SAN ANTONIO – The foundation of the University of Incarnate Word can be traced back to a single letter in 1869, that was sent from a bishop in San Antonio to the Catholic sisters in France.
The letter asked for the sisters to help take care of victims of a cholera outbreak in the city.
Without hesitation, Sisters Madeleine Chollet, Pierre Cinquin, and Agnes Buisson made their way to San Antonio to treat victims and establish the city's first hospital, the Santa Rosa clinic.
The clinic primarily cared for poor people and single mothers.
“While the women were in the hospital, the sisters would take care of them and in some cases if the patient died, they would take care of the kids and they started an orphanage,” said Dr. Gilberto Hinojosa, professor emeritus of history.
The sisters began to teach the orphans how to read, write, math and other subjects. They received a state charter to educate orphans and children in 1881.
The sisters then opened a school at the George Brackenridge estate, which became the College and the Academy of the Incarnate Word.
The school was originally chartered as a college for women with its first graduate being a young woman from Durango, Mexico named Antonia Mendoza.
Mendoza graduated in 1913, and the university has flourished over the decades with thousands of students receiving degrees in a variety of fields, along with keeping the school’s mission of service in mind.
“The sisters and the school always emphasized science, along with the humanities and the arts,” said Hinojosa. “Today all of our students are required to perform service hours.”
Every year, the university honors its connections to the past with an on-campus celebration. The event symbolizes the passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
“At Christmas time we celebrate, the Nativity of the Lord, which is the celebration of the word incarnate,” Hinojosa said. “It’s understandably a huge celebration on campus that we call Light The Way.”
But it all goes back to a plea for help and a trio of Catholic sisters willing to make the sacrifice to help the sick in San Antonio.
“These three young women in their early 20s had to leave France and without knowing English, said 'well, we’ll learn it,’” Hinojosa said. “Without knowing nursing, said ‘we’ll learn it, we’ll do it.’”
This year marks 150 years the university has been serving and educating the community.
“It's been a long haul from that little letter where the mayor needed help and bishop wrote for help for the sisters.”