Santa Clara, the oldest institution of higher learning in California, began in 1777 as a Franciscan mission. Founded by Junipero Serra among the native peoples of the San Francisco Bay Area, Mission Santa Clara was, for many generations, an important center of Hispanic and Latino civilization in Northern California. The United States annexed California at the end of the Mexican War. In 1851, the adobe mission was converted into the state's first college by two Italian Jesuit missionaries working in the Pacific Northwest, Michael Accolti and John Nobili. They founded Santa Clara College in response to the local bishop's request for schools in his burgeoning diocese.
From its earliest days, a large number of faculty were laypersons who worked alongside the Jesuits.5 In 1857 the College granted Thomas I. Bergin the first bachelor's diploma in California. Two years later, it bestowed a master of arts degree, the first graduate diploma ever granted in the state, on John Burnett. By 1871 Santa Clara boasted "the largest number of professors and tutors connected with any institution on the Pacific Coast."6