An Inclusive, Respectful Community
Saint Mary’s, as a Lasallian Catholic institution, traces its origins to a priest and educational innovator of 17th century France, Saint John Baptist de La Salle, Patron Saint of Teachers. Lasallian education is an inclusive, respectful community of teachers and learners, committed to educational excellence and to faith expressed through service. 

At the heart of a Saint Mary’s education is the development of meaningful relationships that help the individual learner realize and achieve their potential in a trusting and respectful environment. In this way, we prepare graduates with the advanced knowledge, skills, and critical-thinking abilities necessary to be lifelong learners, successful workers, good neighbors, and ethical citizens.

Continuing John Baptist de La Salle’s Vision
Born in 1651, Saint John Baptist de La Salle began a new system of Christian schools in which the teachers assist parents in the educational, ethical, and religious formation of their children. To continue his vision, John Baptist de La Salle founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, known today as the De La Salle Christian Brothers. In Latin, the group’s name is Fratres Scholarum Christianarum, the familiar "FSC" after a Brother’s name. The spiritual and pedagogical insights of Saint John Baptist de La Salle are the foundations of the modern Lasallian community.

Today, the Lasallian network, the ongoing home of De La Salle’s tradition and spirit, is alive and functioning in 81 countries and in more than 1,000 educational institutions. Saint Mary’s is one of the six Lasallian colleges and universities in the United States and one of 61 within the world.


Saint Mary’s has played a vital role in the arena of higher education since its founding in 1912. Beginning as a local college for young men, Saint Mary’s has grown to be a university offering education to men and women across the globe.

Founded by Bishop Patrick R. Heffron
Bishop Patrick R. Heffron, the second bishop of Winona, founded Saint Mary’s in 1912 to provide higher education for young men in southern Minnesota’s Diocese of Winona and surrounding areas. In its early years, the university operated as an academy and junior college. 

The descendants of 19th century settlers in Minnesota and Wisconsin thus received a classical education from a highly educated faculty composed primarily of diocesan clergy. The students of the early decades became religious, professional, and business leaders in their communities.

The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, an international Catholic teaching order founded in France in 1680 by Saint John Baptist de La Salle, purchased Saint Mary’s College from the Diocese of Winona in 1933. Soon thereafter, the university obtained formal accreditation of its bachelor’s degree programs by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Enrollment increased from 200 to 500 students during the next 15 years, aided by an influx of graduates from De La Salle Christian Brothers’ high schools in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Louis.

Combining Traditional Liberal Arts and Sciences with Career-Related Studies
The Saint Mary’s College curriculum, combining the traditional liberal arts and sciences with career-related studies, served the interests of both students and faculty in pursuing an integrated liberal and career education. Major programs included accounting, business administration, preparation of secondary-school teachers, and strong pre-professional majors in natural and social sciences, mathematics, law, medicine, theology, philosophy, and the humanities. All students completed a general education in the liberal arts in addition to their chosen major. These historical components of Saint Mary’s College exist in today’s curriculum, alongside the career-related applications that have evolved in recent years.

Many Saint Mary’s graduates from the 1940s through the 1970s later earned advanced degrees in law, medicine, dentistry, ministry, science, and the humanities. In a national study conducted during the 1980s, Saint Mary’s achieved a ranking in the top 15% nationally in the proportion of its graduates who later went on to earn a doctoral degree.

The Catholic religious developments embodied in Vatican Council II in the mid-1960s, as well as the social movements of that decade, transformed Saint Mary’s. The college became coeducational in 1969. 

Big Changes on Campus
In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, when enrollment reached the 1,000 students mark, the college expanded its physical facilities significantly, especially to accommodate housing needs for the high representation of students (85%) electing to live on campus.

Between 1968 and 1974, the college experienced one of the greatest periods of change in its history:

  • Establishment of an independent Board of Trustees, all but the president being from outside the university;
  • Clear separation of college administration from the district administration of the De La Salle Christian Brothers;
  • Revision of faculty and student body governance;
  • A decision to become a coeducational institution in 1969, starting with a very small class of women; subsequently to the achievement of a complete balanced mix of genders within the student body;
  • Declining numbers of seminarians and Brothers in the student body;
  • Shift in perception from "student" to "young adult" status; and
  • Expansion of the curriculum. By 1980, enrollment had surpassed 1,200 undergraduates and 200 master’s degree students.

