Site of Epworth college has offered education for most of past 165 years

Divine Word College

Address: 102 Jacoby Drive SW, Epworth, Iowa

Employees: 75, including faculty and staff

Enrollment: 100

Founded: As St. Paul Mission house in 1932, current college dedicated in 1965.

EPWORTH, Iowa — A small religious college in Dubuque County occupies a site involved in the business of education for most of the past 165 years.

One of the community’s oldest businesses, Divine Word College traces its roots in Epworth to 1931, and the land on which the college sits has hosted an educational facility almost continuously since 1857.

“They have been there forever,” said Epworth Mayor Sandra Gassman. “They have been an important part of the community.”

A 1976 Divine Word graduate, the Rev. Tom Ascheman has been college president since 2017. His family connection to Epworth is even longer.

“This (area of the college’s 30-acre campus) was my great-grandfather’s farm,” said Ascheman, whose mother was born in Epworth.

The Society of the Divine Word is a Catholic missionary religious congregation with priests and brothers working in more than 70 countries. Today, there are 5,965 Divine Word missionaries throughout the world. The society purchased the land on which the Epworth college sits in 1931.

“A Methodist seminary predated us and later, for a short period of time after World War I, there was a military academy,” Ascheman said.

A three-story, brick Methodist seminary opened in 1857 in Epworth, according to a history of the community published in 1976. Financial problems began to plague the seminary, and it closed in 1864. A Presbyterian minister, the Rev. J.W. Jewett, purchased the building and ran a private school in the facility for about five years, then sold the property.

It reverted to a Methodist school, and by 1880, the school had an enrollment of 200 and offered science, English and college preparatory courses.

The opening of Epworth’s public high school in 1918 caused the private seminary’s enrollment to decline, and it closed after the 1922-23 academic year.

The school reopened as Epworth Military Academy in the fall of 1923 but only remained open until 1927.

Divine Word purchased the acreage four years later, keeping a building now named Megan Hall.

“It’s the oldest structure on campus and probably the oldest structure in town,” Ascheman said.

He added, “Our society has been operating a school here for missionary training since 1931. It was previously known as St. Paul’s Mission House. At that time, it was kind of a high school seminary. Then, it became a junior college structure. Now, in the early 1960s, the society decided to gather many of its different programs of training people in junior college and college and set it up formally as a four-year, undergraduate program with accreditation by the accrediting organizations of the time.”

The current Divine Word College was dedicated in 1965.

Ascheman said the college serves all three of the society’s provinces in the U.S. — based in Riverside, Calif.; Bay St. Louis, Miss.; and Techny, Ill.

“Our province extends from Omaha (Neb.) to Boston and from Montreal in Canada down to Montserrat in the Caribbean Islands,” Ascheman said.

Ascheman said the college enrollment is not limited to students intending to enter the society.

“Some of the students here are studying to join our society, and others are from other societies or women religious,” he said. “This year, among the 100 students, there are 12 nations (represented). Your interaction with people from another culture is very intense.

“One of the major goals of the college is for people to get to know folks from a different culture. The reason for that is for missionary work, the ability to live flexibly within the cultural and religious contexts of other people is absolutely essential.”

Ascheman was a student at the college in 1975, when it welcomed 16 Vietnamese seminarians who were refugees after the fall of Saigon. The school developed an English-as-a-second-language program at that time.

The Rev. James Bergin, the college’s spiritual director, has spent 23 years at Divine Word during three stints.

“The most significant change I have seen occurred in 2006, when the first religious sisters enrolled in the college,” he said. “Up until that time, all of the students were men who were considering a vocation as a priest or religious brother. The sisters bring a fresh perspective from their experience as women in the church.”

Today, women account for about half of the student body. Many of the school’s female graduates serve as missionaries in Asia.

“Epworth is a very well-known word in Vietnam because of the women religious who graduated from here,” Ascheman said.

Gassman said the college is a good partner with the Epworth community.

“They employ members of the community, and their students come into the community and participate in things,” Gassman said. “We had a musical event in our pavilion last spring, and they had some of their students come over and perform.”

Bergin described the college’s relationship with Epworth as “mutually enriching.”

“I have heard many people from Epworth express their appreciation for the opportunity to meet people at Divine Word from so many different countries and to experience such a wide variety of cultures,” Bergin said. “They also appreciate the Divine Word students who help with the community meal in Epworth on Fridays and the priests who help with Sunday Masses at St. Patrick’s Parish.”