Beginnings of St. Bonaventure College
By Edward K. Eckert
It has long puzzled me why anyone would build a college “in the middle of nowhere,” as my father used to say. Although there are tales about Nicholas Devereux dreaming of a college in Western New York that would be modeled after institutions in his native Ireland, the truth was that he had not anticipated building a college nor did Buffalo’s first bishop, John Timon. Both men, however, hoped to populate the area with Catholic immigrants. They knew that to succeed would mean finding priests to tend to their spiritual needs. It was priests they wanted, not a university.
But perhaps I am getting ahead of the story. The time was the middle of the nineteenth century. It was an era of enormous growth in the United States. The American population more than doubled, not only due to many immigrants who came to the United States from Europe, but also through natural growth among Americans. The demographic surge came alongside a booming economy based on industrialization, new roads, railroads and canals, commercial banks, and lots of factory and construction jobs. The American dream was to buy enough land to grow ample food to feed a family with surplus crops to trade for the many new items created by industrialization. To attain that goal most people had to borrow money to buy land, tools, and seeds to plant a crop. The annual harvest would pay off the debt so a family would own the property free and clear.
Nicolas Devereux, an atypical Irish immigrant as a descendant of the minor Irish Catholic aristocracy, owned excess land as well as a bank to lend money to settlers to buy land and agricultural supplies from a store that he also owned. His family had lost all their resources when they joined fellow Irish Catholics to fight in “The Rebellion” in 1798. Nicholas, the youngest of nine children, did not have a chance to succeed in Ireland. In 1806 he joined his brother in Utica, New York where business prospered and Nicholas soon became a rich entrepreneur. He invested money to purchase land in the western part of the State knowing that many Irish immigrants worked in the area building railroads and canals.
At the same time Devereux was seeking to sell his land, the newly appointed bishop of Buffalo, whose diocese ran from the Genesee River to the western end of the state, was seeking priests to serve parishes in the vast rural area that comprised his diocese. Timon and Devereux looked to Europe for missionary priests to come to Western New York.
Europe too was experiencing tremendous economic growth along with the consolidation of new powers against former regimes, including the Catholic Church that controlled large parts of Italy. Italians fought for a unified nation causing civil warfare. If the Italian unionists should win, the days of Catholic secular authority would be limited. Priests would face government regulation limiting their right to function independently and Italy had an abundance of priests. A few taught at St. Isadore’s, known as the “Irish College” in Rome, which was dedicated to educating young men from Ireland to become priests. Some of the Italian Franciscan instructors hoped to learn enough English from the Irish seminarians to become missionaries in the United States.
Devereux, Bishop Timon, and Father Pamphilo da Magliano, O.S.F. were brought together when Devereux and Timon went to Rome, separately, in 1855 to celebrate the papal announcement of the affirmation of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to be the patroness of the United States. Timon convinced Pamphilo’s superior to send him and three other friars to Western New York as missionaries. The Franciscans went to Ellicottville, where Devereux had located his land office. They began traveling through snow and enduring below-zero temperatures to reach isolated Catholics to offer them the sacraments and religious comfort.
Yet, still more priests were needed. Since the friars had experience running a seminary in Rome, they soon proposed that they open a seminary in Western New York to train young men for the priesthood. Timon and Devereux approved their request and began planning for a seminary. Devereux died shortly afterward, and his beloved and talented wife, Mary Butler Devereux, became the fourth founder of St. Bonaventure College. For twenty-five years she served on the board of trustees who ensured and oversaw the Devereux family’s commitment to the friars.
A seminary would be expensive to run. Many prospects lacked money to pay their tuition and room and board. Bishops from other dioceses, in return for a seminarian’s commitment to future service as a priest in their dioceses, would sponsor some seminarians. But large costs still remained. It was logical to conclude that the seminary could easily be supplemented by a college to teach young men, who were able to pay for their education, but who had no desire to become priests.