University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame

In the Land of the Strenuous Life

A selection from the book by Abbé Félix Klein of the Catholic University of Paris
(Chicago: A. C. McClurg & co., 1905), pages 122-133.

We arrived in South Bend an hour late. Two new students for the University rode in the same carriage with us through the little town. Perhaps I am wrong in the phrase "little town," for although South Bend has hardly more than twenty thousand inhabitants, it is nevertheless, with its fine stores, remarkably wide avenues, and paved streets, like the beginning of a great city. Everything looks new and expectant. It is still, however, hardly beyond the uncertainty of a "boom town," of which there have been many examples in America. One could not assert positively whether South Bend wiIl disappear or whether its carriage and wagon industry will raise it to a high rank in manufacturing. Frequently the "boom town" succeeds; when it fails, the land reverts to the cattle raiser and the farmer.

The streets along which we drove toward Notre Dame -- muddy enough they were from recent rains -- lay amid a fertile and monotonous country. The two students looked glum, as though putting to themselves the question, "Into what miserable kind of a place are they taking us, anyhow?" But at the end of a weary half-hour we caught sight of the beautiful academic city, its varied buildings standing out picturesquely against a background of parks, parterres, wide prairies, and delightful lakes. Down a long avenue we passed, between high trees and beds of flowers, and stopped at the central building, the dome of which brought to mind Val de Grace. Near by was a church, which I took for a cathedral. After a cordial greeting from Father Morissey, the President of the University, Father Zahm appeared, and took me to his rooms, from which he governs the American province of the Holy Cross Congregation, and where he has composed the scientific works and apologetics which have made his name well known in Europe and America.

With this superior man, whose faith is as ardent as his knowledge is deep, -- truly one of the influential priests in the church to-day, -- I spent three delightful days. They were days of rest, of companionship, and of useful conversation upon many questions, which, however, always led back to the central theme of religion. Father Zahm, though so simple a man, seems to know everybody and everything on both sides of the Atlantic. He is in correspondence with learned scientific investigators in Europe, the most eminent of whom he has visited in their homes; he has not only cultivated his specialty, the natural sciences, but has written a book on "Evolution and Dogma," and he is devoted to Dante. In fact, it was under his roof, in this little corner of Indiana, that I found the most numerous, most ancient, most rare, and best illustrated editions of the "Divina Commedia" that I ever saw. Truly, Father Zahm is a scholar and at the same time a missionary. He is a man of action as well as of thought.

On the day of my arrival, he was entirely taken up with the matter of finding places in the different American dioceses for several of the exiled French nuns. And as for his official duties, it is certainly no sinecure to rule a community of zealous and enterprising religionists scattered throughout America. It is characteristic of him that when he was notified in Europe last year of the complete destruction by fire of one of the Holy Cross colleges, in Austin, Texas, he cabled in reply that the college should be rebuilt on a grander scale in time for the following Fall opening. This was at Easter time; and in August the building was finished. (I owe to the suggestion of Father Zahm the title of the present volume).

Beside Father Zahm, I met many interesting characters at Notre Dame. I was delighted with Father Fitte, professor of philosophy, a Frenchman from Metz, one of whose classes I attended with great pleasure. Mr. James Edwards, professor of history, loves and serves Notre Dame as the best patriot does his country. He is librarian of the institution, and his plan is to make Notre Dame a great depository of religious archives. Finally, I must give special mention to Father Hudson, director of the printing establishment, and editor of the "Ave Maria," which, if I mistake not, is the most widely circulated Catholic periodical in the English language. It is wonderful how this gentle and winning man, in his country abode, has at his fingers' ends the contemporary religious history of the world; even such facts as only the initiated few are supposed to know are familiar to him. And his vast information is so easily grasped and dexterously handled that it flows with charming ease into his conversation; so that to listen to him is to lose all sense of the fleeting hours.

