At the height of the Victorian era, a wealthy widow in Omaha became determined to honor her late husband by honoring his faith in their city. This is a history of Creighton University, a private Jesuit Roman Catholic University in North Omaha.
Author’s Note: This is not an exhaustive history of everything about every part of the university–only the parts I find interesting! If you know of something I should know about leave it in the comments. Thanks!
Meet the Creighton Family
Edward Creighton (1820-1874) came to Omaha in 1860. Already a successful telegraph installer, his successful business started in Ohio where he was from. Edward was married to Mary Lucretia Wareham (1834-1876). Working with his brother John A. Creighton (1831-1907), Creighton laid the lines that connected the United States from coast-to-coast for the first time. John was married to Mary’s sister Sarah Emily Wareham (1840-1888). Securing their fortunes from building the telegraph, the Creighton family became active in several early Omaha businesses, including the First National Bank of Omaha, the Omaha and Northwestern Railroad, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Omaha Cable Tramway Company.
When Mary Lucretia Creighton died in 1876, her will stipulated that $100,000 of her estate would be used,
“…to purchase the site for a school in the city of Omaha and erect buildings thereon for a school of the class and grade of a college.”—”History,” official Creighton University website
That led to the opening of Creighton College in 1878. When Sarah died in 1888, she doubled the College’s land, and in 1905 the Edward Creighton Institute was built at 210 South 18th Street with family money. John A. Creighton continued to fund the university through his death in 1907, and left it a great deal of money in his will.
Opening Creighton College
Formally established by the Society of Jesus, the earliest priests at Creighton University were Irish Jesuits. Along with opening Creighton College, the Creighton family was responsible for supporting the 1876 establishment of the Holy Family parish; bringing the Sisters of Poor Clare to Omaha in 1878; and many other works relating to Omaha’s Catholic community.
Creighton College was opened offering Bachelors in Arts and Sciences. The Creighton College of Arts and Sciences officially opened in 1878, with colleges of medicine, pharmacy, law and more starting afterwards.
Following is my summary of historic details about the different colleges at Creighton.
- College of Arts & Sciences—Established in 1878, the Creighton University College of Arts and Sciences included Associates and Bachelors degrees, and was offered free with no tuition to students.
- College of Medicine—In 1892, the Creighton University College of Medicine was founded with a large staff, state-of-the-art equipment, and a large clinic for practice. In 1921, there were twenty interships offered annually by the college.
- College of Pharmacy—”Elegantly housed in a specially designed and equiped building,” the Creighton University College of Pharmacy was opened in 1904 and provided an “unusual opportunity for professional experience.”
- College of Law—The Creighton University College of Law was opened in 1904. The school featured a large library and “exceptional court facilities.” In 1921, through a 3-year program or a 4-year night program, students could earn a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree that allowed students to practice law.
- College of Dentistry—Established in 1903, the Creighton University College of Dentistry provide “personal attention to each student.” They promoted the “thoroughness and efficiency” of the college, with lots of professional experience available to learn from. In 1921, it had 160 students served by 50 staff.
- College of Commerce, Accounts and Finance—The earliest version of a business school at Creighton, this college promoted an “exceptionally strong course” the program taught business basics with expert-taught courses. Students earned a degree called a Bachelors of Commercial Science.
Throughout the years, Creighton University added several other schools, including the College of Nursing, the Graduate School and the College of Professional Studies. The College of Commerce, Accounts and Finance is now called the Heider College of Business, and today Creighton offers more than 140 degree areas.
In 1919, Creighton University started hosting an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, unit for 136 male students. In 1954, the university began offering the General Military Science Program, and approximately 2,000 students have become commissioned officers through Creighton’s program since 1919.
Creighton High School
Creighton High School was opened as part of Creighton College in 1878, and operates independently today as Creighton Preparatory School. Learn more from “A History of Creighton High School.”
The Jesuits of Creighton
The first classes at Creighton were led by Father Roman Shaffel along with five Jesuits and two lay professors in September 1878. Since then, the university has played host to hundreds of Jesuits. In 1979, the Jesuit Humanities Program was founded at Creighton to encourage a broader educational experience for new priests. Today, the Jesuits serve as administrators, faculty and ministers at Creighton.
Creighton has a few historic buildings still standing, although none of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or designated as official Omaha Landmarks by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. This section details some of the historical buildings at Creighton, both past and present.
Its important to note that the entire community surrounding Creighton University, from Dodge Street north to Cuming and from Florence Boulevard west to North 30th Street. was originally residential with hundreds of houses, as well as businesses and churches in the area. Into the 1970s there were still houses near campus. Today, there is only one remaining house within that same area.
