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Black founders of Villanova University honored with new $7.5M deanship

A Black Catholic couple noted as some of the first donors and partners in the establishment of Pennsylvania's largest Catholic university were honored by an anonymous donor late last month.

Historical records concerning William (top) and Julia Moulden, a Black Catholic couple who helped found Villanova University and in whose name a new $7.5M deanship has been created at the school. (The Rooted Project/Twitter)

Villanova University has received an anonymous $7.5M gift to establish a deanship in honor of William and Julia Moulden, an African-American couple who helped found the school in the early 19th century.

Philadelphia’s historic Augustinian institution announced the news on August 22 via its president, Fr Peter Donohue, OSA.

“This is a transformational gift for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,” he said in a statement.

“We are grateful to the donors not only for their financial commitment, but for honoring the important legacy left by the Mouldens—a family whose generosity to Villanova and the Augustinians left an indelible mark on the University.”

William was born into slavery in 1818 and married Julia in 1841, the year before the university was founded. The Catholic couple lived in the Villanova neighborhood for the rest of their lives, partnering with the friars and working for the university for 40 years. They were also the first donors for the construction of St Thomas of Villanova Church, the university chapel completed in 1887.

Julia died the next year and William in 1893—leaving his $10,000 property to the Augustinians, who soon sold it for a profit and used the money for the school. The couple’s significance was somewhat muted for years thereafter, the most notable recognition being a residential hall named in their honor in 1994.

Then-graduate student Angelina Lincoln, however, published her research on their family history in early 2020, making headlines for her re-discovery. From her new findings also came The Rooted Project, a university-funded media initiative highlighting Villanova’s complicated history with slavery, racism, and prejudice.

“The gift will provide significant resources to the CLAS Dean to invest in key College initiatives, allowing it to enhance its curriculum, launch new academic programs and Centers of Excellence, bolster existing centers and programs, and support innovative faculty and student research and scholarship opportunities,” the university said.

“It will also establish a new endowed fund for the Office for Undergraduate Students… providing supplemental support to deserving Villanovans for participation in internships, professional development experiences, immersion programs and other experiential learning opportunities.”

The inaugural dean under the new title will be Dr. Adele Lindenmeyr, a 35-year member and former chair of the Villanova history department. She became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2014 and launched, among others, the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest three years later.

“I am honored and humbled to serve as the inaugural William and Julia Moulden Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,” she said.

“This generous endowment will have a profound, positive impact on the College’s ability to deliver a vibrant educational experience for our students.”

Lincoln herself has said that a fuller acknowledgment of the Mouldens would be a crucial first step for the university to address its shortcomings in the area of diversity and inclusion.

One notable example is that William’s gift to the school came at a time when Villanova itself did not accept Black students, like many Catholic institutions around the country at the time. Today the school’s Black population sits at just 5%—despite Philadelphia being one of the Blackest major cities in the country.

“The university must acknowledge William and Julia Moulden’s experiences—their roles as founders, as laborers and employees, and as active members of the local Catholic community,” she said in an article for the Ohio Valley History journal last summer.

Now, their legacy stands to gain all the more prominence with a donation not unlike Moulden’s own some 136 years ago.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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