James A. Doonan

James Aloysius Doonan SJ (November 8, 1841 – April 12, 1911) was an American Catholic priest and Jesuit, who was the president of Georgetown University from 1882 to 1888. During that time he oversaw the naming of Gaston Hall and the construction of a new building for the School of Medicine. Doonan also acquired two historic cannons that were placed in front of Healy Hall. He was a financially successful president, reducing the university's burdensome debt that had accrued during the construction of Healy Hall.

James A. Doonan

Doonan in 1890
30th President of Georgetown University
In office
Preceded byPatrick Francis Healy
Succeeded byJ. Havens Richards
Personal details
Born(1841-11-08)November 8, 1841
Augusta, Georgia, U.S.
DiedApril 12, 1911(1911-04-12) (aged 69)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting placeJesuit Community Cemetery
Alma mater
by James Gibbons

Prior to his administration of Georgetown, Doonan was a student there and at Woodstock College. He then taught at Loyola College in Maryland and Boston College. He spent his later years teaching and ministering at Boston College and at Saint Joseph's College in Philadelphia, as well as at St. Francis Xavier College in New York and at the Catholic Summer School of America.

Early life

James Aloysius Doonan was born on November 8, 1841, in Augusta, Georgia.[1] He was the son of Ellen Doonan (née Barry) and Terrence Doonan, an engineer and wealthy railroad official who was one of the first Catholics in Atlanta. Terrence was entrusted by the local priest with keeping the parish records until a pastor was appointed, and the first Catholic baptism in Atlanta was performed in his home.[2]

Doonan enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1853, and then entered the Jesuit novitiate at Frederick, Maryland, in July 1857.[1] Doonan's brother, John, also became a Jesuit priest.[2] After four years, James completed his classical course of study,[1] during which he was the captain of the student cadet regiment.[3] He then taught at Loyola College in Baltimore in 1861, where he remained for three years, during the Civil War. Doonan was said to frequently recount a story of the time he was present at a High Mass in Baltimore, when word of the approaching Union Army caused the congregants to leave and take up arms. As a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, he was aggrieved at being forced by the Union Army to bear arms on their behalf and act as a sentinel for several hours.[4]

In 1864, Doonan went Boston College to teach for three years,[5] after which he returned to Washington, where he studied philosophy at Georgetown. His studies were paused in 1868 while he taught for a year at Georgetown, and he then resumed his philosophical and theological studies at the newly established Woodstock College. Doonan was put in charge of the choir at Woodstock, and was noted for his skills on the violin and for his bass voice.[3] He was ordained a priest in 1874 by James Gibbons,[6] at the time the Bishop of Richmond,[7] and he completed his studies at Woodstock in 1875.[3]

Georgetown University

Doonan was appointed a professor of poetry at Georgetown in 1874. In September 1875, he went to Frederick, before returning to Georgetown in 1877 as a professor of rhetoric. He also served as vice president of the university and prefect of studies.[8]

One of the two cannons outside Healy Hall

Upon Patrick Francis Healy's resignation of the presidency due to his declining health, Doonan became the acting president and vice rector on January 27, 1882.[1] On August 17 became the president of Georgetown University.[8] In this position, he inherited a large debt, small student enrollment, and no endowment.[9] He did continue to receive large donations that had been elicited during his predecessor's term of office; coupled with his sale of a villa in Tenleytown and a farm on Hickory Hill (near Glover Park) that were owned by the university, he was able to reduce the significant debt of more than $300,000,[10] equivalent to $8.05 million in 2020,[11] which had accrued from the construction of Healy Hall.[12] Doonan redoubled his predecessor's fundraising efforts among the alumni of Georgetown. His efforts were praised by the Jesuit provincial superior, Thomas J. Campbell, and Doonan would leave office with a greatly reduced debt.[13] At the commencement exercises of 1882, he distributed diplomas for the first time under the university's new federal charter.[14]

For several years, Doonan promoted the idea that a celebration of the university's centenary be organized,[9] which culminated in an official celebration in February 1889.[15] In anticipation of the occasion, Doonan purchased in 1885 two cannons in St. Inigoes, Maryland, for $50. It was believed that they were brought to America aboard the Ark which, along with the Dove, carried the first settlers to the Province of Maryland. In fact, they had been a part of Lord Baltimore's expedition to St. Mary's County in 1634. Doonan had them placed in front of Healy Hall on November 1, 1888.[16] He also proposed that Healy Hall's main auditorium, which remained unfinished, be completed and named Gaston Memorial Hall after the school's first student, William Gaston.[15]

