- SLUH Archive
BY MARTY O’BRIEN '63 OF THE SLUH ARCHIVE COMMITTEE
From Saint Louis University’s earliest years, there was no clear distinction between what we now consider high schools and universities. Undergraduate education was viewed as a six-year program in which secondary education was provided by the university as preparation for its undergraduate degree programs. By 1915, Saint Louis University was looking for a way to separate its high school program from its undergraduate degree programs because of congestion at DuBourg Hall at Grand and Lindell.
The path of separation began to unfold in 1919 following the death of George Backer, an 1869 graduate of Saint Louis University. Backer had married Anna Fredericka Graenicher in 1876. They eventually resided at 3758 Westminster Place, just north of Spring and Lindell, and attended St. Francis Xavier College Church, where they were active parishioners for more than 25 years. Fr. Michael J. O’Connor, SJ, who had been appointed pastor of the College Church in 1915, later played an important role in SLUH’s becoming a separate high school independent from Saint Louis University.
After the death of her husband, Anna created a memorial to him – specifically, the will agreed to fund the construction of a Jesuit high school for the university to be known as the George H. Backer Memorial. Saint Louis University leadership quickly agreed to locating the school, which became the oldest high school west of the Mississippi River, on property that it already owned on Oakland Avenue.
At the ceremony laying the cornerstone of the new building in April 1923, Saint Louis University clearly considered SLUH to still be a part of the university. Fr. William Robison, SJ, the President of the University, accepted Mrs. Backer’s gift “in my own name” and “in the name of Saint Louis University.” The first Jesuits moved into the building in June 1924, and the school opened that fall. It was not until October 17, 1930 that the Jesuits recognized SLUH as an institution separate from the university, largely because of pressure on Jesuit leadership from Mrs. Backer and Fr. O’Connor.
Fr. O’Connor died unexpectedly just 10 days after the official separation of schools. Although he was not a member of the SLUH faculty, he resided at the school and was well known to the student body. Because of the crowd attending his funeral, only SLUH seniors were permitted to attend his services at St. Francis Xavier Church.
Mrs. Backer’s gift was at the time the largest donation for education in St. Louis Archdiocesan history. Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII, came to St. Louis U. High to meet Mrs. Backer in October 1936, but sadly, she died the month before on September 21. The future Pope kept his SLUH visit, and students cheered after he gave them a free day off school.
All of the financial transactions between Mrs. Backer and Saint Louis University and the Jesuits were handwritten. Her payments were made from her personal checking account. She kept all these records and they have been relocated to the SLUH Archive, where they are being preserved and documented for future generations.
Do you have memorabilia, artifacts or pictures of historical significance? If so, the Archive Committee would like to hear from you. Please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.