Gonzaga's History

Gonzaga book from 1925

Learn more about the history of Gonzaga University and its Jesuit origins.

In 1880, the Jesuit Superior of the Rocky Mountain Missions was an Italian priest, Fr. Joseph Cataldo. He supervised the Jesuits working in the Pacific Northwest and the missions they had established across Montana, down into Idaho and across Washington. All of their ministries were focused on the tribes of native Americans who lived in these regions. But at the same time, more and more settlers were arriving and making their presence felt.

Fr. Cataldo wanted to build a school for the tribes they were serving and decided to look around the area of Spokane Falls “because that would be a central point for our Missions where we could build a large school for Indian children, or even for white, if many should come to the country.”

Some of those settlers, in 1881, filed a formal application to incorporate Spokane Falls. The town had a telegraph wire running into it and there was even one building made of brick. 

That October, the Jesuits paid the Northern Pacific Railroad 936 dollars for 320 acres situated mostly on the north side of the Spokane River. 

Father Cataldo wanted to buy more property but he was advised not to because, as everyone knew, the real metropolis in the area was going to be the town of Cheney, about 18 miles away.

Soon after Cataldo’s purchase, the settlers in Spokane Falls wrote to Fr. Cataldo, asking him to build them a college that would attract students from all parts of the west, even as far away as California. James Glover, sometimes called the Father of Spokane, gathered fifteen other settlers and sent Cataldo another letter, pledging $2,650 to help build a college. They wanted it built of brick or stone and to be not less than 40 feet wide and eighty feet long and three stories high. The bishop for the Washington territory was also urging Fr. Cataldo to build a college in Spokane Falls

By October, 1883, a stone foundation was laid out for a brick building that would measure one hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, with a full basement. It would contain living quarters for the students, classrooms, a kitchen and dining room, library, chapel and living quarters for the Jesuits.

But Cataldo’s college would not be completed until four years later – 1887. In the summer of that year, while landscaping around the building was being completed –the Jesuit faculty began arriving. In addition to Fr. James Rebmann, the school’s first president, there were three other priests, six brothers and four scholastics or seminarians. Three other Jesuits, including Fr. Cataldo, also lived there.

When Gonzaga College opened on September 17, 1887, there were seven students enrolled. They included boys from Spokane Falls; Fort Sherman and Lewiston, Idaho; Salem, Oregon; and even one from California.

Enrollment quickly grew. By the turn of the century, there were 244 students and a faculty and staff of 24. Both a Classical and a Commercial Course of Studies were offered. Classical studies included classes in Philosophy, Rhetoric, Poetry and Humanities. The Commercial Course taught essential business management skills.

The next two decades witnessed steady growth and development. The present St. Aloysius Church, then located on the edge of the campus, was dedicated in 1911. And the next year Gonzaga was granted legal status as a university by the Washington State Legislature. That same year, 1912, Gonzaga’s School of Law opened its doors. 

The University quickly continued to expand. Reflecting the spirit of the times, a School of Economics and Business Education was opened in 1921. Also reflecting a national trend toward more standardized educational criteria, classes in education were added to the curriculum. Summer courses for teachers began in 1924, and in 1928 the Board of Trustees established a School of Education.

For the first time, in 1948, Gonzaga's freshman class included women, necessitating a rewrite of The Credo of the Gonzaga Man. It also meant building housing for women students. Gonzaga was now a coed university, attracting students from across the United States.

Today, Gonzaga University looks a lot different than its simple beginnings in 1887. The student body has grown from those first seven boys to a coed enrollment of about 8,000. The faculty and staff has increased from 17 Jesuits to over 1,200 people. Gonzaga’s campus now includes 105 buildings on 131 acres.

Included in the University’s academic programs are a School of Health Sciences, a School of Leadership Studies, a Masters in Business and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. The campus has added a $20 million state-of-the-art library, a Fine Art Center and Museum, the $23 million McCarthey Athletic Center and, in the near future, a $50 million Performing Arts Center.

Gonzaga students are able to avail themselves of 50 study-abroad programs throughout the world, including Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia, Oceania and the Middle East.

We also have a pretty good basketball program.

Although Gonzaga does not resemble the school of 1887, we have never lost our primary purpose.  The school’s 1887 catalog, offered Gonzaga’s students “the facilities for securing a solid and complete education, based on the principles of religion and calculated to fit them for a successful career in life.” Gonzaga University continues to offer students a quality Jesuit education, teaching women and men the skills they need to help shape and transform our world today.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

St. Ignatius of Loyola was a Catholic priest and theologian, who founded the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, the religious order which went on to establish schools and colleges all over the world including Gonzaga University.

Born Inigo de Loyola in 1491 in northern Spain, St. Ignatius was an ambitious and successful member of the House of Loyola and the Spanish royal court before a long and arduous recovery from battle wounds led him on a lifelong spiritual journey. Often called the "pilgrim saint," Ignatius's conversion spurred him to minister across Europe and develop a seminal collection of meditations and prayers known as the Spiritual Exercises. Upon the creation of the Society of Jesus, he was elected Superior General and served for 15 years until his death. In his lifetime, he watched the Jesuits grow from eight to a thousand members with colleges and schools as far away as Brazil and Japan.


St. Aloysius Gonzaga

One of the most frequently asked questions about Gonzaga University is the origin of the name. Who was St. Aloysius Gonzaga? He is an Italian Jesuit saint of the 16th century. In 1887 when Father Joseph Cataldo, an Italian born Jesuit, founded Gonzaga College in Spokane, Washington, it seemed fitting to name the new school after his fellow Jesuit and fellow Italian, St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Aloysius is the Latin form of Gonzaga's given name, Luigi. In English, the equivalent form would be Louis. The Gonzaga name is well known in Italy.

Adjacent to our university campus is a parish church, St. Aloysius. A statue of Aloysius stands outside the church, representing the saint carrying in his arms a victim of the plague. Two miles north of the university is a Jesuit secondary school also named in honor of the saint, Gonzaga Preparatory School. Gonzaga University in Spokane is the only Jesuit university in the world named after St. Aloysius.


Contact the Office of the Vice President, Mission Integration

Send a message
MSC 74
502 E. Boone Avenue
Spokane, WA 99258