By Frank Kovarik '94 (excerpt from the SLUH bicentennial book to be published in 2018)
Some say the school building at 4970 Oakland Ave., known affectionately as "the Backer Memorial," began with a fiery speech delivered by the Rev. Michael J. O'Connor, pastor of St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, on behalf of a 1920 fundraising campaign by St. Louis University.
In particular, Fr. O'Connor mentioned the desirability of moving the high school department (which at that time comprised two different schools, St. Louis Academy and Loyola Hall) to a different location in order to relieve congestion at the Grand Avenue campus.
After the speech, a parishioner named Anna F. Backer approached Fr. O'Connor. She offered to fund the project in its entirety out of the estate of her late husband, George, an 1869 graduate of Saint Louis University who had made his fortune in milling wheat and who had valuable mining investments as well.
Anna Backer originally pledged $300,000 for the construction of a new school building, but eventually the gift for construction of the building totaled $400,000. In later accounts, Backer explained her motivations:
"I planned the gift many years before my husband's death.... I wanted to give the young men a school where they would be inspired with the desire to enter the priesthood."
Backer framed her philanthropy as God's work, writing, "It has been my happy privilege as an instrument in the hands of Almighty God to aid substantially in the establishment of the St. Louis University High School. This I gladly did in memory of George H. Backer, my devoted, deceased husband."
In April 1923, Archbishop John Glennon presided over a dedication ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of the high school building on Oakland Avenue. Some 3,500 people attended the event, which lasted approximately an hour and featured the laying of the cornerstone as well as the revelation of Mrs. Backer as the source of what was at that point the largest gift ever received by SLU and, for that matter, by any Catholic institution within the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
When Anna Backer's anonymity was finally lifted, the crowd looked for her on the dais in vain. She was humbly sitting in the crowd among the students.
Six years after the fulfillment of Anna Backer's vision of a Jesuit boys' high school fully separate from the university, this foundational benefactor of the school died peacefully in her home on September 12, 1936, at the age of 81. Backer, born in Switzerland in 1845, had moved to St. Louis as an infant with her widowed mother.
The entire faculty and student body of SLUH attended the funeral services for Anna Backer.
The students, well aware of Backer's generosity to their school, considered her a kind of "fairy godmother." Backer had treasured her relationship with the school and attended Mothers Club meetings faithfully. The class of 1936 affectionately paid this tribute to her in the yearbook: "Your memory, Mrs. Backer, will live in the beautiful school your generosity has made possible, but it will also be treasured in a nobler shrine—in the hearts of 'Your Boys' of yesterday, today, and tomorrow."
Upon her death, Backer made another gift to the school, approximately $500,000. This enormous bequest solved the school's financial difficulties at the time and constituted the bulk of its endowment for years to come.
Ensure SLUH's Tradition of Excellence for the Next 200 Years
You can follow in Anna Backer's footsteps and leave a legacy that helps SLUH continue building Christ's kingdom of truth, justice, love and peace for generations to come. Contact Melissa Jones, CFRE at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-269-2186 to learn more about your giving options.