More than 100 Years Ago, a Catholic School Teacher Became the First Woman to Earn a Degree at St. John’s

Lewis Avenue Building
March 18, 2020

In 1913, the same year as the first Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, DC, and seven years before the 19th Amendment granted American women the right to vote, Sister M. Lumena Price became the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at St. John’s University.

Born in 1869 with the secular name Margaret Price, very little is known of Sr. Price’s childhood or adolescent years. However, it is documented that after high school she attended normal school—an institution for the training of teachers—at Potsdam Normal School (which later became part of SUNY Potsdam), earning her Normal School Certificate in 1889.

In 1890, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent in Brentwood, NY, where she took the name “Lumena,” a name that translates to light or sunshine.

In 1891, Sr. Lumena Price accepted a teaching position at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Astoria, NY, where she stayed for two years. Her next 15 years were spent teaching at St. James Academy in Brooklyn, NY. It was during this time period that she made the decision to further her education by attending St. John’s School of Pedagogy, which is now known as The School of Education.

When Sr. Lumena earned her degree in June of 1913 at the age of 44, she was joined at Commencement by another woman pioneer, Angela M. Keyes—the first woman to earn an honorary degree from St. John’s. A professor in the School of Pedagogy, Dr. Keyes was also St. John’s first female faculty member.

On the occasion of Commencement, a headline in The Brooklyn Daily Standard read: “—Commencement Exercises of St. John’s College Held in Academy of Music.”

The page three story continued, “An innovation was made at the commencement exercises of St. John’s College last night, when two women were given degrees by Father Moore, president of the college. The Rt. Rev. Bishop Charles E. McDonnell praised the Institution for conferring the honors on the women, and they themselves were highly complimented by the bishop for being the recipients. Bishop McDonnell spoke highly of the zeal of the two women.”

Two years later, Sr. Price earned her master’s degree from St. John’s. She was joined by two other female congregation members who also earned their graduate degrees. This prompted The Daily Standard Union to feature the straightforward subhead, “Nuns Get Degrees.”

They wrote, “…Two Dominican nuns and one of the Order of St. Joseph received honors. Sister M. Lumena Price of the Sisters of St. Joseph took a degree of Master of Arts, while Sisters M. Hildegard Fisher and M. Herman Joseph Suhrhoff were awarded diplomas from the conservatory of music.”

Upon earning her degree, Sr. Price went on to fulfill her calling as an educator and administrator by teaching at a number of Catholic institutions throughout Brooklyn and Queens, including St. Joseph’s College for Women, St. Francis Academy, St. Agnes Seminary, and finally The Mary Louis Academy, where she taught until her passing in 1946.

By that time, 23 of the 47 seniors in the 1946 St. John’s yearbook, The Indian, were female. Her legacy continues to this day, as women now comprise approximately 59 percent of the University’s more than 21,000 students.