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St. Bonaventure University was founded through the initiative and dedicated efforts of Nicholas Devereux, a large land holder and financier from Utica, New York, with the cooperation and support of John Timon, Bishop of Buffalo, and members of the Franciscan Order. Their dream of almost a century and a half ago has flourished, and St. Bonaventure University has expanded greatly during its existence. In 1854 the two promoters persuaded a group of friars from Italy to venture to America and establish a Catholic college and seminary in Western New York. Principal among these Franciscans was Fr. Pamphilus da Magliano, who later became the College's first President. On October 4, 1858, the feast of St. Francis, the formal dedication of the new school was held on the tract of land donated by Devereux. It was then that the College was named after St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, the Patron of Franciscan Studies and Learning. St. Bonaventure College held its first Commencement Exercise in June, 1860, graduating a class of fifteen students. Since then the University has grown to over 2,500 students.

The College was provisionally chartered on March 1, 1875, by an Act of the Regents of the State of New York: "For the the learned languages and in the liberal and useful arts and sciences." In the 1920's the College developed a full-time graduate program which has continually expanded since that time. Early in this century St. Bonaventure also became home to the School of Franciscan Studies and The Franciscan Institute. The permanent Charter of Incorporation of the College was granted by the State in 1883, and in 1950, after almost a century of operation, St. Bonaventure was named a University by the Board of Regents.