The oldest educational institution in the old Federal City of Washington, Gonzaga has a rich legacy that stretches back nearly 200 years. Over the course of that history, Gonzaga has demonstrated and reaffirmed a deep commitment to Jesuit education. And it has chosen to do so in the heart of the inner city—on a street shared with leaders of business and government, and on a block where it ministers to the least fortunate in society.
At times, our location was seen as a liability. But the decision to remain on Eye Street was driven by the recognition that where we are plays a major role in shaping who we are. Today, Gonzaga’s downtown location is one of the many reasons for our success. Three blocks from the Metro and the main railway line at Union Station, Gonzaga draws students from all over the Washington area. Our location also reinforces our commitment to service. Located on Gonzaga’s campus, The Father McKenna Center is a Catholic social service agency serving men struggling with homelessness as well as very low income families.
Throughout Gonzaga’s history, our mission has always been the same: educating Men for Others, and following the Jesuit vision as inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The original building, which was on the north side of F Street, NW, between 9th and 10th streets, was intended to become a House of Novices for the Jesuits. But after standing empty, the Jesuits started a House of Philosophy for Jesuit Scholastics in 1820. In the months that followed, Washingtonians began asking the Jesuits to allow their sons into the college (which was originally under the charter of Georgetown College), not to become Jesuits, but for a good basic education. The Jesuits agreed, and the Washington Seminary, as Gonzaga was originally called, began classes for lay students in 1821.
Although the school flourished, it was a day school only and was not endowed. The only way to pay for the running of the school was to charge tuition, which was against the rules of the Society of Jesus at that time. So after much prompting from Rome, and many attempts to disguise the fact that they were charging tuition, the Jesuits left the Washington Seminary.
After the Jesuits left, the small school continued to operate in the building on F Street, where it stood next to the old St. Patrick's Church, the city's oldest Catholic parish. The rector, Fr. Matthews, tried to bring the Jesuits back to the school many times. Even though the rules against tuition were changed in Rome in 1833, it took another 15 years for the Jesuits to return.
Jesuit Father Benedict Sestini, a Mathematics teacher at Georgetown University, was the church's architect. The painting above the altar, showing Aloysius Gonzaga receiving his first Holy Communion from Cardinal Charles Borromeo, was created by Constantino Brumidi, who is famous for painting the frescoes in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.
When the church was formally dedicated in 1859, the New York Times wrote, "In internal architectural beauty, it is said not to be surpassed by any church in the world.''
The building was located on Eye Street, N.W., and was built in the 1860s as an orphanage—today that building is Kohlmann Hall. At that time, there were very few buildings in the area, and the move turned out be nearly disastrous. There were so few people living in the area that enrollment dropped precipitously, and there was a real question about the survival of the school. But the neighborhood gradually expanded, the number of applicants increased, and by Gonzaga’s 75th anniversary in 1896, the school was ready to expand.
The oldest continually operating theater in the old federal city of Washington, the Sheehy Theater has hosted hundreds of student performances. Even music luminaries such as John Philip Sousa and Kate Smith have graced its stage.
The facade, looking out onto Eye Street (which was a regular street, with houses on the other side until the 1970s) incorporated the old facade of the theater, so that the two buildings looked like one.
In 1944, according to the Aetonian, there were 611 Gonzaga students serving in the Armed Forces. A well-known photo (which you can see at right) in that same edition of the yearbook shows a group of students standing on the stairs of Dooley Hall before they left for war. Beneath it the caption said:
"We, who in January depart from the hallowed halls of Gonzaga in order to be ready to rally to the standard of our country, pause to pay tribute to the alumni of former years, now engaged in the momentous task of defending their Flag and the principles for which it stands. May we, proud in the possession of the same ideals and moulded by the same universally acclaimed educational system, also render insignis when our country beckons us."
Known affectionately as "The Coach" to generations of Gonzaga students, Kozik coached football, baseball, and basketball, taught history, biology, religion, and physical education, and served as the school's athletic director. In 1951, he fielded D.C.'s first integrated football team.
Smith grew up in rural Ridge, Maryland, where his pastor at St. Peter Claver Church was Father Horace McKenna, SJ, who encouraged Smith to attend Gonzaga. In 1954, he became the school's first African American graduate. Click here to read a story from The Washington Post about Smith and his years at Gonzaga.
During the city-wide riots of 1968, which took place in the wake of the assassination of Civil Rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., fires could be seen all around Gonzaga’s campus. Thankfully, Gonzaga and St. Aloysius Church were spared.
During the early 1970s, the school's enrollment began to fall, and serious thought was given to closing Gonzaga altogether—or at least moving to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs.
During this difficult time for the school, the Maryland Province of Jesuits declared its total commitment to Gonzaga as a school serving Washington’s inner city. It sent Jesuits there to show its confidence in the school, and as a tangible sign of committing to staying on Eye Street, the school obtained its playing field in 1973.
Named in honor of Fr. Horace B. McKenna, S.J., the McKenna Center is a day shelter for homeless men that operates in the basement of St. Aloysius Church. Gonzaga students frequently volunteer to serve lunch in the shelter, and help the men there in other ways.
The renovation added an adjoining two-story Theater Arts Center, incorporated state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, and reconfigured the space to accommodate 799 seats. As part of the same campaign, the Carmody Center was expanded and now includes locker rooms and a strength and conditioning center.