Graduation activities and commencement exercises mark the end of years of study and the beginning of new adventures. The first graduates of Villa Maria College (later Immaculata College/University) engaged in preparation for their graduation by forming an alumnae association, publishing a yearbook, and celebrating a Baccalaureate Mass in the Villa Maria Chapel.
The commencement booklet for the first graduation ceremony of Villa Maria College on June 4, 1925 listed eight graduates in the charter class. They were Sara Biberstein, Lucy Boyle, Margaret Mary Campbell, Clare Marie Devitt, Margaret Graham, Marion Kilker, Anne Reid, and Mae Agnes Tye. Added to this number were Sisters who had completed their studies in the evenings and on Saturdays. One of the graduates in this group was Sister Maria who had entered with the original freshman class but in her sophomore year joined the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Also, included in the graduating class were Sisters Helen Patricia, Mary Donatus, Saint Bernard, and Madeleine Marie (IUA).
At the first graduation ceremony, the presentation of candidates was given by Reverend John J. Bonner, D.D., and the degrees were conferred by Right Reverend Thomas J. Shahan, S.T.D., who also addressed the graduates. The ceremony was held in the Green Room, where it would continue to be held for several years.
The following year, on June 7, 1926, Father Anthony Flynn, the school chaplain, presided at High Mass. His Eminence Cardinal Dennis Dougherty conferred the degrees to eight graduates. The address was given by Very Reverend Joseph M. Corrigan, D.D., rector of Saint Charles Seminary, and the Baccalaureate Mass was celebrated in Villa Maria Chapel.
Ten years after the first commencement ceremony, a decision was made to move the ceremony to the east side of Lourdes Hall in 1935. The porch area was used for the faculty and dignitaries who presided at the graduation. The lawn area provided ample seating for the graduates and their guests.
Early in 1943, as World War II continued, the federal government suggested that all colleges initiate accelerated courses by which classes taken in three summer months would constitute one semester. By doing this for two summer sessions, the students could graduate in three years rather than four. Although this is common practice today, it was completely new in the 1940s and was meant to provide support for the war effort. On March 3, 1943, this project was approved for Immaculata College; one hundred students immediately registered and almost twice as many followed before the opening of summer school in June 1943. Immaculata was the first college in the area to do this. Participation in this program was on a voluntary basis. An article in the March 19, 1943 edition of the school newspaper Immaculatan stated that 64% of the students planned to take the summer program. The graduation date was advanced to May 28, 1943; summer classes began on June 14 and ended on September 4. Graduation ceremonies were held on September 10, 1943 for twenty-four students completing this accelerated program; graduation for an additional three students took place on May 28, 1944 in Villa Maria chapel.
In 1972, the commencement ceremony continued to be held at the Lourdes Hall site, but the back-up plan (in case of inclement weather) was to use the theater in Alumnae Hall with the opportunity for any overflow attendees to be seated in the gymnasium. In 1974, the students attended the Baccalaureate Mass in Villa Maria Chapel and then processed to the east side of Lourdes Hall for the commencement ceremony, which was, for the first time, held at 7 p.m. amidst a rainstorm.
Commencement in 1976 was remarkable for having Mother Teresa of Calcutta visit campus as the co-recipient of the first-ever Immaculata Medal, along with Mother Claudia and Rose M. Kennedy. In addition, the 1976 commencement ceremony moved to Alumnae Hall where it would remain for several decades.
Over the years, students have had the privilege of outstanding, inspirational speakers. The Class of 1988 fondly remember their speaker: Fred Rogers (also known as Mister Rogers), who received the Immaculata Medal that year as well. In 2005, honorary degrees were bestowed upon worthy candidates. The first two honorary degree recipients were Dr. Helen Alvare and John Bogle, founder of Vanguard.
Simple mathematics – increased number of graduates and three separate colleges – necessitated a move to hold the ceremonies at the Valley Forge Convention Center in 2005. This venue provided sufficient room for one ceremony to accommodate the graduates from the College of LifeLong Learning, the College of Graduate Studies, and the last class from the Woman’s College, before coeducation began in fall 2005. The Valley Forge Convention Center was home to IU’s commencement ceremonies until 2012 when it was converted into a casino. The next year, a decision was made to erect a tent on back campus and to provide additional seating in Good Counsel Hall where guests could watch the ceremony via live streaming. This setting again provided one ceremony for all three colleges
In 2017, commencement ceremonies moved back to the theater in Alumnae Hall. Currently, there are three separate ceremonies to accommodate the students and their guests: Friday evening for graduate students; and two ceremonies held on Sunday, the early ceremony for the College of Undergraduate Studies and an afternoon ceremony for the students from the College of Adult Professional Studies. The Baccalaureate Mass, flanking the two graduation dates, continues to be held on Saturday in the chapel of Villa Maria House of Studies. The current format for commencement provides students with additional tickets for their guests and allows them time to gather and celebrate with family and friends after the ceremony.
From the early days of Villa Maria College to the present, students have been celebrated with the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony that caps their days of study and binds them to their Alma Mater – Immaculata University.
(Thank you to Sister Anne Marie Burton, IHM, archivist, for researching and preparing the history of Immaculata’s commencement ceremonies).