Opened as Creighton College in 1878, the Creighton Hall was the original home of the entire university. Discover more of its history in my article, “A History of Creighton Hall.”
The first telescope was installed at the Creighton Observatory in 1886, just north and west of North 24th and Burt Streets. One of the oldest buildings on campus, the inside is not accessible to the public. Learn why in my article, “A History of the Creighton Observatory.”
St. John’s Collegiate Chapel
Dedicated in 1888, St. John’s was designed to be a massive edifice honoring the family supporting its construction. Its growth stalled for a bit until wealthy patrons started supporting it, and since then its grown and sustained its relevance for the whole city. The parish also kept St. John’s School for several decades. Learn more from my article, “A History of St. John’s Catholic Parish.”
Creighton Medical College
In 1895, John A. Creighton funded the construction of the Creighton Medical College at 306 North 14th Street. Affiliated with the new Creighton Memorial St. Joseph’s Hospital, the building was added onto when the College of Pharmacy was built in 1907. This building was demolished in 1969 to make room for Interstate 480.
There have been at least three stadiums at Creighton. The first was built in the 1890s and was oriented north-south near North 27th and Burt Streets. In 1912, seating was added to the field. The second was built in 1925, sat 15,000 spectators, and was oriented east-west near North 25th and Burt Streets. Used for decades, it also served the ROTC, track and field, and graduation ceremonies. The second stadium was demolished in 1963 to make room for the Criss I building. In the early 2000s, the Michael G. Morrison, S.J., Stadium was built on campus.
College of Commerce, Finance, and Journalism
The Creighton University College of Commerce, Finance, and Journalism was housed in this luxury tenement starting in 1923, and demolished in the 1950s. The tenement was built in the 1880s. Originally called the College of Commerce, Accounts and Finance, this school opened in 1920.
Creighton Law School
Creighton Law School began in 1904 as a joint project with the Omaha Bar Association. Located in the Edward Creighton Institute downtown, it stayed there until 1921. That year, the Creighton Law School opened on campus. It Is three stories tall with a full basement, and features tall windows and tall ceilings with several classrooms today. Its stands today near North 27th Plaza and California Street, and serves as the home of the departments of Communication Studies, Journalism, Mass Communications and Modern Languages. A nearly identical adjoining building that also housed the law school, as well as the dentistry school and school of fine arts, is now the home to the departments of Philosophy, Theology, Classics and History departments.
Built on the southwest corner of North 24th and Burt Streets in 1915, the Creighton Gymnasium was used for several decades. It stands today, and is called the Vinardi Center.
Creighton University St. Joseph Medical Center
Built in the 1970s to replace the historic St. Joseph’s Hospital, the medical center was a large, modern facility located on the southeast corner of North 30th and Cuming Streets. Covering more than 10 city blocks, it also housed the Boys Town National Research Hospital. As the teaching hospital for Creighton’s College of Medicine, College of Pharmacy, College of Nursing, College of Dentistry and the College of Health Careers, the hospital has gone through several name changes over the decades. In 2017, the hospital was closed and is being renovated into apartments and more.
Edward Creighton Institute
In 1905, the Edward Creighton Institute was opened at 210 South 18th Street. A catch-all building of sorts, the five-story building was constructed in 1888 and in the family’s possession until they signed it over to the university. It served as home to many different university programs over the years. Some of the original occupants in the building included the law school and law library, the dentistry school, the pharmacy department, and the medical school. There was also a large auditorium in the building. By 1921, Creighton built new facilities for each of the schools in the institute and sold the building. E. W. Arthur bought it, and sold it to Guarantee Mutual in the 1940s. They sold it and the Arthur Building was demolished in 1957 to become a parking lot. Today, there’s a large parking garage in its place.
An interesting historic building that’s almost 140-years-old sits on the Creighton campus. It has been homes, a boarding house, offices and a priest’s hall, and is called Campion House. Learn more from my article, “A History of Campion House in North Omaha.”
Other Historic Buildings
Other buildings throughout the history of Creighton University include the Dowling Memorial Arts Building, the Auditorium, the heating plant and the dental school. There was also a chemistry laboratory in a retro-fitted house, and the St. John’s Dormitory, a male student dorm that was built in 1907. It was repurposed and renamed Wareham Hall in 1934. It was located at North 25th and California Streets before being demolished around 1925. Many of the other buildings mentioned here were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1950s and 60s, the university became determined to modernize their architecture and expand the campus. Among several others, the College of Business Administration was dedicated in 1961, and a Leo A. Daly design was used for the new Science Building constructed in 1963. In 1968, the Rigge Science Building was completed. Most of the new buildings were designed in the Mid-Century Modern style, with a lot of glass and simplistic façades. The Gallagher Hall was opened at 2619 California Street in 1966.
