AUTHOR'S NOTE: Due to unforeseen circumstances, Niagara Discoveries' multi-part look at the Witmer family is on hold for a few weeks.
In 1855, Rev. John Joseph Lynch, C.M. (Congregation of the Mission), a Vincentian priest, arrived in Buffalo with the intention of establishing a seminary on the shores of Lake Erie for the instruction of men who wanted to enter the Catholic priesthood. After the plans for a site on that lake fell through, Rev. Lynch began to look elsewhere for a new location for the seminary. He thought that perhaps a site near Niagara Falls might be more suitable to his vision for the school.
In December of 1856, Lynch and another priest traveled by railroad to Suspension Bridge, an area just north of Niagara Falls. He had been told that the 100-acre Vedder Farm at Mount Eagle Ridge was for sale. After inspecting the site, the two priests decided that Providence was directing them to buy the property even though they had no way of paying the $75 per acre asking price.
The Vedder family agreed to allow the priests one year to pay for the farm, giving them some breathing space to find the money. At about the same time, 200 acres of the late Samuel Deveaux’s estate became available adjacent to the Vedder farm. The priests decided to buy that land also, even though they had no means to pay for it.
That winter Rev. Lynch became ill in Buffalo and was visited by a priest from Brooklyn who told him that his diocese had sold some property and would be getting $10,000. They were praying to God they would find a good use for the money and offered it to Rev. Lynch to buy the land for the seminary. This was how the “College and Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels” got its start in Suspension Bridge.
Work got under way in the spring of 1857 to ready the property for the seminarians to move in. The DeVeaux tract contained an inn called the “Half-Way House” (half way between Lewiston and Suspension Bridge) that was converted into a chapel and dormitories for the students. Within a few years the enrollment had increased dramatically and new structures were built to accommodate the growing number of students. One of these was the Administration Building, constructed in 1862.
In December, 1864, the Administration Building caught fire and burned to the ground, taking one student, Thomas Hopkins, with it. The campus sustained enough damage that it had to close for the remainder of the school year and 200 seminarians were sent home. They returned in September, 1865, to a stone building (now Clet Hall) still under construction and a devoted faculty determined to carry the school forward despite the overwhelming obstacles that were faced in rebuilding the seminary.
In September 1869, 27-year old Nelson Baker entered the seminary. He was almost 10 years older than most of the other students, he was a Civil War veteran and had operated a successful “feed and seed” business in Buffalo for several years. Baker, the son of an Irish Catholic mother and a German Protestant father, graduated from Our Lady of the Angels Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1874. He was assigned to St. Patrick’s Church on Limestone Hill in West Seneca (now Lackawanna) and became the beloved “Father Baker” who is now being considered for canonization. Other well-known alumni include baseball manager Joe McCarthy and William “Wild Bill” Donovan, “Father of the CIA.”
During the course of the first 25 years of its existence, the college and seminary graduated hundreds of priests but also non-seminarians who became doctors, lawyers, businessmen, educators, journalists and many other types of professionals. Recognizing this diversity in education for young men, in 1883 the New York State Board of Regents granted the college and seminary the status of “university” to be hereafter known as “Niagara University.” One reason for the necessity of the change was the school wished to be able to confer degrees in other disciplines, most particularly medicine. A medical school was established in 1883 in cooperation with the Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo.
In the 15 years of its existence, the medical school graduated 137 physicians. After the death of its medical director in 1898, the school was merged with the University of Buffalo School of Medicine. A law school was founded in 1887 but it too merged with the University of Buffalo four years later.
As the university moved into the 20th century, both the seminary and college divisions attracted more students. Many of the impressive stone buildings that dominate the campus today were erected in the early years of the 20th century. Both the academic programs, and the campus facilities, continue to grow and expand. Today there are four colleges and more than 50 degree programs offered as well as graduate studies.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.