University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame

Music in a Forest

Published in 1864

A few years ago, on my way to Chicago, I stopped for a day on the banks of the St. Joseph's River, in Northern Indiana, close upon the line of Michigan. Civilization was struggling with nature, and I watched with interest the rough encounter. The railway, after running twenty miles through a grand primeval forest, dashes suddenly into a city. Leaving my luggage at a great brick hotel, I struck out northward, across a fine, rapid river, into a rich rolling country, where each farm of one to three hundred acres was cut out of the forest, and where the stumps had not rotted out of the fields; while in many of them the great trees, all dry and leafless, girdled by choppings of the axe to destroy their vitality, were still standing in the fields of growing corn. Stacks of wheat-straw were around the log-houses of the lords of the soil. Great cribs of Indian corn in the ear were proofs of the land's fertility; herds of swine and flocks of cattle were browsing in the forest. It was a scene rough and uncouth in the present, but full of hope for the future.

Tired with my morning ramble, I sat down in the shade of a beautiful tulip-tree by the river-side, and thought of the three phases of life which a single generation would have experienced. A few years before, the wild Indian fought and hunted through these forests, and the smoke of his wigwam rose from the banks of this lonely river: the transition phase was now in progress: a few years more, and the whole country would be covered with the triumphs of civilization.

As I mused upon the scene and its associations, music filled the air; it came down out of the blue summer sky; it swept through the arches of the ancient woods. The birds sat mute upon the branches to hear it; the squirrels stopped their gambols. Even a bright little striped snake, which had been gliding through the grass near my feet, paused, erected his head, and poised it on one side, as if the better to hear the sweet melody that filled the air. It was a chime of bells, playing the music of a French religious hymn -- a rich, melodious chime of twenty-four bells. But how came they in the depths of a forest in Northern Indiana? I rose from my mossy seat, while the little snake lowered his tiny head, and glided away, and the pretty squirrels hid themselves in the foliage, and went in the direction from which the music had seemed to come.

It was a longer walk in the woods than I expected; but with a slight turn in the road I emerged suddenly from the dark forest into the glowing sunshine, and a scene that filled me with surprise and admiration. It was a clearing of three or four square miles, walled round on three sides by the forest, and bounded on the fourth by a noble sweep of the river. In the centre was a pretty Gothic church, with two spires, in whose towers were the chime of bells. Near it was a cluster of buildings, the central one long, massive, and having a collegiate aspect. At the left were two bright lakelets, glittering in the sun; and between them nestled a small peninsula, shaded with trees, ornamented with shrubbery, and cultivated as a garden and vinyard. In the midst of these gardens were two pretty chapels, one in the Grecian style, the other Gothic. Across the lake there was a small steam-mill and a brickyard, and contiguous to the college buildings were several workshops, and a large playground, with gymnastic apparatus. Around were fields and orchards, flocks of sheep and small herds of cattle. A mile away to the left, in a beautiful nook by the river, I saw another group of buildings, including a small chapel. In less time than I have taken to write these lines, my glass had swept over all this beautiful domain, cut out of the heart of a great American forest. I saw a crowd of boys at play in the college - grounds; a group of them was bathing on a secluded shore of one of the lakes, watched by a man in a long black robe. The black robes were also seen as they went in and out of the principal edifice. Groups of men were working in the fields. In the distance my glass showed me girls walking on the banks of the river, near the further cluster of buildings.

As an enterprising tourist I did not long hesitate about the means of gratifying my excited curiosity. I walked towards the centre of the domain, and passing through a vinyard, where the grapes gave promise of many a cask of good wine, I addressed myself to a withered old man, who seemed to have them under his fatherly care.

"The vines are growing well, father," said I.

"Yaas!" was the stong German answer, when the well-browned pipe had been deliberately taken from his lips. "Dey grows goot."

"And the wine -- how is that?"

"Ah! ze vine izt pretty goot."

"Shall I be allowed to visit the place?" I asked.

"Oh, yaas, yaas! I shall take you to ze Fater Zuperior;" and he put his pipe to his lips again, and led the way to the principal edifice, where I was presented to a tall, sallow, black-eyed French priest, who might have been a general, if he had not been the superior of a religious community. Nothing could be more cordial than my reception, nothing more considerate than the manner in which he made me feel that I was welcome, and satisfied my curiosity. The land of his community had been given to one of the Indian missionaries; his flock had been scattered by the progress of civilization, and the domain was bestowed upon a French religious order. He and a few others, who had come from France, had been joined by Germans, Irish, and several American converts; and they had established a college, with the charter of a university for the future, while a female branch of the order had a flourishing academy a mile away. There was also an industrial school for boys, and another for girls. The lay-brothers and sisters carried on the operations of agriculture, the workshops, the laundry, baking and cooking for so large a community, with its three or four hundred pupils, while priests, lay professors, and nuns attended to the work of education. The Father Superior, with a little excusable vanity, showed me the handsome church, whose gorgeous high-altar, and fine organ, and noble chime of bells, with the clockwork and machinery which filled the whole region with music at intervals, day and night, had been sent them as presents from far off, never forgotten, generous France.