There were also several fraternity houses affiliated with Creighton spread throughout North Omaha. There were houses at 2123 Cass Street, 118 South 25th Avenue, and 2018 Wirt Street. The final remaining residential house in proximity to the campus today stands on the east side of the former Creighton University St. Joseph Health Center at 515 North 28th Avenue. It was built around 1919, and stands today as a final remanent of the neighborhood that used to be in the area.
After it was closed in 1969, neighboring St. John’s School was renamed Bergan Hall and became home to the university office of public relations and alumni, the university’s foundation, a counseling center and offices for the faculty of the department of education. The building was demolished in 1975 to make way for Kiewit Physical Fitness Center.
The final historic element of the campus worth detailing is the Jesuit Garden. Intended as a place of quiet contemplation in the heart of the campus, the Jesuit Garden was a longtime site for commencement marches by graduates, alumni and others. It stands today between Creighton Hall and the Observatory building.
Creighton University Historic District
A proposed historic district would extend from the North Freeway on the west, to North 24th Street on the south, and from Burt Street on the north and I-480 on the south. The buildings included were built between 1888 and 1930 in either the Gothic Revival or Art Deco styles, along with the Mid-Century Modern buildings from the 1950s and 1960s. The buildings include:
- Creighton Hall, built in 1878
- St. John’s Collegiate Church, built in 1888
- House, 515 North 28th Avenue, built in est 1919)
- Hitchcock Communication Arts Building, built in 1920
- Dowling Humanities Building, built in 1920
- Old Gymnasium, built in 1915
- Athletic Center
- Markoe Hall, 2439 Burt Street, built in est 1920; dedicated in 1982
- Father Francis Deglman Hall, built in 1955
- Mary Rodgers Brandeis Hall, built in est 1964
- W. Clarke Swanson Hall, built in 1964
- Reinert Alumni Memorial Library, built in 1980
- Kiewit Hall, built in 1964
- Becker Hall, built in 1965
- Gallagher Hall, built in 1961
- College of Business Administration, built in 1961
- Rigge Science Center, built in 1968
- Criss I Building, built in 1963
- Criss Health Sciences Center, built in 1966
Creighton Alumni In North Omaha History
There are many, many alumni of Creighton University who matter to North Omaha.
Early in the university’s history, a young African American who would become a Black nationalist leader in the United States went to Creighton. His name was George Wells Parker (1882-1931), and he was a writer and newspaper publisher in Omaha. After attending Creighton around the turn of the 20th century, he left to graduate from Harvard.
One of them was Judge Elizabeth Pittman (1921-1998), who in 1948 became first African American female to graduate from Creighton University Law School, and in 1973 she was awarded with an honorary doctorate. In 1998, Creighton dedicated the Educational Opportunity Center – Judge Elizabeth Pittman Building on campus to mark the 50th anniversary graduation there. Today, Creighton honors a Black law student with the “Elizabeth Pittman Award” every year. Bob Gibson (b 1935) went to Creighton on an athletic scholarship, and graduated in 1957. He went on to become a significant major league baseball player, winning a world series, winning many awards and joining the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the most relevant North Omaha graduate from Creighton is Ernie Chambers (b 1937), the longest-serving senator in Nebraska history. He is also the only African American to ever run for Nebraska governor and the US Senate in the state’s history. He graduated from Creighton in 1959 and completed his law school degree in 1979.
Cathy Hughes (b 1947) attended Creighton, too. After getting her start in radio in Omaha, Hughes went on to become founder and chairman of Radio One, the first publicly traded corporation headed by an African American woman. She is also the namesake of Howard University’s School of Communications. Her father, William Alfred Woods, was the first African-American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton around 1946.
J. Clay Smith Jr. (1942-2018) graduated from Creighton in 1964. A lawyer, he was appointed to President Jimmy Carter’s Equal Opportunity Commission, then served on the faculty of Howard University. Paul Silas (b 1943) was an NBA player and head coach who also graduated in 1964.
