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The History of Briar Cliff


In 1929, only briar patches covered a 175-foot hill located on the western outskirts of Sioux City, Iowa. But two people – Mother Mary Dominica Wieneke, Major Superior of the Sisters of Saint Francis, and the Most Reverend Edmond Heelan, Bishop of the Sioux City Diocese, had a dream. They saw that hill crowned with a Catholic college for women.

Mother Dominica and Bishop Heelan met on March 9, 1929 with members of the Sioux City community who committed themselves to raising $25,000 to support the establishment of the college in Sioux City. After this showing of community support, significant events followed in rapid succession. On Sept. 18, 1930, the college, named Briar Cliff after the hill on which it is located, was dedicated. Four days later, 25 women started classes in Heelan Hall, the only building on campus.


In 1937, the University’s two-year program was extended to four years. Fifty-five men were admitted to Briar Cliff in 1965 and co-education was formalized in 1966 with the admission of 150 full-time male students. The innovative Weekend College program started in the fall of 1979, which became the basis for the university’s successful adult degree completion programs. The spring of 1980 saw the addition of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Master's programs were implemented in the summer of 2001. The college officially became a University on June 1, 2001. Online courses were first offered to students in 2006. The Center for Justice and the Center for Health Care Initiatives were established in 2012. The first doctoral degree, the Doctorate of Nurse Practitioner, was introduced in 2013.


Over the years, Briar Cliff adjusted to many student changes and needs by adding a fourth story to Heelan Hall in 1948 and the Bishop Mueller Library and the Chapel of Our Lady of Grace in 1959. The sixties brought even more change, especially in the residential living area, when Alverno, Toller and Noonan halls were added. A new gymnasium, the Newman Flanagan Center, was constructed in 1982. In 1988, the Baxter-DiGiovanni Living & Learning Center became the first apartment-style living quarters built on campus.

The 43,350-square-foot Stark Student Center opened in the fall of 2000. Facilities for student-athletes were further enhanced with the construction of the McCoy Arnold Center, completed in 2004, and the acquisition of the Charger Dome in South Sioux City, Neb., in 2012. Renovation of the main academic building, Heelan Hall, was completed in 2013. It included the addition of an 8,340-foot atrium, state-of-the art nursing, chemistry and biology laboratories and an integrated digital media lab. In 2015 Briar Cliff opened a secondary Sioux City campus, "Briar Cliff University at Mayfair," to support further graduate degree programming. The new campus contains-cutting edge health science laboratories and classroom space.

While the mission of the University has not changed in more than 80 years, Briar Cliff continues to grow and expand, always placing the needs of students first.

Rev. Edmond Heelan Rev. Edmond Heelan


GroundbreakingThe groundbreaking of Heelan Hall, 1929


Classes Start Classes started (all women) on Sept. 18, 1930.