90 Years of Mercy


90 Years of Mercy
by Leah Grout Garris 

In 1928, Mount Mercy Junior College began with one building, about a dozen faculty, and 21 students as it grew from a girls’ academy to an institution of higher education. Today, Mount Mercy University flourishes with a campus of 16 buildings, 160 full-time faculty, and 1,800+ students. This is the story of how the Sisters of Mercy have held steadfast to their vision, developing Mount Mercy into one of the best universities in Iowa…and beyond.

In 1906, the Sisters of Mercy—founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831 and active in Cedar Rapids since 1875—were searching for a larger site. They had outgrown their St. Joseph Academy boarding school and identified 40 acres on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids (known as Mound Farm) to expand. Here, they would offer a girls’ academy. The Sisters of Mercy wanted to inexpensively educate their students—and invite other local women to join if they desired.

On Mound Farm sat the Greene Mansion—a building that belonged to the notable Judge George Greene, a Cedar Rapids founder, Iowa legislator, and Iowa Supreme Court justice. The mansion had been vacant for nearly a decade when the Sisters leased it and moved in. But they rolled up their sleeves and got the building ready for the new Sacred Heart Academy’s opening day. 

The following year, the Sisters of Mercy purchased Mound Farm, including the Greene Mansion. In 1924, as it grew, the academy became known as Mount Mercy Academy. Warde Hall (then called the Mount Mercy Academy building) was also built that year—the first Mount Mercy building constructed on campus. Today, it houses the President’s Office, academic classrooms, faculty offices, the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, and other administrative offices. 

Because the Sisters of Mercy felt strongly about the need to continue high-quality, values-based education beyond high school, Mount Mercy Junior College opened its doors in 1928. 

MMU Dorm


Many people said it was a poor time to start a college. The Great Depression was just around the corner, and there wasn’t necessarily a demand for higher education—especially for women. But, with slim budgets and lots of ambition, Mount Mercy welcomed 21 students—nine Sisters and 12 lay students.

Through tough times—not only the Great Depression, but also World War II and the Korean War—Mount Mercy saw success. As it grew, innovative ideas were always being considered.  

Because Mount Mercy Junior College was becoming more popular, the idea of ending high school education on the campus was explored. After many discussions—and after learning that Regis High School would be opening on Cedar Rapids’ east side—Mount Mercy Academy decided to close in 1958. At that point, Mount Mercy became a four-year institution, awarding its first bachelor’s degrees in 1959. The goal of the newly established, four-year college: to teach women not only how to make a living, but also how to make worthwhile lives.

First Men


In 1934, tuition was $100 and room/board was $250.


In 1960, Mount Mercy received accreditation as a baccalaureate institution from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. When Sister Mary Ildephonse and Sister Mary Agnes arrived from Chicago via Marion’s train depot with this good news, more than 100 students were waiting to celebrate. The police escorted them back to Cedar Rapids, where even more students and community members lined McAuley Hall. Signs had been placed all over campus to commemorate the accomplishment.

The 1960s were unofficially known as the “decade of advancement.” During this time, a $5 million building program was under way, with an enrollment goal of 600 students. McAuley Hall had just opened, and a library and student center were planned. The Greene Mansion was demolished and in its place, Regina Hall was built to provide the first on-campus housing since Warde Hall. Mount Mercy also brought a consulting team on board to develop a college-wide master plan focused on growth. The plan included an annual gifts solicitation, alumnae fundraiser, and staff additions to the admissions, development, and public relations teams. 

In the late ’60s, the idea of allowing men to enroll at Mount Mercy was discussed. The notion had come up once before, when Mount Mercy first became a four-year institution. At that time, however, it was decided to remain a college for women. 

Ping Pong


Popular competitive sports used to include archery and ping pong. 

Many felt that accepting men would not only be an opportunity for the college to reach a larger audience and share its academic excellence, but also promote the idea of women complementing men rather than competing with them. Faculty voted on the idea; although it wasn’t a unanimous decision, men were able to attend Mount Mercy starting in 1969.

This was the first of many big changes on campus leading into the ’70s—known as the “decade of change.” For the first time, Mount Mercy was advertising on television and radio. A new academic calendar was unveiled, along with new nursing, elementary education, business administration, art, and sociology majors. In addition to welcoming men to campus, non-traditional students were joining the ranks. A campus radio station, KWMR 88.9, was also launched.

 In 1971, Mount Mercy became the first college in Iowa to offer blanket acceptance (as juniors) to all Kirkwood Community College graduates who earned associate degrees and wanted to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

 As expected, there were a few growing pains during this time, too. Due to increasing enrollment, the campus lacked enough living and learning spaces, and there was no formal orientation or advising for incoming students. 

 But faculty, students, and staff worked together, and these much-needed policies and procedures were put into place over the next few years. This was also when the Lower Campus Apartments were built to increase on-campus living. The buildings are still in use today to accommodate student housing.

First MMU BBall


In 1985, the first men’s basketball game was played in Hennessey. Former Mount Mercy president Sister Mary Agnes Hennessey hands the game ball to Coach Leonard Ranson.


During the ’80s and ’90s, Mount Mercy focused on increasing student opportunities by adding even more majors, creating a variety of extracurricular activities and clubs, ramping up volunteer efforts across the Cedar Rapids community, starting a student newspaper, and establishing one of 13 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) varsity sports. There are 18 NAIA varsity sports teams today.


The year 2010 marked an important milestone: This was the year Mount Mercy was designated as a university. Shortly afterward, master’s degrees were unveiled. Today, students can select from six different master’s programs

Last year, two doctoral programs were created: a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy. And, this year, Mount Mercy has its first named college: the Martin-Herold College of Nursing & Health.

Many remember what Allan O. Pfnister, visiting professor of higher education at the University of Michigan and North Central Association examiner, said in his letter declaring accreditation in 1960: “There’s something happening on that campus!”

And it’s all thanks to the Sisters of Mercy, who built a college from the ground up during a time when they were told it wasn’t a good idea. Even back in 1928, Mount Mercy was guided with strength, courage, and vision. Ninety years later, these factors still guide the university and its mission.

MMU Tunnel System


The government once stocked Mount Mercy’s tunnel with food and water, labeling it a “civil defense bomb shelter.”