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Boston College waited 14 years—from its founding in April 1863 until June 28, 1877—to award its first diploma, because until then no student had completed the seventh year of the school’s course of studies. The diploma above was among 13 bestowed in 1877. It was earned by the class valedictorian, Stephen J. Hart, 22, of Dorchester, who died a few months later. In addition to bearing the signature of Boston College’s third president, Robert Fulton, SJ, it is signed by two faculty members who would become president: Thomas H. Stack, SJ (physics), and Jeremiah O’Connor, SJ (rhetoric). The diploma is large by modern standards, measuring 27 x 21 inches—the current Boston College diploma is 16 x 13 inches. It was printed in Latin (still the conferring language) on parchment thinner than the heavy stock used today.
How does a new college of modest means devise its first diploma? For Boston College, the answer was simple: Borrow one from the College of the Holy Cross. In every detail, the certificate above is identical to the 1870 diploma issued by that other Jesuit institution, with one essential exception: Wherever the original printed text read Sanctae Cruces S.J. Vigornii (Holy Cross, Society of Jesus, Worcester), the copy now reads simply Bostoniensis or Bostoniensi, penned by hand. The shield of the Great Seal of the United States (left), atop which rests the Phrygian cap of the French Revolution, and the Massachusetts coat of arms (right) appear identically on both diplomas. As do the eight balls of fruits and leaves (presumably representing bounty) and the four wreaths (likely laurel, symbol of academic achievement). The simple illustration at the top (beneath the Greek “in this, conquer”) is unchanged, and so too are the letters “Q.B.F.Q.S.” (an abbreviation of the Latin phrase for “what is good and fruitful”). As for the stately edifice framed at the bottom, it is Fenwick Hall, the first building constructed at Holy Cross after that college’s founding in 1843. This image predates 1867, when towers and another story were added.
No one knows today how long Boston College used this borrowed diploma. By 1898, the school had its own design, with a new, more muscular bald eagle; and the heading Curatores [Trustees] Collegii Bostoniensis S.J. in large, ornate lettering—no fruity borders, no government seals. The diploma has changed little since.
Seth Meehan is a history Ph.D. student and coauthor, with Ben Birnbaum, of the forthcoming illustrated history of Boston College.
Read more by Seth Meehan