As Saint Leo University concludes the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1889, the final installment of Highlights in History takes a look forward.

This is the 10th and final installment of Highlights in History, a series of feature stories, profiles, and anecdotes recounting the significance of important events in the history of Saint Leo University, which is currently commemorating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1889.

By Kim Payne, University Communications

During the previous nine issues of the Highlights in History series, we have taken a trip down memory lane to recount some of the significant people, events, and occurrences in the history of Saint Leo University.

In this last chapter, rather than offering a final retrospective, we'll examine eight areas of Saint Leo today and take a look forward – to the future of this great institution, while comparing it to milestones from our past.

Catholic Identity

As Florida's oldest Catholic institution of higher education, Saint Leo has centuries-old roots in the Benedictine tradition, and has a proud heritage that is home to all faiths. Our Office of University Ministry serves our students with daily Masses, outreach, and community involvement. Since summer of 2005, graduate courses in theology have been offered at Saint Leo as part of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies Program.  As of 2013, the renamed Master of Arts in Theology has successfully graduated more than 100 students. As of Fall 2012, the M.A. in Theology has been offered online as well.


The university has always been progressive in its thinking and action—from being the first to admit a black student in 1898, during a time when educational integration was illegal in Florida, to being consistently ranked among the top 10 degree-granting institutions for minority students by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine. The October 2014 issue ranked the university in the Top 50 in four categories, which reflects the diversity of backgrounds, places, and cultures.

Community Service

Three years after assuming the presidency of the newly named Saint Leo College in 1961, Father Stephen Herrmann introduced "student service," which he believed would allow students to embrace the significance of community values. It required each student to give four hours a week in unpaid labor in some campus capacity.

More than 50 years later, community service is a mainstay at Saint Leo. In 2013, Saint Leo University was named to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for measurable acts of community service by students, faculty, and staff. Demonstrating Saint Leo's core values in action, the university has worked with a wide range of local and national agencies, including Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Clubs, Meals on Wheels, Feeding Children Everywhere, Make-A-Wish, Metropolitan Ministries, local schools, area animal shelters, and nursing homes.

Academic Advancements

Since the beginning, Saint Leo has emphasized academic achievement and excellence. In his remarks at the dedication of St. Leo's College on September 14, 1890, Abbot Leo Haid, OSB, the institution's first president said, in part, that "St. Leo's would be for Florida what the Benedictine colleges had been in Europe for 1,300 years." He outlined the work of the Catholic Church, adding as his final point: "to educate mankind in all that is worth knowing."  He set a high benchmark for all those who followed in his footsteps.

Today Saint Leo University stresses the importance of a student-centered environment and is committed to small class sizes and personal attention. The general education curriculum, University Explorations, was created to equip students to think critically and to read, write, and communicate effectively, no matter what their major. Students enroll at University Campus, at more than 40 teaching locations in seven states, or online. Saint Leo is regarded as a leader in online education, providing that same personal attention to students all over the world.

Student-Athlete Excellence

Athletics has always played an important role in the experience of all of its students. From the early days of Saint Leo Prep and Holy Name Academy, sports and recreation have always been actively promoted. In 1894, the Florida Times-Union wrote: "Life is not a dull routine of praying and studying at St. Leo for the students support musical, literary, and athletic societies." Baseball was the all-time favorite sport at Saint Leo. There was a "College Base Ball League" as early as 1890-1891, and by the following year there were two "base ball" teams. St. Gilbert, a giant whaleboat, could hold nearly the entire student body in 1908. Lake Jovita was a favorite spot for fishing and boating. As far back as 1896, there was a "hand ball alley," and bicycling was the campus fad in 1897.