But in speaking of men, we must not forget their works. In America one does not find universities that confine themselves, as ours do, merely to higher classical education. As a rule, they are vast institutions, which, while commonly according the first place to letters, law, sciences, and medicine, endeavor also to produce engineers, business men, mechanics, agriculturists, and even theologians. The University of Notre Dame beiongs preeminentiy to this complex type, and the widest variety of education is at the disposal of its nine hundred students. Its advanced course comprises four departments: letters, sciences, law, and engineering. Included in these schools are also such branches as pharmacy, architecture, business, and journalism. This last, which sounds strange to a Frenchman, is strictly a post-graduate course; it is restricted to those who have at least a bachelor's degree. The young journalist's course comprises political economy, history, a study of the principal journals of other countries, and the laws governing the press, the writing of advertisements and headlines, and various matters touching the printer's art. The students carry out their practical exercises under the direction of an experienced journalist, and from time to time the metropolitan journals of the neighboring city of Chicago admit these efforts to their columns, compensation being given to the author in such cases.

Of course, in a university with this adjunct, I had to be interviewed: The outcome was no more inaccurate than I have encountered before, and shall doubtless encounter again. I suppose, if the interview was a little more laborious than usual, it was because I was set upon by three good-natured torturers at once, who took down my remarks each according to the needs of the particular newspaper he represented. Out of this cooperative effort appeared one article especially which went the round of the press, giving a fairly correct account of my views upon the religious crisis in France.

The collegiate department, which begins with boys at about thirteen and leads them on to philosophy or corresponding branches, is like our secondary education. It leads to one or the other of the baccalaureate degrees which is conferred by the institution itself. This privilege of giving degrees is granted generously by all the States of the Union to important educational establishments. Public opinion values a diploma according to the repute of the college that grants it. This is a sort of controlling influence upon the abuses to which so liberal a State system might readily give rise. Our own centralization of education has its abuses, too, which impose burdens upon the public finances and restrict the rights of parents and teachers.

At Notre Dame there is a Minim department, which consists of boys from six to thirteen years of age. These little fellows have their own house, St. Edward's Hall, and also their own chapel, play-rooms, park, and field for outdoor games. There are about a hundred of them, and, with the exception of three or four courses reserved to the University professors, their education is in the hands of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The daily routine shows an almost maternal solicitude for their welfare. At least once a week they must write home.

It requires only a brief examination of the discipline of Notre Dame to bring out an essential distinction which exists between English and American education on the one hand, and French education on the other; it is that the former allows more freedom to collegians and less to advanced students than we do. Certainly it is not the least of the inconveniences of our system that up to a boy's eighteenth year we deprive him of all initiative, and then of a sudden fling him into absolute independence. There is not one boy in our secondary schools who would not feel like an escaped prisoner if he were to enter Eton, or an American college, or the similar school in France, the Ecole des Roches. On the other hand, there is not a young man among our advanced students who would not feel disgraced if he were asked to submit to the discipline that governs the graduates of Oxford, Harvard, or Notre Dame. Undoubtedly surveillance ought to be proportioned to the age of the student, but it is unwise to make all surveillance odious from the very beginning by irritating restraints, and then when a boy's dangers are greatest to leave him absolutely to his own devices. The best education is that which is nearest to life. Now, the ideal life is not that of the barracks, where everything is done by order, nor that of the hotel, where caprice holds sway, but that of the family and the home. The nearer to this ideal a co!lege stands, the better it is. At Notre Dame I was pleased to see two fine dormitories with separate rooms for the students; Sorin Hall, a building where the older boys live, and which has accommodations for a hundred, beside containing a chapel, reading-room, and law library; and Corby Hall, which has room for a hundred and twenty-five residents, and possesses also its own chapel and recreation rooms. As there is abundance of ground left to build on, and as there are plenty of capable professors to manage new developments, this system of separate establishments seems bound to grow to larger proportions. The students' fees, which vary from seventy to a hundred and fifty dollars yearly, should furnish a good foundation for such a growth.

At Notre Dame, difficulties are looked upon as things to be conquered. How can a university like this, so far from a great centre of population, feed eight hundred mouths? Oxford can do it, for it has an entire town at its service; but how can Notre Dame? We are answered by being told that the university has telegraph and telephone facilities; its own post-office, bakery, slaughter-house, refrigerator and cold-storage plant, fishing-pond, and farms. It even produces its own electricity. And as for modern applications of science to the practical needs of life, from scientific fuel to the scientific washing of clothes, Notre Dame is the place to see them. The laundry and ironing rooms are a marvel. The good sisters in charge have hardly anything more to do than keep count of the linen as it goes into the vat and receive it when it comes from the laundry, starched and stiff. One of them was complaining to Father Zahm, while I was present, that they were losing all the merit of labor through these fine inventions. "Oh," said he, "we are only in the barbarian stage yet. We are going to keep on with improvements until all you sisters will have to do will be to sit comfortably in a rocking-chair and look benevolently at the machine."