Campus Growth in the 1980s
During the 1980s, the college campus underwent vigorous growth. Foreign-study centers were established, expanding international educational opportunities. The Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership, along with new degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, were all additions during this time. In 1995, Saint Mary’s College was renamed Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

Constructed during the 1980s were the Ice Arena (1986), Performance Center, including Figliulo Recital Hall and Joseph Page Theatre (1987), Brother Charles Hall science addition (1987), Gilmore Creek Residence (1989), and Christian Brothers Residence (1989). Extensive renovation also took place. The Saint Thomas More Chapel, art and music facilities, and most classrooms and residence halls were remodeled.

From the mid-1980s to the present time, the addition of new facilities and the renovation of existing campus buildings, vigorous change, and growth took place within the academic area as well as in every other area of Saint Mary’s.

A New Core Curriculum
Major curricular changes occurring since the mid-1980s were the development of a completely new core curriculum, the introduction, and eventual expansion of the Lasallian Honors Program, the establishment of the De La Salle Language Institute, and the introduction of the Path to Academic Success program. Foreign-study centers were established, expanding international educational opportunities to greater numbers of the traditional undergraduate student body.

The Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership, along with new degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, were all additions during this time, bringing greater depth and outreach to the mission of Saint Mary’s.

The academic administration was divided into schools in order to more effectively concentrate on the wide range of offerings being made to an increasingly diverse student body. In addition to these many changes, a new campus was established in Nairobi, Kenya, offering a Bachelor of Arts in Education and a master’s degree in African Studies.

The Campus Expands
During the 1990s, the Winona Campus saw the construction of the Recreation and Athletic Center (1994) featuring the Gostomski Fieldhouse and Jul Gernes Pool, McEnery Center library addition (1994), Pines Hall Residence (1995), Hendrickson Center addition to Saint Mary’s Hall (1996), The Heights academic building (1997), and Hillside Hall Residence (2001).

In 2002, Saint Mary’s purchased the campus of the former College of Saint Teresa in Winona. Several buildings were subsequently sold to Winona State University and Cotter High School. Saint Mary’s retains ownership of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, Alverna Center, the 360 Vila St. building, and Válencia Arts Center.

The Regan Lobby of the ice arena was added in 2004, and in 2008, the Winona Campus athletic fields were transformed by a new track and soccer complex.

The Development of the Graduate Programs
From 1950 to 1980, the graduate programs offered by Saint Mary’s consisted primarily of summer institute offerings. From the 1970s to mid-1980s, Saint Mary’s offered graduate programs in Saint Paul with small groups of students at Cretin High School, then at Saint John’s Hospital.

Meeting New Educational Goals
In 1984, Saint Mary’s expanded its offerings to meet a more diverse population with new educational goals. Night and weekend classes were made available to accommodate the many students who also work full time. Vigorous growth began with the decision to move core centers for graduate studies to a campus at 2500 Park Avenue in Minneapolis and a center in Rochester, Minn. Graduate programs were expanded on the Winona Campus, and centers were established in Apple Valley, Minn., along with the Partners in Higher Education, and in Minnetonka and Oakdale, Minn.

Courses are now delivered at more than 100 on-and off-campus locations in the metropolitan area, greater Minnesota and Wisconsin, Jamaica, and Nairobi, Kenya. Program levels include bachelor’s completion, certificate, specialist, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs (SGPP) serves more than 4,600 adult learners, making it one of the largest graduate schools in Minnesota.

The reorganized SGPP now is comprised of the Graduate School of Education, the Graduate School of Business and Technology, and the Graduate School of Health and Human Services. The SGPP gains insight and expertise from a distinguished advisory Council of Regents.

What was a local college providing education for young men in 1912 is today an international university serving women and men of every age, race, and nationality. Saint Mary’s remains true to its Lasallian heritage in meeting the needs of the people of the times. It strives at the same time to remain a university that is attentive to unique individuals with varying psychological, social, physical, and spiritual needs. This has been a hallmark of the university’s success and a critical dimension that seems most appropriate in these ever-changing, conflicted times.

Many positive opportunities are on the horizon for the university. The university continues to be increasingly attractive to our diverse audience of students. New and exciting possibilities await us, and we welcome them in our desire to continue to refine and increase the quality and degree of excellence our educational offerings can provide for every individual member of our academic community.

Historical photo of hall

A Lasallian Catholic History and Heritage

Saint John Baptist de La Salle knew that education was the way forward; the path to equality and progress. Today, more than 330 years later, as the world wrestles with the role of higher education, our resolve in our mission has never been stronger or our ideals more relevant. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota is more necessary than ever.

Through intense inquiry, we discover the truths in the world around us and the character within us. It begins with embracing respect and being dedicated to every person. For us, this style of community is an intentional expression of our Lasallian Catholic heritage.

Learn About a Lasallian Education or View Our Mission and Vision