During Doonan's presidency, a new building was constructed for the School of Medicine,[17] which was designed by Paul J. Pelz and erected on the corner of 10th and E Streets in the summer of 1886.[18] In the following year, the Catholic University of America was established in Washington, leading to considerable tension between its founders and the Jesuits at Georgetown. Bishop John J. Keane, Catholic University's first rector,[19] attempted to resolve this dispute by unsuccessfully offering to purchase Georgetown University,[20] tendering this proposal to Doonan.[21]

His presidency came to an end in mid-August 1888, when he was sent by the Jesuit provincial superior to New York City,[8] and was succeeded by Joseph Havens Richards.[13]

Later teaching

Doonan in later life

Doonan taught philosophy for a year at St. Francis Xavier College in New York, and then for a year in Detroit, Michigan. In 1891, he went to Boston College, followed by a time at Saint Joseph's College in Philadelphia, where he remained until 1896.[22] For at least part of his time at Saint Joseph's, he served as the university's chaplain.[23] He also lectured several times at the Catholic Summer School of America,[24] in such subjects as psychology and education.[25] At this time, Doonan's active ministry came to an end due to his failing eyesight. Fearing that he would become totally blind, he completed a pilgrimage to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in France; he never did lose his sight completely.[22]

Doonan then returned to Philadelphia, where he suffered a stroke, causing partial paralysis.[22] Nonetheless, he led the annual retreat for the priests of the Diocese of Rochester at Saint Bernard's Seminary in 1897.[26] In 1902, he was appointed the spiritual director of the Jesuit community at St. Joseph's College and the Church of the Gesú in Philadelphia, succeeding Burchard Villiger.[27] In 1906, he returned to Georgetown University, where he lived out the remainder of his life.[28] Despite his impaired condition, he continued to say Mass daily until one week before his death on April 12, 1911.[22] Doonan was buried in the Jesuit Community Cemetery at Georgetown.[29]



  1. Shea 1891, p. 285
  2. DeLorme, Rita H. (November 3, 2011). ""Catholicity is the same age as the city (Atlanta)": Msgr. Joseph E. Moylan" (PDF). The Southern Cross. Diocese of Savannah. p. 5. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 27, 2018. Retrieved December 27, 2018.
  3. Woodstock Letters 1911, p. 374
  4. Woodstock Letters 1911, pp. 373–374
  5. Easby-Smith 1907, p. 154
  6. Woodstock Letters 1916, p. 80
  7. Woodstock Letters 1916, p. 74
  8. Easby-Smith 1907, p. 155
  9. Curran 1990, p. 2
  10. Dwulet, Andrew (September 18, 2009). "A Campaign Unfinished". The Hoya. Archived from the original on December 15, 2018. Retrieved December 15, 2018.
  11. 1634 to 1699: Harris, P. (1996). "Inflation and Deflation in Early America, 1634–1860: Patterns of Change in the British American Economy". Social Science History. 20 (4): 469–505. JSTOR 1171338. 1700-1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How much is that in real money?: a historical price index for use as a deflator of money values in the economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  12. Shea 1891, p. 307
  13. Curran 1990, p. 3
  14. Shea 1891, p. 286
  15. Shea 1891, p. 305
  16. "Fact or Fiction? Mythbusting Hoya History with the University Archives". Georgetown University Library. August 23, 2016. Archived from the original on March 1, 2018. Retrieved October 30, 2018.
  17. Easby-Smith 1907, p. 148
  18. Shea 1891, p. 300
  19. Gorman 1991, p. 15
  20. Gorman 1991, p. 16
  21. Gorman 1991, p. 25
  22. Woodstock Letters 1911, p. 375
  23. Official Catholic Directory, Almanac and Clergy List 1905, p. 144
  24. Mosher 1899, p. 195
  25. Mosher 1899, p. 183
  26. "News and Notes". The Sacred Heart Review. 18 (12): 234. September 18, 1897. Archived from the original on December 27, 2018. Retrieved December 27, 2018 via Boston College Libraries.
  27. "Ecclesiastical Items". The Sacred Heart Review. 28 (22): 338. November 29, 1902. Archived from the original on December 27, 2018. Retrieved December 27, 2018 via Boston College Libraries.
  28. Woodstock Letters 1911, p. 376
  29. Maryland–New York Province 1912, p. 70