Founded as St. Mary's Institute, the school opened on Aug. 25, 1852, with a faculty of five and an enrollment of twelve boys. In 1921 all college classes were transferred from downtown to the St. Louis College campus. In 1923, St. Louis College became St. Mary's College with an enrollment of twelve in the freshman class. Grade school and high school students remained at the downtown school, which adopted the name St. Mary's Academy. The new St. Mary's College quickly gained senior college status and in 1927 the first class of bachelor's degree candidates graduated from the newly renamed St. Mary's University.
In 1932, the high school programs at St. Mary's Academy relocated from the College Street campus to become Central Catholic High School. Personal attention and powerful academic programs have made St. Mary's, located on 135 acres (0.55 km2) 3 miles northwest of Downtown San Antonio, a nationally recognized liberal arts institution with a diverse student population of nearly 4,000 of all faiths and backgrounds. After over a century as an all-male institution, St. Mary's opened its doors to female students in 1963 and became a coeducational university. In 1987, Polish-American silent film star Pola Negri left most of her estate to St. Mary's University, including a collection of memorabilia and several rare prints of her films. St. Mary's University also set up a scholarship in her name.
St. Mary's offers 75 academic programs, in addition to pre-professional programs in medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, allied health, and law. St. Mary's graduate studies offer 19 master's programs and 2 Ph.D. programs. The student-faculty ratio is 12 to 1. St. Mary's has about 200 full-time faculty members, 94 percent of whom hold doctorate or terminal degrees. The School of Humanities and Social Sciences is the largest school at the university.
In October 1927, the San Antonio Bar Association established the San Antonio School of Law, and for seven years after its founding was administered by a board of governors under the control of the bar association. Until the School of Law became associated with a physical campus, classes were held at the Bexar County Courthouse. In an attempt to maximize educational and material resources of the fledgling institution, the Board of Governors negotiated with St. Mary's University regarding a transfer of the School of Law's administrative control. The transfer was completed on October 1, 1934, and St. Mary's University School of Law was officially established.
The School of Law was then housed at St. Mary's University's then downtown campus at 112 College Street, situated near the San Antonio River Walk. Possessing several military bases, San Antonio experienced a surge of population and industry in the years immediately following the World War II. This exponential growth resulted in more law students. To meet these new demands adequately, the School of Law organized itself to meet the requirements of the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools. It received accreditation from the ABA in February 1948 and became a member of the AALS in December 1949.
On December 19, 1967, the School of Law relocated from the College Street campus to join the main campus of St. Mary's. A multimillion-dollar expansion project had provided for the addition of eight new buildings to the main University campus, including a lecture hall, law library, and faculty building comprising the Law Center. The school held its first classes the next month, in January 1968.
Since 1968, the school has had several structures rededicated, renovated, or expanded, including the Law Administration Building, housing the office of the dean; the Law Classroom Building; and the Sarita Kenedy East Law Library, dedicated in 1984 after the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation gave the School of Law $7.5 million to fund its construction in January 1982.
As a liberal arts institution, students at St. Mary's are encouraged to undertake undergraduate research. Conference travel funds and summer programs support student research in the sciences, humanities, and business. Students contribute to research in both the humanities and STEM fields.
St. Mary's University is a member of NCAADivision II and the Lone Star Conference and sponsors 12 men's and women's sports at the varsity level. St. Mary's has won four team national championships in men's basketball (1989), baseball (2001), softball (1986 and 2002), and one individual national title in men's golf (2006).
Buddy Meyer has also been inducted into the Heartland Conference Hall of Fame.
The Rattler mascot has its own stories of how it came to be. Legend holds that the football practice field had to be cleared of diamondback rattlesnakes on a regular basis, thus leading to the designation. The truth is that Brother Kinsky thought "Rattlers" would be fitting because there was already on campus Rattler Club whose members had recently begun The Rattler newspaper. There was debate as to whether the name was being run into the ground, but the students quickly said they wanted the Rattler nickname.
Alton Seekatz (B.S.C. '32), a member of the Rattler Club, described the organization as a spirit and social organization. "It was called the Rattler Club when I got here in 1926, and I'm not sure how it got its nickname," he said, although his stories of the club members' antics and efforts to raise school spirit would certainly "rattle" some and "shake" up others.