DWC hits half-century mark

2014 marks 50 years of undergraduate education in Epworth, Iowa

Fifty years ago crews working for general contractor J.P. Cullen and Sons were hustling to finish work on a huge new seminary spanning two football fields—Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa. Later that year, DWC opened its doors to 69 students.
Beginning late this summer—corresponding with the time when those first students arrived—DWC will mark its 50th anniversary with a series of celebrations which will continue through graduation in May, 2015. Before they begin, you will likely see articles in area publications featuring the college as it hits its half-century mark. In fact, our 2014 Sacred Heart Calendar relates the history of DWC, going back to the first SVD seminaries in America in early 1900s and how they influenced the formation of the college you see today.

The story is a rich one. The first SVD (Society of the Divine Word) seminary in the U.S. was founded near Chicago, on property which became known as Techny, the North American headquarters of the missionary order. Over the next two decades, seminaries were also established in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Wisconsin. In 1931, the SVD purchased the site in Epworth, which at one time was a Methodist seminary. It became the society’s first high school seminary west of the Mississippi River—St. Paul’s Mission House.

The first graduating class of St. Paul's Mission House. The high school seminary was the predescessor of Divine Word College in Epworth. Previously, the property had been a Methodist seminary.
Over the next three decades, seminary education changed. In the early years, SVD seminaries were based on a European-Catholic model, which was six years in minor seminary, or high school, followed by six years in the major seminary, or college and graduate levels. This changed to something closer to the American-education model of four years of high school, four years of college and four years of graduate studies. Meanwhile, there was a national push toward more uniformity in the quality of education. Schools needed to be accredited. There were also demands that students receive a broader—or liberal arts—education, so they could potentially do more than one primary thing after they graduated.

St. Paul’s was closed in the late 1950s. In 1962 construction began on the building you see today—Divine Word College, a four-year, liberal-arts college—which opened in 1964.
For most of its first three decades, the college offered a number of different degree tracks as well as Philosophy. Since then, programs have been developed that better prepare students for the missionary vocation while maintaining a liberal-arts approach. Meanwhile, in the early years, student life at DWC included plays, music and martial arts groups. Many of those activities have been replaced by more ministry and outreach efforts, though students are still active with sports teams and ethnic organizations. Though the college has always enjoyed a diverse student body, since the arrival of a group of Vietnamese seminarians in 1975 it has transformed into a more intercultural institution which welcomes students from 15-to-20 countries every year.

After fifty years we remember the hundreds of young men who have walked the halls of DWC and
gone on to vocations as Divine Word Missionary priests and brothers. Today, DWC also educates religious sisters, other seminarians and lay people. Meanwhile, there have been a number of students over the years who decided to follow a secular path—missionary in their own way— and lead richer lives because of their time at DWC.

DWC will have much to celebrate, beginning Labor Day weekend when the college will welcome back alumni for a reunion. A week later, there are festivities planned for Family Feast Day, the annual celebration of the founding of the Society of the Divine Word. The observances will continue during some of the most popular events at DWC, including Mission Sunday in October and Lunar New Year in February 2015.  A number of other events are in the works to be woven into the academic year, including a concert or two, art displays and a few other things to help celebrate our 50th Anniversary.

We hope you’ll join us!