History of the University

Breaking ground for Viterbo College building
Breaking ground for Viterbo College building, later renamed Murphy Center.

Viterbo University is a Catholic, Franciscan institution of higher education located in La Crosse, Wis. For over 130 years, Viterbo has been shaped by the heritage of its founding Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose legacy of meeting community needs through education continues to shape the university's mission and vision, priorities, programs, and partnerships. 

Early Academic Endeavors

The university had its beginnings in the early academic endeavors of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who established St. Rose Convent in La Crosse in 1871. The FSPA subsequently founded St. Rose Normal School in 1890 to prepare sisters to teach in elementary schools. With the introduction of collegiate courses in 1923, the FSPA began to develop a four-year college curriculum. By 1931–1932, St. Rose Junior College had been formally established, with Sister Rose Kreibich as the first dean and the driving force toward the creation of a four-year educational institution. In 1937, as plans were being made for a new five-story campus building, the college's name was changed to Viterbo to reflect the birthplace of St. Rose of Viterbo, an early follower of St. Francis of Assisi.

Four-Year Institution

By 1939, Viterbo was approved as a four-year, degree-granting institution for the preparation of elementary school teachers. The inaugural Viterbo College commencement exercises were held in 1940, with the first two bachelor’s degrees awarded to Ellen Burger and Helen Kirscher, both members of the FSPA. In 1943, lay women were first admitted.


In the 1950s, Viterbo expanded programs in teacher education and the liberal arts. With its new status as a four-year college, Viterbo attained accreditation by the North Central Association in 1954.

Murphy Center


The institution experienced a period of significant change in the 1970s: becoming coeducational, adding athletics, and growing enrollments. Viterbo awarded 1,292 degrees in the 1970s. That number rose to 1,643 in the 1980s, nearly 3,400 in the 1990s, and over 8,000 in the 2000s.

University Status

On Sept. 4, 2000, Viterbo marked another milestone — the change in name from Viterbo College to Viterbo University. This transition not only marked the institution's significant growth but formalized Viterbo's reclassification as a "comprehensive institution (university)" by the U.S. Department of Education. 


1890 — St. Rose Normal School is founded by the FSPA
1937 — Viterbo College name is first used

1941 — Viterbo College academic building is completed (renamed Murphy Center in 1972)
1943 — Lay women are first admitted
1954 — Viterbo attains first accreditation
1960 — Viterbo College is incorporated as a not-for-profit institution
1970 — The Fine Arts Center opens its doors to the public
1971 — Viterbo becomes a coeducational institution
1987 — Viterbo’s first graduate program is launched: Master of Arts in Education
1994 — Viterbo is reclassified as a comprehensive university
1999 — The D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in ­Leadership is established
2000 — Viterbo College is renamed Viterbo University
2001 — Viterbo launches the only Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program in the county
2013 — Viterbo's first doctoral program is introduced: Doctor of Nursing Practice

2018 FSPA transfers sponsorship of Viterbo University to Viterbo Ministries
2022 — The EdD in Ethical Leadership is launched
2022 — The Sr. Thea Bowman Center is established

2024 — The Casagrande Institute for Higher Education Effectiveness is established

Murphy and Assisi Courtyard