Major General Marcia M. Anderson (b 1957) graduated from Creighton in 1979, and became first African-American female to attain rank of major general in the Army Reserves. Local African American Judge Wadie Thomas (b c1967) earned his JD at Creighton in 1980, and served the courts for 22 years as a judge. Longtime North Omaha politician Brenda Council (b 1955) received her JD from Creighton In 1977.
Political operative Symone Sanders (b 1989) graduated from Creighton in 2013, and has since worked on presidential campaigns for Bernie Danders and Joe Biden.
As a university, Creighton has invited, hosted and otherwise fostered controversy of many kinds throughout the years. With 15,000 African American residents of Omaha mostly living immediately north of the campus, Creighton’s longtime practice of keeping African Americans from studying at the school amounted to de facto segregation. In 1948, several African Americans reported the Creighton School of Dentistry refused them service because of their race. This wasn’t an isolated incident, either.
Maybe this is why one of the most outstanding controversies in the history of Creighton University focused on a Civil Rights organization.
In 1947, Rev. John Markoe established the DePorres Club on campus. Focused on fighting for against racism throughout Omaha, the club practiced nonviolence while protesting segregationist hiring practices, picketing businesses that discriminated against African American customers, and regularly engaged both Black and white high school and college students in taking action. A Creighton magazine wrote a feature on Markoe in the 1990s, saying “The De Porres Club pioneered techniques of fighting segregation that became famous in the South a decade later.” What that led to a year after their founding was an expulsion from campus.
It took more than 25 years, but by the 1980s the university realized the errors of their ways. In 1982, campus leaders named the original campus home of the DePorres Club as the Markoe Hall, and it stands near North 24th and Burt Streets today. The club has been recognized for their actions too, but Creighton has never issued a formal apology for their segregationist practices leading up to modern times.
Creighton in Modern Times
Creighton University has played a substantial role in the history of North Omaha, and over the last 50 years has been viewed as both a positive and negative force by the community.
Growth and Gentrification
In the last 20 years, the university has pursued an aggressive plan of expansion affecting the entire North Omaha community. They have bought the majority of landing to the east of the campus, and continue to be the major landholder between North 16th and North 30th Streets, from Cuming to Cass Streets. They also own land north of Cuming and east of 16th. There is a growing awareness that this development will foster gentrification throughout the North Omaha community.
Currently, the university enrolls just over 8,000 students. With an expansion campus in Phoenix, the Omaha campus is growing rapidly too. The schools of medicine, business and dentistry are expanding, and campus facilities have been growing in size for years.
Since 2000, Creighton has built new facilities for administration, student housing, academics and athletics. Campus size grew by 40 acres to a total of 130, and enrollment increased 14 percent. New construction in the last 20 years has included…
- Davis Square and Opus Hall
- Hixson-Lied Science Building
- Mike and Josie Harper Center for Student Life and Learning, featuring a 500-seat auditorium, campus bookstore, fitness center and a ballroom
- Michael G. Morrison, S.J., Stadium
- Wayne and Eileen Ryan Athletic Center/D.J. Sokol Arena, with athletic staff offices, locker rooms, ticket offices and athletic training facilities
To its credit, many of the new buildings constructed recently have been designed in a historically respectful way, paying homage to the red brick construction of older Creighton buildings while maintaining modern aesthetics.
However, in order to construct these facilities and expand their land holdings, Creighton University has demolished more than 50 buildings between North 24th and North 16th Streets, more than 75% of which were historic in nature. Making inroads towards the African American heart of Omaha, the university has also built facilities north of Cuming Street for the first time. This is very controversial and the damage caused to the community is largely ignored by the university.
Creighton University History Timeline
- 1820: Edward Creighton was born.
- 1831: John A. Creighton was born.
- 1834: Mary Lucretia Wareham Creighton was born.
- 1840: Sarah Emily Wareham Creighton was born.
- 1860: Edward Creighton came to Omaha.
- 1868: John married Sarah Emily Wareham, a younger sister of Mary Lucretia Creighton.
- 1874: Edward Creighton died.
- 1876: Mary Lucretia Creighton died.
- 1878: Creighton College was opened with money bequeathed by Mary Creighton in honor of her late husband Edward Creighton.
- 1878: Creighton Hall is completed.
- 1878: Creighton High School was opened within Creighton Hall.
- 1886: The first part of the Creighton Observatory was completed.
- 1887: The College of Arts and Sciences was formally established.
- 1888: Sarah Emily Wareham died.
- 1888: St. John’s Collegiate Chapel was dedicated.
- 1892: The College of Medicine was opened.
- 1892: After joining the first class of the College of Medicine, Kate Drake was the first female student at Creighton.
