J. Havens Richards

Joseph Havens Richards SJ (born Havens Cowles Richards; November 8, 1851 – June 9, 1923) was an American Catholic priest and Jesuit who became a prominent president of Georgetown University, where he instituted major reforms and significantly increased the quality and stature of the university. Born to a prominent Ohio family, his father was an Episcopal priest who controversially converted to Catholicism, and had the infant Richards secretly baptized as a Catholic. Richards eventually entered the Society of Jesus.

J. Havens Richards

31st President of Georgetown University
In office
Preceded byJames A. Doonan
Succeeded byJohn D. Whitney
Personal details
Havens Cowles Richards

(1851-11-08)November 8, 1851
Columbus, Ohio, United States
DiedJune 9, 1923(1923-06-09) (aged 71)
Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.
Alma mater
OrdinationAugust 29, 1885
by James Gibbons

Richards became the president of Georgetown University in 1888, and undertook significant construction, such the completion of Healy Hall, which included work on Gaston Hall and Riggs Library, and construction of Dahlgren Chapel. Richards sought to transform Georgetown into a modern, comprehensive, and high-caliber university. To that end, he significantly bolstered the graduate programs, expanded the Medical and Law Schools, established the Georgetown University Hospital, improved the astronomical observatory, and recruited prominent faculty. He also navigated tensions with the newly established Catholic University of America, some proponents of which called for the closure or downsizing of Georgetown. Richards fought anti-Catholic discrimination among universities of the Ivy League, which resulted in Harvard Law School admitting graduates of some Jesuit universities.

Upon the end of his term in 1923, Richards engaged in pastoral work attached to Jesuit educational institutions throughout the northeastern United States. He became the president of Regis High School and the Loyola School in New York City in 1915, and then was made superior of the Jesuit retreat center on Manresa Island in Connecticut. Richards died at the College of the Holy Cross in 1923.

Early life

Richards as a student at Boston College

Havens Cowles Richards was born on November 8, 1851, in Columbus, Ohio.[1] His parents were Henry Livingston Richards[lower-alpha 1] and Cynthia Cowles, who married on May 1, 1842, in Worthington, Ohio. Havens Cowles was the youngest of eight children, three of whom died in infancy. His surviving siblings were: Laura Isabella (b. 1843), Henry Livingston, Jr. (b. 1846), and William Douglas (b. 1848).[3]

Henry Livingston Richards was an Episcopal priest and the pastor of a church in Columbus. To the surprise of many, on January 25, 1852, he sought to convert to Catholicism, two months after Havens Cowles' birth.[4] He was said to have been moved during a visit to New Orleans, where he saw whites and enslaved blacks receiving the Eucharist side by side at the altar rail in a Catholic church.[5] He was baptized by Caspar Henry Borgess at the Church of the Holy Cross in Columbus. One day, following his conversion, he snuck out of the house with the infant Havens Cowles and brought him to Holy Cross, where Havens Cowles Richards was also baptized by Borgess. These two conversions disturbed Havens Cowles' mother, Cynthia, who was Episcopalian, and her relatives encouraged her to leave her husband. Likewise, Henry Livingston was ostracized by his family and acquaintances in Ohio. As a result, he abandoned his ministry and moved to New York City to search for work in business, leaving his family in the care of his father in Granville, Ohio.[4] While there, Cynthia Cowles followed her husband in converting to Catholicism. She moved with her children to Jersey City, New Jersey in September 1855,[6] and was conditionally baptized on May 14, 1856, at St. Peter's Church. All the other children were eventually baptized as well.[1]


Richards was born into a prominent family, which traced its lineage to colonial America on both his paternal and maternal sides.[7] His uncle was Orestes Brownson, a Catholic activist and intellectual.[8] On his mother's side, he was a descendant of James Kilbourne, an army colonel who led a regiment on the American frontier in the War of 1812, founded the city of Worthington, Ohio, and became a United States Representative from Ohio.[9]

On his father's side, Richards' lineage included a number of men who fought in the American Revolutionary War, such as William Richards (his great-grandfather), who led a contingent of troops that partook in the siege at the Battle of Fort Slongo,[10] and who later fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill as a colonel. Through William Richards, he traces his ancestry to James Richards, who is documented in 1634 as residing on the Eel River in Plymouth, Massachusetts.[2]


Richards as a young Jesuit

Richards' father sought to send all of his children to Catholic schools, but at times, was unable to.[11] Therefore, Richards attended both Catholic and public schools in Jersey City.[2] At the age of fourteen, he quit school and took up work for his father as a bookkeeper. However, four years later, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts with his father, where they both worked in the steel industry.[5] In September 1869, Richards enrolled at Boston College. The rest of his family joined them in Boston in July of that year. Richards remained at Boston College for three years, where he was active in sports,[5] before entering the Society of Jesus and proceeding to the novitiate in Frederick, Maryland on August 7, 1872.[12] Upon entering the order, he changed his name to Joseph Havens Richards.[3]

