Mother Margaret Burke

Forgotten history

Planned partnership

In the 1960s, the University almost brought a Catholic women’s college to Woodlawn.

Katherine Muhlenkamp

In May 1967 a trio of Chicago Maroon reporters spent “two days of investigation” at the leafy Lake Forest, Illinois, campus of Barat College of the Sacred Heart. The reporters bemusedly noted that bikini-clad students at the Catholic, all-female school “had taken a break from classes” to sunbathe on a dormitory rooftop, depicting the campus vibe as a stark contrast to the activist UChicago scene—Barat women had never heard of Students for a Democratic Society and “could see no need for it when told what it was.”

Perhaps the differences seemed so marked because their paths were about to converge. At the time, Barat president Mother Margaret Burke and UChicago provost Edward Levi, U-High’28, PhB’32, JD’35, were discussing the relocation of Barat to Woodlawn so their schools could enter “into a relationship of cooperation,” as Burke put it in a letter to Levi. Barat had already moved several times before: in 1858, five members of the French order Religious of the Sacred Heart founded the college on Wabash Avenue, and the school had various city addresses before settling in Lake Forest in 1904.

After a February 1967 meeting with Levi, Burke wrote formally requesting an affiliation. “Barat College would retain its own institutional autonomy: administration, trustees, faculty, and award its own degrees,” she wrote. Barat students would “enroll in some of the College courses, credit to be transferred to Barat, have the use of the University libraries, health service, recreational and athletic facilities, and participate in some University student activities.” 

As president of a small liberal arts college—47 faculty, 583 students—with limited resources, Burke foresaw her school’s demise if it didn’t attain access to better facilities, top scholars, an expanded curriculum, and coed environment: “Barat must look to the future,” she wrote to alumnae.

It’s less clear what UChicago had to gain, but dean of the College Wayne Booth, AM’47, PhD’50, and two faculty councils joined Levi and President George Beadle in embracing the idea. Barat was known as a haven for social elites: “We should not underestimate the great public relations benefits to the University community of such a move,” an April memo to Levi states. “The Religious of the Sacred Heart are, without question, the most socially prominent and cosmopolitan of all the orders operating Catholic colleges in the States. ... Young Caroline Kennedy now attends a school run by this order.” Vassar College’s president wrote Booth, “A move by Barat into your vicinity would undoubtedly help the image of the neighborhood.” One administrator told the Maroon Barat would offer strong French and performing arts departments, as well as the prospect of a livelier social scene. Reporters, however, suspected that University leadership was also looking to insulate the campus, referring to “a near-impregnable wall of 600 Catholic girls between Woodlawn and the soft UC intellectual underbelly.”

A press release announcing Barat’s proposed relocation was issued May 15. Burke commissioned consulting firm Heald, Hobson, and Associates to evaluate the feasibility of her plan. Meanwhile UChicago administrators identified several areas between 60th and 61st Streets as possible sites, with the block between Woodlawn and Kimbark a front-runner.

The Maroon reported student reactions, mostly neutral but with some sarcastic asides: “What they’re going to have to do is build a gigantic ivory tower there in Woodlawn with tunnels to the library and the hospital.” One UChicago graduate student and Barat alumna wrote in to fend off the snarky comments—“‘Don’t let those little girls come down here on our campus, we’re too mean.’ Come on now, fellows, we’re not quite that protected.”

Ultimately, the talk of towers and tunnels was moot. Burke may have done the courting, but it was she who kissed the partnership goodbye. In October 1967, after the feasibility report estimated Barat would need more than $7 million for the move, Burke told Levi the deal was off. Rumors circulated that the University of Notre Dame was wooing Barat, promising to finance relocation to South Bend, Indiana. But Barat remained in Lake Forest until it closed in 2005, its students and faculty absorbed by DePaul University. In a parting letter to Beadle, Burke said she would remember Barat’s UChicago flirtation fondly: “We will follow the progress of the University with deep interest and a good bit of nostalgia.”


Mother Margaret Burke, president of Barat College of the Sacred Heart, and UChicago provost Edward Levi once planned “a relationship of cooperation.” (Photo courtesy DePaul University Special Collections & Archives)