History of Spring Hill College

Spring Hill College, Alabama’s oldest institution of higher learning, was founded in 1830 by Michael Portier, Mobile’s first Catholic bishop. Spring Hill is also the first Catholic college in the Southeast, the third oldest Jesuit college, and the fifth oldest Catholic college in the United States.

Bishop Portier purchased 300 acres of land to establish a seminary and boarding school. The site sat on a hill six miles west of Mobile and afforded panoramic views of the city and its harbor. Portier recruited two priests and four seminarians from France to staff the school. He originally intended the boarding school to provide students under the age of 12 with an education in classical and modern languages, mathematics, geography, astronomy, history, belles lettres, physics, and chemistry. Portier soon relaxed the age restriction, and the boarding population increased from roughly 30 students the first year to almost 130 two years later. Initially, the bishop himself taught Greek at the school and, due to the lack of priests, pressed seminarians into service as teaching assistants or monitors. Difficulties staffing the school persisted until 1847, when Portier recruited French Jesuits from Lyon to take over.

Like other Jesuit colleges, Spring Hill followed a European model in which students began attending at age 9 and studied subjects at both the secondary and collegiate levels. The sons of Mobile’s established families–Catholic or otherwise–attended Spring Hill High School and the college. The high school persisted until its closing in 1935.

In 1932, the college launched an extension program with Saturday classes aimed at adults. For the first time, women were admitted as full-time students to the program. Successive presidents of Spring Hill, Patrick Donnelly, S.J., and Andrew Smith, S.J., brought landmark changes to the college after World War II. Both men viewed racial segregation as an ethical and moral dilemma, and in 1954 Smith presided over the enrollment of nine African-American students to the college. For the following decade, Spring Hill was the first and only integrated college in the Deep South.

In January 2009, Spring Hill broke ground on a new student center, the first “green” building of its size in Mobile and one of the first of its kind in the state. It qualifies for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, “the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings” and maintains the infrastructure with respect for the environment.

The College has thrived with strong enrollments and support from alumni, friends and the Greater Mobile community. Today’s students live and learn on a beautiful and historic residential campus and are part of a close-knit living and learning community. Creating enriching opportunities, inspiring ideas and creativity and transforming students are all part of the Spring Hill College experience.

Here are just a few inspiring stories of Spring Hill College and Spring Hill graduates that have led the way in many endeavors over the course of the school’s nearly 200 year history:

  • Spring Hill led the way in desegregation among Southern colleges and earned the respect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who mentioned the moral significance of Spring Hill’s initiatives in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
  • In 1956, Ms. Fannie Motley became the first African American graduate of the college. She was one of only two Mobile area students to graduate with honors that year.
  • The first internationally acclaimed chess champion was Paul Morphy, a Spring Hill alumnus who was regarded as the best in the world in 1854.
  • Famed inventor Thomas Edison needed a chief engineer to help him in his work in 1912. His choice was Miller Reese Hutchison, an inventor in his own right and an 1895 graduate of Spring Hill.
  • Spring Hill professor Rev. Louis Eisele, S.J., invented an ink-to-paper system for recording earthquake data on seismographs. In 1960, he was named director of a worldwide web of seismic stations.
  • In 2005, the Spring Hill nursing department led the way in the region to develop and implement a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) master’s program in conjunction with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The program prepares generalist clinicians for the new generation of nursing and was developed to improve the quality of patient care and to better prepare nurses to thrive in the present and future health care system. Clinical Nurse Leaders put evidence-based practice into action to ensure that patients benefit from the latest innovations in care.
  • For more than 25 years, the Spring Hill College Division of Philosophy and Theology has set the standard in offering programs on campus and in other Southern cities. Spring Hill offers its adult programs in theology not only in Mobile but also in Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia. Graduate and undergraduate degrees and certificates can be earned at all locations, or classes can be taken for personal enrichment. The program provides a study of all major areas of theology in the Catholic tradition (biblical, moral, historical, pastoral and systematic). It is ecumenical in perspective and designed for persons with varying levels of previous theological background.
  • Dr. Joseph Miller ‘42, a research biologist, helped develop the treatment for Infant Respiratory Distress Syndrome (IRDS). 
  • Dr. Mary Catherine Phelan ‘75, founder and director of the Molecular Pathology Laboratory (TN), conducted research that led to the identification of a chromosome deficiency. The disorder, known as Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, is named partially for her in recognition of her discovery.
  • Dr. Bryan Bertucci ‘72, a physician in New Orleans, was instrumental in setting up a medical clinic for New Orleans area residents following hurricane Katrina in 2005. He also created a directory system to match patients with doctors.
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