University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame

A Modern Monastery

by the Rev. John Talbot Smith
Donahoe's Magazine, October 1907

Where I sat, the pump could be seen, somewhat rusty, but inviting to the thirsty on a hot summer day. Tall trees waved over me; the rocks of a shrine, Our Lady of Lourdes, rose vine-covered, moist and cool, directly before me, and to the right were the walls of the sacristy, above on the brow of the slope. Turning about I could see the blue waters of a little lake. It was aggravating.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!

I recalled far-off days when I lay on my face beside a mountain spring and drank mv fill of the most beautiful and satisfying of all the liquids known to thirsty man. That time had passed many years. A dyspeptic twist in an otherwise capable stomach had made all liquids, -- in particular the cool, -- impossible, disquieting, sometimes dangerous. I knew the pump covered a spring, for this region is full of springs. The little lake behind me, and the other just out of sight beyond the road, have no inlets, because the water gushes clear and plentiful from the marl bottom. I longed to drink, to repeat the rich pleasure of boyhood; and finally I did, accepting the consequent discomfort, for the joy of drinking deep of water from the natural well.

What delicious coolness, sweetness, refreshment! The barbarous flavor of iron pipe, the Arctic chill of Penobscot ice, quite absent! Fill up the tin cup again, and again, and again! Here's to the mountain spring, to boyhood, to the sprite of this well! And in spite of quantity, and dread, Adam's ale cut no capers with the astonished alimentary canal, but soothed the dark and timorous shores, uplifted the spirit, and brought repose where most other intruders brought horror. From that moment the pump and I became devoted friends. Were I a poet its peaceful glory should often be my theme of song.

I sang its praise to an invalid friend from the Nova Scotia shore, and urged the tin cup upon him. He had to be very careful about introducing strangers to the fearsome creatures which maintained and yet threatened his inner life, he said; but overcome by the memory of his youth he, too, drank, at first cautiously, then freely, and thereafter copiously with benefit. For both, the effect of this natural water direct from the spring was a revelation, and we spent some minutes in discussing and denouncing the piped water of modern cities, which might do for cleaning purposes, but fomented rebellion, discontent, reform and Puritanism in the stomachs of the multitude. The hermits of the Thebaid on bread, dates, and spring water, lived a hundred years without serious effort to live. Perhaps this Indiana well is the least significant thing on the beautiful grounds of the University of Notre Dame. To me it became symbolic of the institution itself, which seemed like a fountain of the Middle Ages, set in the plains of modern Indiana, to water the arid modern field with the mystic stream of the Christian ages. A few yards away from the shrine stands the church, a great temple, a cathedral in size and beauty, in which I sat on Sunday morning to see the Holy Cross community and the University colony at their public devotions. Before eight o'clock the worshippers trooped in with the brisk, decided tread of a regiment on the march, while a bell of deep, sweet tone resounded gigantic on the summer air. The Brothers of the community, old and young, filled the space in the apse, their peaceful faces turned towards the main altar; then came the collegians and novices of the community, in cassock and surplice, lean and vigorous youths, to fill the stalls on either side of the sanctuary, along the wall; the lay members of the faculty in their black gowns with colored ribbons took the front pews; and behind them a thousand youths and boys, students and others, marched to their places.

The procession entered from the sacristy as the clock struck the hour, boys, servers, and clergy, the latter wearing the black cape of the community over the surplice; the great organ pealed and the choir sang Introit and Kyrie in the Gregorian chant. It was a spectacle which I had never seen before, and I doubt if any other church in the land could reproduce it. There was something thunderous about it, as of an army hearing Mass on the eve of battle; so that as I sat there the vision of that great world outside came to me, the world in which the tremendous struggle between good and evil roars like Niagara to the listening ear, without diminuendo or cessation. Here, indeed, were the warriors of to-morrow's battle, drinking in strength under the eye of the Leader himself.

This display of strength, of unity in purpose and method, has an inspiriting effect on the modern Catholic. We are so scattered, almost diluted, in the malicious, materialistic, skeptical, flippant society of the time, that we rarely feel our solidarity of aim as well as of doctrine. I said, as I drank in the wonderful scene for over an hour: "We should have one hundred such centers as this in the Republic, with a million youths preparing for the fray; and parents, leaders, isolated captains of frontier posts, should come when they could to feast eyes and hearts on the army of the future, making ready joyously to take their places in the field." The army marched out again and left me alone in the majestic temple. Sixty years ago, the spot where I sat was part of the Indiana prairie, occasionally trod by the Indians and the missionary, Stephen Badin, who taught them the ways of grace. His grave is only a few hundred yards away, under a replica of the log church in which he said Mass for the red men.