Then we walked over a little causeway between the two pretty lakes, and visited the islands, as they were called, but really a double peninsula, composed of two hillocks, each of several acres. In these solitary retreats were the nurseries of the order. One was the novitiate of priests, the other of the lay-brothers, where they went through the studies and religious exercises which were to prepare them for the solemn vows which would for ever separate them from the world, and devote their energies and lives to the work of their order. I saw novices of both classes, some walking in the groves with their books, some kneeling in their curious little chapels, which were enriched with holy relics and pious gifts.

While we remained, the hour of recreation sounded on the bell. Then study and devotion, and work everywhere, were alike laid aside in these retreats, and the whole community of priests and nuns, lay-brothers and lay-sisters, far enough apart however, students and apprentices, enjoyed their hour of innocent, and sometimes boisterous mirth. As a rule, priests and nuns have the manners of children. Even the sisters of charity, whose life-work is in hospitals, and who nurse the sick and dying, are full of light-hearted mirth.

Our next visit was to the not far distant but still separate and secluded domain of the female community. We were received with a gracious dignity in the elegant parlour, by the young Mother Superior, and American lady of singular beauty, who had found a sphere for her energies in the education of a hundred or more Western American girls, the care of an industrial school, the extension of her order, the establishment of new branches, and the opening of new avenues of feminine ambition or devotion.

When we had looked at the schoolrooms, the gardens, and the romantic prospect from the river bluff, an excellent luncheon awaited us, and we returned to the masculine department, the Mother Superior kneeling to the Father Superior, as on our arrival, to kiss his hand, and receive his blessing. During our walk home, this priest, who seemed to enter with entire zeal into his religious functions, conversed like a thorough man of the world on education, politics, and society. It was evident that he read the newspapers as well as his breviary, and that he had a sharp eye to business, as well as to the propagation of the faith. He even told me, with a curiously quiet consciousness of power in his tone and manner, how he had put down some bigotry in the neighbourhood, which had at one time threatened them, by exercising the political influence given him by the votes of the community. "It is not necessary for us to vote," said he; "we have not that trouble; but the fact that we can do so whenever we choose, and defeat either party, is quite enough to make both treat us with a respectful consideration."

I dined in the great salle à manger of the university. The Father Superior, by whom I sat, and the professors dined at a central table; the students of various classes at others. The fare was plain and substantial. There was perfect order and silence. At a signal, the Father Superior said a short grace, and the eating began, while one of the boys commenced, in a loud monotonous voice, to read from Abbé Huc's interesting journy in China; but he had not proceeded far before a touch of the Superior's bell suddenly silenced his tongue, and at the same time let loose a hundred. What with knives and forks, and chatter and clatter, it was a perfect babel. The suspension of the rules was in honour of their guest, and alesson in hospitality. As the fun was growing fast and furious, another touch on the bell reduced the room to a sudden silence; there was a brief thanksgiving, and the well-ordered boys, rough as many were in appearance, filed out of the room; and we soon heard their glad hurras in the playgrounds, while the Superior and several priestly and lay professors gathered under a shady piazza, to enjoy the leaisure after-dinner hour. On going to the "bishop's room," which had been assigned me, I found two bottles of wine, of their own vintage, which the Father Superior wished me to taste. One was a red wine, resembling the clarets of Hungary; the other, a choice bottle of Catawba, made from an American grape of peculiar flavour, but resembling the Rhine wines. They were light, palatable, and pure without any question. At the twilight hour, after a glorious sunset, such as the traveller sees upon the borders of the great lakes of America oftener than in any region I have visited, the church bell rang, and the whole community assembled for that most picturesque of Catholic devotions, "the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament." The high altar was covered with lights and flowers. The beautiful hymns of this service were sung by a choir of boys belonging to the college. Protestants and Catholics sang in harmony; and the best voice, perhaps, was the fine tenor of a handsome young Israelite. As he was a volunteer, and did not sing for pay, how he reconciled it with his conscience, I cannot imagine. The music swelled, the incense rose and filled the edifice; twenty-four little boys in white surplices came into the sanctuary in procession, and knelt before the altar. The priests and novices in surplices were ranged on either side. Then came a soft jingling of silvery bells and the moment of benediction. The kneeling congregation bowed their heads in a silence most profound; the white-robed boys fell prostrate before the altar; the great bells in the church towers rang out a solemn peal; and the gorgeous and impressive ceremonial was ended.

I slept in the bishop's room and in the bishop's bed, after paying my respects, as I presume a bishop might have done, to one of the bottles still standing on my table. My last look from the window was at the dark forest wall which enclosed this curious community in the wilds of America; and the last sounds I heard as I sank to rest were the melodies of the chimes in the neighbouring church towers.

[Dr. Thomas L. Nichols, Forty Years of American Life (London: John Maxwell, 1864), volume II, pages 108-115.]

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