- 1893: The university conferred the first master’s degree.
- 1895: The first permanent home of the College of Medicine was opened at the corner of 14th and Davenport streets with funds from John A. Creighton.
- 1895: Pope Leo XIII named John Creighton a Knight of the Holy Roman Empire for his philanthropic support of Creighton University and other Catholic works.
- 1897: St. John’s parish was established, allowing the church to conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals.
- 1903: The College of Dentistry was established.
- 1904: College of Pharmacy was established, and is today called the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions.
- 1904: The College of Law was opened in a building downtown.
- 1906: The dentistry college absorbed the Omaha Dental College.
- 1907: John A. Creighton died.
- 1907: The Creighton Medical College was expanded to include the new College of Pharmacy.
- 1907: St. John’s Dormitory was built on the southeast corner of North 25th and California as one of the first dorms at Creighton.
- 1910: The Creighton Observatory was renovated when North 24th Street was widened.
- 1915: A new gymnasium was built, and is now called the Old Gymnasium.
- 1920: St. John’s was expanded.
- 1920: A building 2439 Burt Street was opened. It was dedicated to Father Markoe in 1982.
- 1920: The College of Commerce, Accounts and Finance, now called the Hitchcock Communication Arts Building, was opened.
- 1921: The College of Law moved to the building now called the Dowling Humanities Building.
- 1922: St. John’s was expanded again, nearly doubling its size.
- 1923: The ground was broke on the Dowling Memorial Arts Building.
- 1924: The Omaha Bee hosted a competition to name Creighton’s mascot, leading to the adoption of the Bluejay.
- 1924: The College of Commerce, Finance, and Journalism was built at 417 North 25th Street.
- 1926: The Graduate School was established as a separate division.
- 1930: An Art Moderne façade was added to the main entrance of Creighton Hall.
- 1934: St. John’s Dorm repurposed and renamed Wareham Hall to house public relations and human resources offices, and more.
- 1934: Dowling Hall was built.
- 1939: Walt Beal opened his cafe at North 24th and California, becoming an exclusive haunt for Creighton students and staff until it closed in 1986.
- 1946: Creighton ended its football program permanently.
- 1947: The DePorres Club, an early student-driven Civil Rights group, is started on campus.
- 1948: DePorres Club is expelled from campus.
- 1951: The College of Arts and Sciences allowed women students for the first time.
- 1951: Mary Hall, a dorm for women from out-of-state, was opened in a converted house at 520 North 26th Street.
- 1956: Father Francis Deglman Hall and Mary Rogers Brandeis Hall were opened.
- 1958: The nursing program began offering four-year degrees.
- 1959: Agnew Hall was opened in a former apartment building.
- 1961: The College of Business Administration building was opened.
- 1961: Gallagher Hall was opened.
- 1963: The Criss I Building was opened.
- 1964: Kiewit Hall was opened.
- 1964: W. Clarke Swanson Hall was opened.
- 1964: Mary Rodgers Brandeis Hall was opened.
- 1965: Becker Hall was opened.
- 1966: The Criss Health Sciences Center was opened.
- 1966: The Criss III Building was opened.
- 1966: Agnew Hall was demolished to make room for I-480.
- 1968: The Rigge Science Center was opened.
- 1969: The original College of Medicine and College of Pharmacy was demolished.
- 1969: The old St. John’s School was renamed Bergan Hall.
- 1975: Bergan Hall was demolished.
Thanks to Steve Sleeper and Michele Wyman for their assistance with this article.
You Might Like…
- A History of Higher Education in North Omaha
- A History of North Omaha’s Holy Family Parish
- A History of 24th Street in North Omaha
- “History,” official Creighton University website
- “History of St. John’s,” official St. John’s website
- “Creighton Development and Expansion” by Sharon Tighe-Dolan, Kendall Schrader & Zachary Fowler (a great pictorial history!)
- Creighton University Archives official website
- “Creighton University Blackwolves Division History,” US Army official website.
- “Proposed Creighton University Campus Historic District Boundaries” in Reconnaissance Survey of Downtown and Columbus Park Omaha by Mead & Hunt for the City of Omaha and Nebraska State Historical Society.
- “Creighton University Campus Map,” official Creighton University map
- “Creighton University Self-Guided Tour” from the Creighton University Office of Enrollment Management
- “Chapter X: A New Era Of Progress – 1959-1970”
- “Father Markoe: A life on the front lines for racial equality,” by Bob Reilly for Window magazine in Winter 1995-1996.