What a marvel of human labor! Without subsidy from state or millionaire, beginning their work with a handful of men, the Holy Cross community has covered the prairie with the buildings of a town, structures great and small, capable of entertaining and educating a community and a student body of two thousand members; and has shaped an educational instrument of wonderful resource, great power and originality. How was the marvel accomplished? Through the men whose quiet graves I can see in the distance, priests and brothers; and through the men whose sturdy hands are guiding and shaping the work at the present moment. I met a score of them and studied them with infinite curiosity, from the simple brother who waited on me at breakfast to the most finished product of community life. The dominant quality struck me as alertness. The sacristan in spite of age flew about like a bird, amid sacristies and sanctuaries of exquiste neatness and order. I looked long at a group of young lay novices mending the roads, with much chat and laughing, but working at top speed and energy. I sat in the first college, a little building on the smaller lake, still in good repair, now used by a section of the lay novices, and chatted with young men, who promptly provided me with literature and information as to their own particular circle. All the signs about me indicated that each department had something extra to do and could lose no time in doing it.

The great. problem in our Catholic colleges is concerned with discipline. The ancient French method has been discarded, as it had to be, in a community which tolerates, if it does not admire, the latitude of Harvard and Yale; but neither the Catholic parent nor the Catholic teacher will ever accept the modern indifference in protecting the youthful student against both himself and his seducers. Notre Dame has been seeking the golden mean. It would be indiscreet to ask if it has been found. I sat on the verandah of Sorin Hall, the main building, in the evening. Lights twinkled in a hundred windows. From a dormitory opposite came the twang of a banjo, the wail of a violin, the chatter of conversation, the music of an accidental quartette; young men came and went across the broad square, mounted or descended the high steps, did the usual things peculiar to a village street; and yet nowhere did the sounds indicate riot, disorder, or horse-play. It seemed more like the decorum of a populous hotel. When the study-bell sounded a pleasant silence followed.

After night prayers in the main building I was at pains to watch the young fellows going to bed. In my day we marched in silence from the study-hall to the dormitory, two long lines of lank young men against the walls of the corridor, so that the master could see our behaviour from the head of the line. In silence we went to bed. They do it amusingly at Notre Dame and in a homelike way. After the prayers the boys dawdled a few minutes in and around the study-hall, closing the accounts of the day quietly; some left hat, coat, vest, collar and tie on their desks in most admired disorder; then they went off in twos and threes at their convenience to bed. The grand dormitory for this section presented a remarkable appearance. Each bed being surrounded by spotless linen curtains one saw only a great spread of linen, a floor with carpeted aisles, and the high windows. The boys disappear within the curtains, where they find a bed and a chair. No disorder, no noise, no capers! The single chair explained why some left part of their costume on the desks of the study-hall, there being no room for them in the dormitory. Wardrobes and lavatories are elsewhere. However, these trifling matters are but the straws showing how the wind blows.

As Notre Dame shelters nearly nine hundred boys and young men for ten months of the year, one could naturally look for considerable uproar at times. I heard none. They drifted into dinner from all directions, with the ease and indifference of well-bred society people, prayer was said, the meal finished in twenty minutes amid the usual chatter, and after grace they drifted out again in the same fashion. The absence of rigidity was no less conspicuous than the absence of disorder. I did not ask how the result was produced. Anyone who has experienced the difficulties of ruling the perverse, mischievous, wilful multitude, will ask no questions of that kind. If there were not in us forces working for the general good, a strong current of life in favor of higher things, human perversity, or perhaps petulancy, would make any discipline impossible.

Aggregations like Notre Dame are better viewed from above than from the level plain, and I surveyed it from a height one morning, after its variety had made an impression. The main building in which the chief business of the day is transacted, reminds one of the stately capitols of other days, with its shining dome, fine corridors and tremendous dignity. Away beyond the larger of the two lakes stands the novitiate, the nest of the community, which fashions the earnest youth to the particular work of his life. On the banks of the smaller lake is the little seminary, which gives the future novice his college training. Between the two lakes stands the community house, as large as the ordinary college, which from its use might be called the home of the brethren when particular duties call them to no other residence. Then come the buildings of the Brothers, who form an integral and important part of the community of the Holy Cross, providing teachers and workers in various departments. They also have their training -- school and novitiate, their aims, methods and traditions, nobly based on the spiritual life which surrenders all to God for the good of the race.

An entire town lies before the eye, full of beautiful buildings, gymnasium and indoor track, theatre, science halls, junior colleges, dormitories, observatory, post-office, with printing-office and bakery, and all the other out-buildings needful. The old, beautiful monastery life, with its sweet activities, its mingling of the simple and the complex, of the lowly life and the highest intellectual quality, thus flourishes on the soil of Indiana as powerfully as in the vale of Clairvaux. Who would not thank God for it?

