The first Roman Catholic presence in Arizona dates to 1539, when Franciscan priest Marcos de Niza explored the Southwest in his quest for the mythical seven cities of gold.

Despite this early visit and the 1692 founding of a Jesuit mission near Tucson, the church's long history has failed to produce a Catholic university or college.

Even Vermont and North Dakota, which respectively have the second-smallest and third-smallest state populations, have Catholic colleges.

But Arizona's large Catholic population may finally have a college to serve it, with January's announcement that Benedictine University plans a downtown Mesa campus.

The lack of a Catholic college probably has more to do with money than a lack of demand, said MaryBeth Mueller, the Catholic schools superintendent for the Diocese of Phoenix.

Several Catholic institutions have considered Arizona campuses over the years, including Illinois-based Lewis University.

"They were seriously looking at establishing a university, but when it came time to raising the necessary funds, I think that's what changed their minds," Mueller said.

Benedictine isn't sure what took so long for Arizona to get a Catholic college either. Charles Gregory, the university's executive vice president, said the institution had casually discussed an Arizona presence years ago.

When Mesa sent invitations to Benedictine, its administrators jumped at the chance without looking into why they'll be the first Catholic college.

"I don't why," Gregory said. "I really have not done much research as to why there hasn't been somebody before now."

Benedictine is working toward accreditation and is still in talks with Mesa to lease a city-owned building. The nonprofit university is still discussing what programs it would offer when classes begin, probably in 2013.

The branch campus is one of several Mesa is trying to lure though a nationwide recruiting campaign that focuses mostly on nonprofit colleges. Mesa will consider leasing or selling city-owned property or playing matchmaker with private property owners.

About 750,000 Catholics live in the Phoenix diocese, though Gregory said the university is open to students of other faiths.

The diocese's schools enroll about 14,000 students from preschool through 12th grade. Mueller estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of graduates will end up at a Catholic college.

Catholics will follow Benedictine's progress in hopes of having an option to have their children attend a Catholic university in-state, Mueller said.

"We're excited that this could happen," she said.

Gregory said he's heard a lot of interest during his visits to Arizona. The university is constantly getting requests from current and potential students and faculty about being part of the Arizona campus, he said.

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