, Father Furey adopted this model for Immaculata in March. Nearly 100 students registered immediately, with almost twice as many following before the opening of summer school on June 14. Immaculata was the only women’s college in the area to adopt this accelerated wartime program.
In Father Furey’s report to the Board of Trustees in 1943, he wrote about the accelerated program: “It has proved most satisfactory, although it entails many sacrifices on the part of the faculty and the students.”
Although accelerated classes are quite normal today, students during the 1940s didn’t decide to “accelerate” because they were in a hurry to “get on with life” or to enhance their careers. No, these women wanted to finish their undergraduate degrees quickly so they could help the war effort by supplying an educated workforce.
In addition to this academic initiative, Immaculatans were very dedicated to supporting the war financially, as evidenced by the seven War Bond drives held on campus from 1943 to 1946. These drives raised over a million dollars ($1,181,135 total) from students, parents, and faculty. Immaculata received numerous citations of appreciation from the War Finance Committee in Washington, D.C., each citation delineating what the drives enabled the Army to purchase—for example, three Jeeps in a one-year period, costing $1,165 each.
In 1944, Immaculata collected enough funds from the fourth War Bond drive to be selected for the “Buy-A-Plane” campaign. Thus, the U.S. Department of the Treasury named an ambulance plane after Immaculata College, affixing a colored decal with the school’s name and address to the interior.
The Department of the Treasury noted that Immaculata’s donations from the War Bond drives ranked first on the list of all Catholic colleges for women in the United States and ranked behind only two secular colleges with far larger enrollment.
An excerpt from the 1945 Gleaner, written as a letter from the graduating class, states: “The time passed all too quickly in serious class work and traditional extra-curricular activities overshadowed somewhat by the war, yet all of us making a supreme effort to keep up our morale.”
The letter continues:
Our usual round of duties and pleasures was overcast more and more by the shadow of war during our sophomore year. The great sacrifice made by our dear ones who were directly engaged in the conflict acted as a challenge to our best endeavors in the classroom, while our social activities were planned with a view to contributing to the morale of service men in the neighborhood. Towards mid-year, talks of acceleration began to be heard and finally our Class was physically, though not spiritually, divided when twenty-two of our number elected to speed up their program of studies. In mid-June this group returned to Immaculata for summer classes.
Many Immaculata graduates made a difference during the war. For example, two alumnae from the Class of 1944, Mary Ward Utterback and Catherine Kean Edgerton Lenker, were recruited at Immaculata based on their math and physics backgrounds, and trained as meteorologists by the Navy. Many Immaculatans enlisted in WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and became Army and Navy nurses. The Navy assigned Betty Callahan Mellen Webb ’41 the important job of coordinating the manufacture and distribution of all U.S. and Allied radio systems—a job that included prior knowledge of all planned invasions, including D-Day.
Another surprise during this time was the arrival of the first male undergraduate student at Immaculata: Lieutenant Ralph Anslow. After losing both arms and his eyesight due to a mine explosion, Lieutenant Anslow was recuperating at Valley Forge Hospital when a Red Cross representative asked Sister M. Helen Patricia, IHM, Spanish faculty at Immaculata, to teach the Spanish language to Anslow to help lift his spirits. Eventually, Anslow attended Immaculata to continue taking Spanish lessons two days a week from November 1943 until January 1946. He became so proficient in Spanish that the Army, with the support of the State Department, arranged for a shortwave broadcast to South America of a conversation between Anslow and Sister Helen Patricia, which was recorded at Immaculata in 1944.
Immaculata opened its doors to another group of people, providing four-year scholarships—including room and board—to four refugees. A refugee from Austria majored in German and continued her education in the United States. Another refugee from Italy majored in Music, and a conservatory offered her a fellowship—the first of its kind given to a woman. A refugee from Germany majored in Biology and continued her studies at Columbia University after graduating from Immaculata. The final scholarship was given to a Chinese student who also continued her advanced education in America.
In addition to these refugees, Immaculata also granted permission to the Franciscan Sisters of Mount Alvernia, who asked for board and tuition in exchange for domestic service for Polish refugee students. In fall 1947, four young Polish women, who had spent time in concentration camps, arrived on the campus of Immaculata and immediately felt at home. These four new students were Helen Wasilejko, Alice Romanowska, Berenice Bornowska, and Hedwig Sivek.
During the course of the war, 400,000 enemy prisoners of war were sent to various camps around the United States. A few of these POWs made their way to Immaculata’s rural campus and helped the superintendent of farms at the College during harvest time. The farm provided milk, vegetables, and fruit to the College kitchen. Because the Immaculata community modeled Christian core values by treating every person with dignity, one German prisoner wrote a touching letter to the College upon his return home: “Your kindness that gave me vital energy in the midst of a hateful world, I shall never forget. For all you gave me, I’ll probably never be able to give you anything in return; yet I ask God to repay you for me.”
Information provided by Sister Anne Marie Burton, IHM, Immaculata archivist; Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary: 1845-1967 by Mother Maria Alma, IHM; World War II and Chester County, Pennsylvania by Marion M. Piccolomini; and an article by Toni Iaquinto Makowski ’60 published in the fall 1995 issue of Immaculata Today. Thank you!