Bede or Bernard would find himself at home in this place, so like what they made beautiful and comprehensible to their times, and begin again to make beautiful and comprehensible to ours. Here are walks by the lake, through the woods, across the meadows, along the high roads; little retreats where no sound but Nature's reaches the sensitive ear; companionship and solitude; not only the virtues of the higher life, such as faith and chastity, but of the lower life, too, such as industry and patience carried on through long years for a certain aim.

An Italian artist painted the walls of the church and of Sorin Hall, devoting a third of his life to the work, seemingly full of the ancient spirit, in love with his art. Gregori later returned to his native Italy and died there. The walls of Notre Dame are covered with portraits and mementoes of the Catholic workers of the past. The available spaces are crowded with innumerable objects bearing upon the history of the Church in the Republic. For a quarter of a century Professor Edwards has labored to accumulate these useful treasures, soon to be priceless; and for another quarter of a century he will keep up the work. There are no endowments at Notre Dame, no large salaries, and no glittering inducements for workers. Whatever is achieved, beyond merely earning a living, must be its own reward. One may say with justice, after taking in the entire beauty of the work, that connection with it is sufficient fame for the average monk; and these priests and brothers whose graves lie in the shadow of the great dome have the envy of the stranger for their share in the achievement.

To produce it in its full glory many must have labored in peculiar ways, with many sacrifices. I sought them out where possible. Father Stephen Badin owned the ground, which he presented to the Bishop of Vincennes, who gave it over to Father Sorin and his community on condition that they build the college within two years. Father Badin died in Cincinnati, and his remains now rest in a log chapel on the grounds, a reproduction of the chapel in which he officiated. I had no idea a log church could be so spacious, dignified, and holy in its appearance; and no more beautiful monument could stand over the bones of a faithful priest. The statue of Father Sorin, whose dreams were fulfilled to the letter in the growth of his institution, stands at the entrance of the grounds. It bears a resemblance to Father Hecker, although the expression belongs more to the practical man of affairs than to the mystic.

The living managers assembled one night in the auditorium of the commencement orations, rather quiet men in a public place, I thought; but of course this was the hour of the orators and their parents. The chief official, the Rector of the University, presided, a genial young man, with the flexible manner and ready smile of the successful administrator. I heard him tell the invited orator, just before he stepped on the platform, that the audience of visitors, graduates, and students, had assembled principally to listen to him, and therefore, in spite of the late hour and the heat, he must take his own time and deliver his full thought. With such encouragement the orator earned all our thanks by a discourse much briefer than any of his predecessors, and by a graceful allusion to the influence of the Ave Maria, which he rightly and aptly termed the voice of Notre Dame.

Happy the community and society which owns such a voice, so sincere, so penetrating, so sweet! I liken the influence of that publication to the silver stream flowing from the depths of the everlasting hills, through the shades of the virgin forest, into the arid world; preserving its crystal beauty from all stain; communicating to those who use its sparkling waters something of its own clearness, sweetness and repose. In the forty odd years of its life the magazine world has seen many revolutions in principles, tastes, tuethods; its leaders have been mired often enough by will-o'the-wisps; but the Ave Maria has never swerved from its course, never changed its wholesome waters.

The personality behind it for many years, Rev. Daniel Hudson, seems to avoid the highway, content to sit watching the source and flow of this perennial stream, like an ancient hermit, for whom it is the only connection with the outside world. The practical topics discussed in the magazine, its literary and other judgments, and its general matter, prove the editor anything but a hermit in knowledge of his times. Its studied moderation, discreet avoidance of controversy, delicate stories and poems, and persistent encouragement of the right and fit, undoubtedly represent his convictions, experience and temperament. Since 1865 the Ave Maria has scattered its sweetness in the world, and many of us, old lovers of the printed word, jarred and confused by the magazine babel of the time, turn to it at the close of the day for that refreshment elsewhere denied. Father Hudson reminded me somewhat of Father Hecker in his last days by his silver hair and beard and the intense expression of his eyes; but these unimportant details fail before the expression of the priest in the pages of the Ave Maria.

I must say that the chief burden of my thought concerning this modern monastery was, how did so few accomplish this work? I found no clear answer to the question. It amused and astonished me to discover another Jarrow on the banks of the St. Joseph, with all the savor of Bede's renowned convent; but the means seemed so inadequate compared with such results in the short space of half a century, that I gave up the problem. The factors are simple enough; a high aim, a noble plan, intense effort, the surplus of the community turned into development, the blessing of God; but while these things inevitably earn success, they do not always produce the unique. Therefore I came away delighted and wondering, and for satisfaction I must take the same road back again another June day.

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