Today the Saint Leo University Athletics Department is represented by more than 350 student-athletes in 19 Division II intercollegiate sports programs. In 2013-2014, the Lions celebrated the best year in the program's history. The department-wide highlights included:

  • Second-straight Sunshine State Conference Men's Division Mayors' Cup Title
  • Highest-ever Sunshine State Conference Women's Division Mayors' Cup finish (4th)
  • 18th place finish in the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup Standings – highest in program history
  • 72 student-athletes named to the Fall 2013 Dean's List
  • 48 student-athletes named to DII Athletic Directors Association (ADA) Honor Roll
  • 174 student-athletes named to the Sunshine State Conference Commissioner's Honor Roll
  • For 2013-2014 academic year, the cumulative student-athlete GPA was 3.16

In addition, Saint Leo currently provides a 4,000-square-foot fitness center for employees and students, offering a variety of classes, as well as an outdoor swimming pool. University Campus facilities support intramural flag football, basketball, ultimate Frisbee, soccer, and other sports. Students and employees also have access to a ropes course that is designed to promote effective communication and teamwork in a group setting, while encouraging individuals to challenge themselves in a safe and friendly environment. 

Military Support

For its first 13 years of existence, Saint Leo was a military college (1890-1903). The military aspect of the institution impacted the school three other times: in 1908-1909, as an effort to restore values from earlier days; in 1918-1920, as part of the fervent atmosphere of World War I; and in 1942-1943 in the spirit of national preparedness during WW II.  The purpose was to train students for military careers.

Saint Leo University is proud to have a continued commitment as a military-supportive institution. In 2013, the institution held a year-long celebration marking our 40th anniversary of educating those brave men and women who selflessly serve our nation to ensure our freedom.

It was more than 40 years ago, in 1973, that our institution first began offering classes to 176 military students at the Avon Park Bomber Range in Highlands Park, FL, and later that year on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. In the decades since, our nationwide presence has expanded to education centers in seven states, including on military bases and as stand-alone locations, and throughout the world online. This past academic year we enrolled nearly 5,700 veterans as students and nearly 5,000 active-duty servicemembers, reservists, and their families. GI Jobs magazine consistently includes Saint Leo University of "Military Friendly Schools."

Faculty Recognition

The 32 students of pioneer year of 1890-1891 had but four faculty members. In 1965, there were 21 Benedictine priests and nuns on the Saint Leo College faculty. By 1969, the number was reduced to 12, and by 1975, only five. Since 1959, lay faculty, monks, and sisters have continually taught students at Saint Leo College and Saint Leo University. Today, Saint Leo employs 1,367 total faculty university-wide with 238 full-time faculty. As of August 2014, adjunct faculty totaled 1,129. We continue to attract highly talented and experienced instructors. Many of our faculty have earned special commendations and are widely published. Our students benefit from these faculty members who are role models within the classroom and the community.

Growth and Expansion

From modest beginnings with the original Saint Leo College main and monastery buildings, completed in 1890 at a cost of $10,000, Saint Leo has grown considerably over the years. Starting with its initial conception in 1898 to its occupation in 1912, it took 14 years to build Saint Leo Abbey. In 1920, a "college annex" was added as an extension to the monastery.

During the nine decades since, a series of construction projects have expanded and improved University Campus. In October 2011, Saint Leo dedicated the building that houses the Donald R. Tapia School of Business, a state-of-the art, LEED Gold certified facility. A new, four-story, 48,000-square-foot academic building, currently under construction at a cost of $14 million, will be finished in time for Fall Semester 2015. When this building is complete, it will be the 11th new building, in addition to two renovations, within the last 13 years.

While many other institutions of higher education are downsizing or closing, Saint Leo University has experienced remarkable growth with increased enrollments, an expansion of programs, and construction of new facilities.

What the Future Holds

Saint Leo has a proud history and no doubt a bright future. We will remain committed to our student-centered mission, all the while being innovative, entrepreneurial, aggressive, and agile. With the dedicated efforts of our faculty, staff, and administration, we will continue to be a leading Catholic teaching institution of international consequence for the 21st century.

Source Information:Information was excerpted from Pioneer College: The Centennial History of Saint Leo College, Saint Leo Abbey, and Holy Name Priory by James J. Horgan (Saint Leo College Press, 1989).

Kim Payne joined Saint Leo's University Communications office in 2013 as the staff writer and media coordinator. A 30-year professional communicator, he has worked in environments ranging from corporate to health care to advertising agencies and non-profits. Outside the office, he and his wife, Sue, enjoy playing golf and are huge hockey fans.  You can reach Kim in UC at 352-588-7233 or