From all this one can imagine what the laboratories must be, chemical, physical, mechanical, and electrical; and the museums of biology, geology, mineralogy, zoology, and botany, not omitting the astronomical observatory. Everything is constructed for permanence and growth. Since 1842, and in America, that has no remote antiquity, the progress has gone on without danger or embarrassment. No graver misfortune has happened than an occasional fire, which has simply meant rebuilding and refurnishing on a grander scale. There has been no fear, and there need be none, of interference and oppression from the State. Such a tyranny will be impossible until the national character of America changes through and through. We in France have no security like this. And so when a rector at Paris complains because so little is given to his university he forgets that people are withheld from contributing by the inevitable question, "What will become of this money if to-morrow the always possible revolution breaks out?" Or, "Will the Government permit the universities to retain it?" This is why our great schools have not the revenues received by the colleges of the United States. Notre Dame can ask for money with perfect assurance; the donations made now will still bear fruit two or three centuries hence, and will never be taken away by tyranny of any sort.

Bishop's Memorial Hall is interesting for its busts and portraits of famous prelates. Other illustrious dead also are here. In 1886 the remains of the glorious convert and copious writer, Orestes A. Brownson, were brought hither, and buried by the side of the early missionaries in the splendid Church of the Sacred Heart.

The future belongs to the free. Near the unversity are a seminary and a novitiate training up future masters. I shall never forget the affectionate welcome given me by the seminarians and novices. Among the scholastics, I beheld a little group of sorrowful-looking young Frenchmen just arrived in America and unable to speak a word of English, who seemed to be asking themselves anxiously if here at last they would be permitted to consecrate themselves to God. In recognition of the country of its origin, the Holy Cross Congregation, which counts in America three hundred and seventy-two members, more than half of its entire number, elected again at its last chapter a French Superior General. He has since been exiled.

A mile or two from Notre Dame is the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, where novices are trained who will later assist in the colleges, or will themselves conduct schools and academies for girls. Here, beside the novitiate, is St. Mary's Academy, which has enjoyed half a century of celebrity, and which, by availing itself of the advantage of the neighboring University, was, I think, the first Catholic institution to give the benefit of the higher branches to young women. To-day, with Trinity of Washington and Notre Dame of Maryland to speak only of the establishments I myself visited, it proves by its splendid success how capable the Church in America is to perceive and to adopt such new departures as are useful and good.

Before saying farewell to Notre Dame, this great centre of religious and intellectual life, I find it consoling to reflect that the existence of the institution, and of many other useful foundations as well, is due to the zeal of our missionaries from France. Father Edward Sorin, of the little Congregation of the Holy Cross, left Le Mans on the 5th and Havre on the 8th of August, 1841, with four Brothers and two novices. On the 14th of September, after a month's voyage, not as a cabin passenger, but in the steerage, he landed in New York, and, as he wrote to his superior, "kissed with joy the soil of America for which he had sighed so ardently." On the 26th of November, 1842, one year later, he settled where to-day rise the towers and domes of Notre Dame. Here he wished, with God's assistance, to found a great college. Indians then roamed the country, and were its sole inhabitants. Some missionaries had previously passed through, however, and left behind a cabin crowned with a cross. Father Sorin, on his arrival, looked upon a clearing covered with snow, two lakes frozen solid, and, encompassing all, a circle of unbroken forest. But there were resources. One who was a little better off than Father Sorin, Mgr. Hailandiere, Bishop of Vincennes, to whose jurisdiction this mission belonged, wrote him the following significant note: "My dear confrere, you will find enclosed, instead of the three hundred and ten dollars which you asked of me, a letter of credit on M. N. for two hundred and thirty-one dollars, twelve and a half cents. I think this is what he still owes me. Don't forget that the taxes on the Lake property have not been paid for this year. My hopes keep pace with my wishes." How fortunate that the faith and courage of the missionary were equally great!

Thus, of all that I saw at Notre Dame there was not a sign sixty years ago.

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