Theta Phi Alpha’s roots can be traced to the 1909 establishment of a local organization, Omega Upsilon, at the University of Michigan. Father Edward D. Kelly, a Catholic priest and the pastor of the student chapel at Michigan, felt that there should be an organization that could provide the Catholic women at Michigan with an environment that “resembled the Catholic homes from which they came.” This was in a time and place when Catholics were not always welcome in the other fraternal organizations on campus.
By 1912, after Father Kelly left campus and became the Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit*, Omega Upsilon was struggling, likely because there were no alumnae to guide the organization. Even without him being in Ann Arbor, Bishop Kelly’s vision that the Catholic women at Michigan should have a place to call their own was still alive. He enlisted the assistance of Amelia McSweeney, a University of Michigan alumna, Class of 1898. Together with seven Omega Upsilon alumnae, plans were made to establish a new organization. Theta Phi Alpha was founded on August 30, 1912 at the University of Michigan. The ten founders were seven Omega Upsilon alumnae, two Omega Upsilon undergraduates and Ms. McSwenney.
Since most schools are not in session on August 30, Founders’ Day is celebrated on April 30, the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena. Her motto, “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring,” is also the motto of Theta Phi Alpha.
The chapter at Michigan remained a local until 1919 when a chapter was formed at the University of Illinois. In 1941, Theta Phi Alpha began expansion to Catholic universities institutions of higher education with the addition of a chapter at Marquette University.
Pi Lambda Sigma was founded as a Catholic sorority at Boston University in June 1921. On June 28, 1952, Pi Lambda Sigma merged with Theta Phi Alpha. The members of the Pi Lambda Sigma chapters at Boston University and the University of Cincinnati became members of the Theta Phi Alpha chapters on the respective campuses. The chapter at Creighton University became the Chi Chapter of Theta Phi Alpha in the fall of 1952 and the Quincy College chapter became the Psi Chapter of Theta Phi Alpha in 1954.
I first heard of Theta Phi Alpha when on a Homecoming weekend in the 1970s, I was sitting on the porch of the Pi Phi house at Syracuse University. Several alumnae stopped by to chat. With them was a Theta Phi Alpha who said that the chapter had closed and her house was no longer standing. Indeed, the Lambda Chapter of Theta Phi Alpha, installed in 1923, closed in 1968. The chapter assets were turned over to the Catholic Newman Center. The Alibrandi Center is located upon the site of the former Theta Phi Alpha house. There is a plaque inside the center thanking the Theta Phi Alphas for their generosity.
Theta Phi Alpha’s Silver Jubilee convention was held in Ann Arbor in 1937. Ann Arbor will also be the site of the Centennial Convention to be held in July 2012. Happy Founders’ Day, Theta Phi Alpha!!!
*He ultimately became the Bishop of Grand Rapids and served in that capacity from 1919 until his death in 1926.