At the end of his probationary period, Richards was sent to Woodstock College in 1874, where he studied philosophy for four years.[5] He then went to Georgetown University as a professor of physics and mathematics,[12] and did work in chemistry during his vacations.[5] During the summers of 1879 and 1880, he was sent by the Jesuit provincial superior to study at Harvard University.[13] In July 1883, he returned to Woodstock for four years of theological studies. The provincial superior made an exception for Richards to be ordained after only two years of theology because his father was ill.[12] Therefore, on August 29, 1885, he was ordained a priest by James Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore, in the college's chapel.[5] He then completed his theological studies at Woodstock in 1887, and returned to Frederick to do his tertianship.[12]

Georgetown University

Richards in 1890

Immediately after the completion of his Jesuit formation, Richards was made the rector and president of Georgetown University, taking office on August 15, 1888,[14] and succeeding James A. Doonan.[15] He had an ambitious plan to transform Georgetown into a modern, comprehensive university that would be the leading university of both the Catholic Church and the United States.[16] This role would be amplified by the fact that the university was located in the nation's capital.[17]

Curriculum improvements

Though Richards sought to dispel that perception that Jesuit schools were of inferior quality than their secular counterparts, he maintained that the curriculum of the Ratio Studiorum should be preserved.[18] Therefore, he revitalized the graduate programs of the university. He introduced new courses in the Law School, and oversaw construction of a new building in 1892. He also sought to establish an electrical, chemical, and civil engineering program, but this did not come to fruition.[19] For the first time, upon his instruction, graduates of the university were authorized to wear a hood as part of their academic regalia.[20] Richards succeeded in bringing prominent faculty from Europe onto the Georgetown faculty, as well as recruiting distinguished researchers from the Smithsonian Institution.[17]

Richards on the steps of Healy Hall

Graduate courses in the arts and sciences were re-established in 1889, and courses in theology and philosophy returned to the university, which had previously been removed to Boston and then to Woodstock College.[19] Richards sharply criticized the decision to remove the theological training of Jesuits from Georgetown to the "semi-wilderness" of Woodstock, which was "remote from libraries, from contact with the learned world, and from all the stimulating influences which affect intellectual life."[21]

Richards enlarged the School of Medicine by establishing a chair and laboratory of bacteriology, increasing the number of instructors in anatomy, physiology, and surgery, and improving the chemistry curriculum.[19] He also standardized the curriculum, and increased its duration from three to four years.[17] The property of the medical school, which theretofore had been owned by its own legal corporation was transferred to the President and Directors of Georgetown College, giving Richards authority over the appointment of professors.[19] Richards also desired to have a hospital adjoined to the medical school, but there was initially little interest in this among faculty and donors.[22] Eventually, the Georgetown University Hospital was completed in 1898, and it was put under the care of the Sisters of Saint Francis.[23]

Richards also worked with Bishop John Keane to address tensions with the newly established Catholic University of America, run by the American bishops.[24] Many feared that it would interfere with Georgetown University,[24] and it did indeed seek to take control of Georgetown's law and medical schools as its own. This proposal was approved by the Jesuit Superior General, Luis Martín, who feared that the Vatican might suppress Georgetown altogether if it did not acquiesce. However, the faculty of the law and medical schools publicly protested the proposal, and Catholic University dropped its plans.[25] Eventually, an agreement was reached that Catholic University would focus exclusively on the graduate education of secular priests.[24]


Early photograph of Dahlgren Chapel (c.1904)

Richards' most immediate task upon taking office was the completion of Healy Hall, construction of which began in 1877 under Patrick F. Healy, but whose interior remained unfinished. He was able to have the bulk of the work complete by February 20, 1889, the date on which the university began its three-day centenary celebration.[26] Within Healy Hall, he made improvements to Gaston Hall,[27] and oversaw the start of work on Riggs Library.[28] Richards improved the university's astronomical observatory, which raised the stature of the university in scientific circles. He additionally invited Johann Hagen to take charge of the observatory.[27]

In 1892, he received a donation from Elizabeth Wharton Drexel for the construction of Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart. That year, he also procured the library of John Gilmary Shea, which extensively documented the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.[22] Richards' presidency came to an end on July 3, 1898,[29] after experiencing worsening health for two years,[30] and he was succeeded by John D. Whitney.[15]

Anti-Catholicism in the Ivy League

Richards also took up the cause of fighting discrimination against Catholics by prominent Protestant universities, especially those of the Ivy League. In 1893, James Jeffrey Roche, the editor of the Catholic Boston newspaper The Pilot, wrote Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard University, about the fact that no Catholic universities were included on the list of universities whose graduates were automatically eligible for admission to Harvard Law School.[31] Eliot's response, which was published in The Pilot, was that the quality of education at Catholic universities was inferior to that offered at their Protestant counterparts. Richards and other Catholic educators had long believed that anti-Catholic discrimination had been at work at Protestant colleges.[13]

