The Catholic University of America

Past president of CUA

History of CUA Presidency

John Garvey is the 15th chief administrator of The Catholic University of America. The university's history of distinguished leaders began in 1887 when the head of the Diocese of Richmond, Va., Bishop John J. Keane, was chosen to be the first rector. Since then, 10 priests, one religious brother and two laymen have held the top post at CUA. Garvey is the third lay president.


Past Presidents/Rectors of The Catholic University of America

Bishop John J. KeaneBishop John J. Keane, 1887-1896

The bishop of Richmond, Va., was appointed rector as the new university was being established. Its first buildings - Caldwell, McMahon and Albert halls - were constructed and a library developed during his administration. A powerful orator, Keane often was quoted in newspapers.


Rev. Thomas J. Conaty, 1896-1903

He developed a relationship with the Society of St. Sulpice, which eventually founded CUA's national seminary, Theological College. Prompted by the Spanish-American war, he supported academic accommodations for men who needed time away from their studies to serve in the military.


Rev. Denis O'Connell

Rev. Denis J. O’Connell, 1903-1909

During O'Connell's tenure, Pope Pius X authorized an annual collection in U.S. dioceses that supports student financial aid. Undergraduate lay students were admitted during his administration. Active in public life, O'Connell improved the university's image in Washington, D.C.


Rev. Thomas J. Shahan, 1909-1927

As rector, Shahan - an administrator and a scholarly writer - expanded the faculty, developed teacher training, increased student enrollment and built Gibbons and Maloney halls, a gym and Mullen Library. He promoted the creation of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he is buried in the crypt.

Rev. James Hugh Ryan, 1928-1935

During his service as rector, the number of theology faculty increased, academic programs were reorganized, the university's constitution was revised and women were admitted for the first time. In 1935, he recommended that the Divisions of Nursing Education and Public Health Nursing be organized as one of the professional schools of the university.

Rev. Joseph Corrigan

Rev. Joseph M. Corrigan, 1936-1942

The 50th anniversary of the university's founding was marked and Curley Hall was built during his tenure. The rector was among five American Catholic leaders and a politician who condemned Nazi violence against Jews in a radio broadcast from CUA on Nov. 16, 1938, three years before the United States entered WW II.

Rev. Patrick McCormick

Rev. Patrick J. McCormick, 1943-1953

He originally came to the university in 1910 to teach and twice held the role of acting rector. The first alumnus to hold the top leadership role, he ensured that the university responded to wartime needs.


Rev. Bryan McEntegart

Rev. Bryan J. McEntegart, 1953-1957

Much of his short administration was devoted to building projects, including Keane Hall and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. His experience was in social work, having graduated with a master's degree in social work from CUA. During his tenure, an honorary degree was given to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Rev. William McDonald

Rev. William J. McDonald, 1957-1967

During his tenure, enrollment grew from 3,858 in his first year to 6,779 in his last. The growth reflected an increase in lay and undergraduate students. He carried out building projects identified by earlier rectors: McCort-Ward Hall for biology, Leahy Hall for the school of law, and student residences. The New Catholic Encyclopedia was published during his tenure.

Clarence C. Walton, 1969-1978

The former dean of Columbia University's general studies, he was the first lay person to lead the university. His 10-year presidency was committed to the worlds of academia, business and public service. Enrollment increased by more than 3,000 students and a half-dozen campus buildings were constructed, renovated or purchased. Walton, an alumnus, was active in public and community affairs.

Edmund Pellegrino

Edmund D. Pellegrino, 1978-1982

A medical doctor specializing in ethics, he was president during the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to campus in 1979. Library and information science was elevated to a school at the university during his tenure.


Rev. William J. Byron, S.J., 1982-1992

A Jesuit, he was the first member of a religious order to lead CUA. He completed $51 million in construction projects, including expanding undergraduate university housing with Centennial Village, named for the university's 100th anniversary. He tripled the endowment and began fundraising to build a new law school.

 Brother Patrick Ellis

Brother Patrick Ellis, F.S.C., 1992-1998

During the presidency of this alumnus, CUA introduced campus-wide computer technology, dedicated the Columbus School of Law's new facility and promoted university-sponsored community service programs to help the needy.


Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., 1998-2010

He strengthened the university's historic Catholic identity and character, grew the university's endowment and oversaw important campus improvements, including construction of the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center. He also purchased 49 acres for the university's future growth.
See website about Father O'Connell's presidency.






CUA presidential notes

The First "President"

Nine university leaders held the title of rector. Clarence Walton was the first CUA head to have the title of president.

Longest and Shortest

Rev. Thomas J. Shahan holds the record as the longest-serving leader of the university. He served as rector for 18 years. Rev. David M. O'Connell's 12-year tenure is the second longest. Edmund D. Pellegrino's four-year term was the shortest. Two others, Rev. Joseph M. Corrigan and Brother Patrick Ellis served for just six years.

10 Became Bishops

The first rector was a bishop before he was asked to be the founding leader of the university. Nine others, most recently Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., were named bishops either during or after their service at CUA. 

An Early Cardinals Fan

While early rectors were opposed to sports on campus, Rev. Thomas Shahan was a booster for a new stadium, which was built in about 16 months and dedicated in fall 1924.

Irish for the First 91 Years

Until the selection of Edmund Pellegrino in 1978, every university leader was of Irish lineage. For 24 years, from 1943 to 1967, "Mc" were the first two letters of the surname of the CUA rector. Two other presidents shared the same Irish surname: O'Connell.

Three Finalists, Plus One

Rev. Bryan J. McEntegart's selection was a surprise on campus because he was not among three names for whom votes had been cast in the academic senate and sent along to bishops for consideration for the top job.  

A Consortium Charter Member

CUA and other Washington institutions joined to form the Consortium of Universities during Rev. William J. McDonald's tenure.

Drawings for the Vice Presidents

While he was president, Brother Patrick Ellis, F.S.C., composed black-and-white ink drawings of four buildings on campus; Centennial Village, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, John K. Mullen of Denver Memorial Library and Hartke Theater. He had copies made of his original drawings and presented them as gifts to all of the vice presidents.