Christian Brothers College was founded in 1871 by members of the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools, an international Roman Catholic religious teaching congregation. The Memphis clergy had been determined to establish Catholic education in Memphis and envisioned not only elementary and secondary education but college education too. The Christian Brothers came to Memphis at their request, after more than a decade of previously unsuccessful efforts to persuade them to open a college in Memphis.
The closing of the Memphis Female College on Adams Avenue made property available for a new school, but it was ultimately the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that assured the founding of Christian Brothers College. When the Fire destroyed the Brothers' Academy in Chicago and several Brothers available for other duties, they came to Memphis along with Brother Maurelian Sheel, who came from Pass Christian, Mississippi to serve as the first president. Dedication of the college on Adams Avenue occurred on Sunday, November 19, 1871. It opened its doors with four Christian Brothers and 87 students.
The initial decades in Memphis were a period of struggle for Christian Brothers College. Recovery from the Civil War and Reconstruction was tedious, and yellow fever and financial difficulties plagued the city and the Brothers' community. Three epidemics in the 1870s took their toll. In debt due to these difficulties, the college barely survived the financial Panic of 1873. Another early problem involved the prohibition of the teaching of Latin in the colleges of the Christian Brothers in the United States. The Memphis Brothers objected, but they eventually adjusted and began the instruction of modern languages.
Brother Maurelian’s two terms as President totaled 33 years, during which time the college functioned as a combined elementary school, high school, and college, granting both high school diplomas as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Despite the CBC’s growth in the early years of the twentieth century, World War I put a strain on the Saint Louis District of the Christian Brothers, which governed the Memphis college and another in St. Louis. Due to the tremendous number of young men serving in the military during the Great War, the District concluded that there were not adequate resources to support two colleges within the district. In June 1915, Christian Brothers College awarded its last college degrees for several decades.
Elementary classes were dropped in 1922, and the institution operated as a high school only for the next 18 years. During the 1920s and 1930s, the high school grew and, despite the Great Depression, its enrollment outgrew the Adams Street facility. In 1939, a joint public fundraising drive with St. Agnes Academy (which also wanted to move from Downtown Memphis) was initiated with a goal of the then-enormous sum of $250,000. When the drive successfully managed to almost double the goal by raising $452,000, CBC purchased a plot of land in the suburbs on East Parkway. On June 9, 1939, the Brothers laid the cornerstone of a three-story building on the new property and eleven months later held the dedication ceremony for what would come to be called Kenrick Hall. Battersby Hall was constructed soon afterward.
In addition to inaugurating a new phase of its history on East Parkway, the school re-opened a junior college department and granted Associate of Arts degrees in 1942. The next year, however, with World War II raging, saw a dramatic decline in junior college enrollment and it was forced to close again temporarily. It reopened in 1947 with 70 students enrolled, half of them war veterans attending under the new G.I. Bill of Rights.
During this period, the college experienced much growth, both in student enrollment and in the population of the Christian Brothers Community. Housing and classroom buildings were constructed using temporary buildings obtained from the Federal Public Housing Authority, and construction began on an “Administration Building” (now Barry Hall) in 1949. Immediately after its completion in 1950, plans were drawn up for a 4,500-seat gymnasium; at its completion in 1951, De La Salle Gymnasium was the largest sports facility in the city of Memphis.
In 1953, the decision was made to expand the junior college into a four-year institution to more adequately serve the needs of the community. That year also saw the construction of Ave Maria Hall, a three-story office-and-classroom building (which later provided the footprint for the north wing of Buckman Hall), and soon thereafter St. Joseph Hall as a classroom and laboratory building. The new four-year curriculum began with degrees in Business Administration and Electrical Engineering, with the first bachelor’s degrees in 40 years being awarded in 1955.
Enrollment continued to increase and the number of college students quickly surpassed the high school enrollment, which necessitated an enlarged college faculty. There were no more than three or four Christian Brothers available, so lay faculty began to be hired. There was also a surplus of college students requiring housing, which led to the construction of Maurelian Hall in 1958. The original bell tower was constructed at the same time as a project of the CBC Mothers’ Club, originally designed by Brother Lambert Thomas and dedicated to “all the deceased mothers of Christian Brothers’ students.” The next few years saw the additional construction of Benilde Hall as an engineering center, Stritch Hall as a Brothers’ residence, and the CBU Theater. In 1961, Brother President Thomas Matthews wrote that the school was operating at full capacity. “It is quite obvious that there is a need for a new high school,” he wrote. “…[T]here is not sufficient room here to house a college the size that CBC is tending to become, and a high school of 1,000 students.”
In September 1961, a 27-acre plot of land on Walnut Grove Road was purchased, and by September 1962 it had become imperative to begin construction and fundraising began in earnest. Christian Brothers High School did not open its separate doors until 1965, but in the meantime it had made a different sort of history. Christian Brothers College had been quietly and peacefully integrated since 1960, when Ernest Donohue transferred from LeMoyne-Owen College, but no secondary school in Memphis, public or private, had been integrated prior to 1963. In August 1963, Brother President Terence McLaughlin accepted the application of Jesse Turner Jr. and made CBHS the first integrated high school in the city. Turner graduated as co-salutatorian of the Class of 1967.
In the half-century since the college took sole possession of the East Parkway campus, many changes have occurred. In 1970, spurred partially by the imminent closure of nearby all-female Siena College (formerly St. Agnes College, affiliated with St. Agnes Academy), women were accepted as students for the first time at Christian Brothers College—which had been all-male for 99 years. Today, the student population of CBU is 54% female.
An accelerated Evening Program was added in 1978 to meet the needs of adult students; today’s College of Adult Professional Studies is a separate branch of the university with its own faculty and offers bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in Business Studies and Professional Psychology.
Programs at the graduate level were reinstated in 1987, and Christian Brothers College officially became Christian Brothers University in June of 1990. Today, CBU offers master’s degrees in Accounting (MAcc), Business Administration (MBA), Catholic Studies (MACS), Education (MEd, MAT, MSEL), Engineering Management (MSEM), and Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS).
In 1996-97, CBU athletics entered Division II of the NCAA as a member of the Gulf South Conference. Since that time, the Buccaneers have won 10 conference championships — two in Men’s Basketball (2008, 2013), three in Men’s Soccer (2000, 2011, 2012), and five in Women’s Soccer (2000-2004). The Lady Buc soccer team won the NCAA Division II National Championship in 2002 and was National Runner-Up in 2001. In 2014, CBU was awarded the NCAA Academic Excellence Award in recognition of its 90% Academic Success Rate.
CBU has grown to a student population of more than 1,800 and exponentially expanded its degree offerings. Today, CBU offers bachelor’s degrees in more than 60 academic majors and concentrations in the arts, business, engineering, and sciences. A dozen buildings have been added to the campus in the last 50 years, most recently the Cooper-Wilson Center for Life Sciences (2008), the Living Learning Center (2011), and the Rosa Deal School of Arts (2016).