Richards sought a retraction from Eliot, writing to him that graduates of reputable Catholic colleges were better prepared to study law than any other college graduates, and included information on Georgetown's curriculum. Eliot responded by adding Georgetown, the College of the Holy Cross, and Boston College to the list. Upon the provincial superior's instruction, Richards then unsuccessfully lobbied to have all 24 Jesuit colleges in the United States added to the list.[13]

Pastoral work

Richards in later life

Following his retirement from the presidency, Richards became the spiritual father of the novitiate in Frederick.[30] He remained interested in Georgetown's astronomical observatory, and petitioned to have a station established in South Africa, so that the entire sky could be studied.[19] The following year, he became the spiritual father of Boston College, where he established the Boston Alumni Sodality. When not in Boston, he spent time in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, where he worked with the New York Sodality. He also began cataloguing Catholic works in the New York Public Library, but his health soon prevented him from continuing. Upon recommendation that it would benefit his health, Richards moved to the novitiate in Los Gatos, California in March 1900, but was there only for a short while before he returned to his family in Boston due to news of his mother's death.[32]

Richards then returned to Los Gatos in April, where he remained until the summer of 1901, when he returned to Frederick, Maryland. There, he became minister of the novitiate.[33] With the relocation of the novitiate to St. Andrew-on-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, New York in January 1903, Richards followed as minister. In the summer of 1903, he was instead made the procurator, and was in charge of the mission in Pleasant Valley.[34] He then transferred again to Boston College in the summer of 1906 as spiritual father, where he remained for a year. From 1907 to July 1909, he was prefect of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola at Boston College.[35]

Richards then became operarius[lower-alpha 2] of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City. After four years, he was sent to Canisius College in Buffalo as minister and prefect of studies. He ceased to be minister in July 1914, but remained as prefect.[35] He was appointed the rector and president of both Regis High School and the Loyola School in New York the following year,[35] succeeding David W. Hearn.[37][38] At the same time, he became pastor of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.[39] Being advanced in age, he was relieved of the position by the provincial superior on March 25, 1919,[40] and was succeeded by James J. Kilroy.[37]

Later years

Following his positions in New York, Richards was made superior of Manresa Island in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he received Jesuit scholastics and priests from the Diocese of Hartford during the summer for their retreats. During the rest of the year, he lived on the island with just one other Jesuit. In December 1921, he was transferred to Weston College as spiritual father and procurator, the latter of which he ceased to hold in September 1922.[41]

On March 2, 1923, he suffered his first stroke, which left his speech impaired and the right side of his body paralyzed. He spent seven weeks in the hospital, before going to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.[41] He suffered another stroke on June 8, and died the following day.[42]


  1. Henry Livingston Richards' name was sometimes spelled as Livingstone.[2]
  2. An operarius is a Jesuit who works as a priest away from his Jesuit community.[36]



  1. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 248
  2. Johnson & Brown 1904, "Richards"
  3. Worthington Genealogies 1903, p. 184
  4. Richards 1913, pp. 239–40
  5. Shea 1891, p. 310
  6. Richards 1913, p. 258
  7. Worthington Genealogies 1903, p. 182–184
  8. Richards, William (December 1, 1891). "RE: Orestes A. Brownson". Letter to Henry F. Brownson. Washington, D.C. Archived from the original on October 2, 2015. Retrieved December 30, 2018.
  9. "Kilbourne, James, (1770 - 1850)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved December 31, 2018.
  10. Rhees 1896, p. 155
  11. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 249
  12. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 250
  13. Mahoney 2004, p. 37
  14. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, pp. 250–251
  15. Curran 2010, p. 397
  16. Curran 2012, p. 274
  17. Curran 2012, p. 275
  18. Bender, p. 10
  19. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 253
  20. Richards, J. Havens (June 16, 1896). "Letter from the Rector". Letter to the public. Georgetown University. Retrieved December 31, 2018 via Internet Archive.
  21. McFadden 1990, p. 164
  22. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 254
  23. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 255
  24. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, pp. 255–256
  25. Curran 2012, p. 279
  26. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 251
  27. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 252
  28. Easby-Smith 1907, p. 161
  29. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 260
  30. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 262
  31. Mahoney 2004, p. 36
  32. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 263
  33. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 264
  34. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 265
  35. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 266
  36. Gramatowski 2013, p. 20
  37. "Presidents of Regis". Regis High School. Archived from the original on July 31, 2016. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  38. "Presidents of Loyola School". Loyola School. Archived from the original on December 30, 2018. Retrieved December 30, 2018.
  39. Andreassi 2014, p. 92
  40. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 267
  41. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, p. 268
  42. Obituary: Father Joseph Havens Richards, S.J. 1924, pp. 268–269