University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame -- One Hundred Years / by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.

Chapter IV

PRIOR to 1821, the history of Ste.-Marie-des-Lacs is largely shrouded in the mists of Indian tradition. In that year the chiefs of the Indian tribes living in this locality met with the commissioners of the Public Lands in Chicago. A treaty was drawn up. The Indians ceded to the United States, for the purpose of a road, a strip of land, one hundred yards wide, running from Chicago to the Wabash river, the exact location of which was to be determined by subsequent surveying. More than that, the Indians agreed to cede, for every mile of that future road, one section of land to the government. These sections of land, grouped where the government so desired, were to be sold to the public, the profits to be used in building and maintaining the road itself.[1]

By subsequent treaties of 1826, 1828, and 1832, a large portion of the present St. Joseph County passed into government hands. The property on which Notre Dame is located, was included in these transfers.[2]

In 1832 Father Badin bought three parcels of land, amounting to 250 acres, from the State; from Samuel Merrill, he purchased two parcels of land; from Austin W. Morris, he acquired one parcel. In all, Father Badin acquired 524 acres, including the two lakes on the present campus.[3] Father Badin planned to establish an orphanage on that ground, but after a year as we have seen, he abandoned the idea, hoping that some one else might later fulfill his desire. On July 31, 1835, Father Badin transferred all this property to the Bishop of Vincennes, with the understanding, first, that the property would be used for an orphan asylum or some other religious or charitable project, and secondly, that Father Badin would be reimbursed to the extent of seven hundred and fifty dollars for building and improvements made at his own expense.[4]

In June, 1839, when Bishop Bruté lay dying, he transferred all this property to Father John Vabret, his Vicar, who in turn was to relinquish his holdings as soon as a new Bishop of Vincennes had been appointed.[5] When Bishop de la Hailandière returned from France where he had been consecrated, the transfer froIn Father Vabret took place.[6] The new Bishop tried to interest the Fathers of Mercy in carrying out Father Badin's dream. And in August, 1840, the property at Notre Dame was actually transferred to Father Ferdinand Bach, of the Fathers of Mercy, with the stipulation that Father Bach would establish a college there.[7] Failure to fulfill this condition would compel Father Bach to return the land to the Bishop. When Father Bach surveyed the situation, he despaired of fulfilling the condition. He did, however, purchase an additional three hundred and seventy-five acres from Father Badin,[8] in Section 10, Township 30, which property he later assigned to the Bishop of Vincennes. Altogether, therefore, the Bishop held title to nearly nine hundred acres of land in St. Joseph County.

When he offered this property to Father Sorin, however, he did not have in his possession the deeds to the property. Father Bach, growing tired of Indiana, had gone to New Orleans to join the secular clergy, and had taken the deeds with him. It was only in the following year, 1843, that Father Bach returned the legal papers. Father Sorin, in the meantime, had been at Notre Dame for nearly a year, and was in a fair way of fulfilling the almost impossible conditions laid down by the Bishop -- namely, that he establish, within two years, a college, and a novitiate for the priests and Brothers. But as yet he had no legal title to the property. As soon as the Bishop received the deeds he assigned the original 524 acres to Father Sorin and Brother Vincent.[9] Four years later, he assigned the other three hundred and seventy-five acres to Father Sorin, as a sort of inducement to transfer the Novitiate to Indianapolis, a move long desired by the Bishop.[10]

As to the buildings on these grounds, there was, first of all, the chapel erected by Father Badin in 1834, in which was buried the body of Father Deseille. Another building served as the house for the halfbreed interpreter, Charron, and his wife. Finally, a small shack, not much more than a shelter, was standing near the chapel.

For several weeks after Sorin's arrival cold weather made it almost impossible to work outside. Father Sorin's first desire was to build another chapel. Father Badin's chapel was too small and in a sad state of disrepair. Father Sorin felt that if the chapel were larger it would attract more of the neighboring Catholics and could be so arranged that a portion of the structure might be used to house his community, which, by spring, with the arrival of the Brothers from St. Peter's, would have grown. Immediately he appealed to the Catholics near South Bend for help in erecting the chapel. They were poor, of course, but they were willing to give of their time and labor -- cutting logs, clearing the ground, hauling the timber. The site chosen was higher up on the banks of the lake. Then, on a given day, all the helpers gathered to raise the walls of the chapel. The weather was so cold that the men went home before the roof was put on. They did not return. Father Sorin, by slow stages, and at considerable expense, put the roof on the chapel only after the tiny group of Brothers came in the spring.[11]

When he left St. Peter's, Father Sorin had split his community in two parts. Eight of them came to Notre Dame. Ten remained at St. Peter's, mostly novices, under the charge of Father Chartier. The Bishop was very anxious that the Novitiate should remain close to him. But when, suddenly, Father Chartier left the community, the group at St. Peter's was left without a priest. In that circumstance the Bishop could hardly object when Father Sorin ordered them all to come to Notre Dame.[12]

Brother Vincent was the superior of this group. Early in February they loaded a large wagon with their simple possessions, beds, pots, and pans, and enough food to last them for the journey. The wagon teas drawn by four horses. The cavalcade included eight head of cattle. As they moved down the ridge from St. Peter's and climbed the hill toward Washington, the road was covered with a thick film of ice. The poorly shod horses found it very difficult to maintain their footing. The cattle fared worse. Once, when the whole procession had almost negotiated the hill, those in front began to slip. The first struck the one behind, and all -- horses, wagon, men and cattle found themselves once again at the bottom of the decline. It took all the neighbors to get them over that hill.

Once when it was necessary to cross a river, they drove the horses and wagon on a great flatboat, and herded the cattle behind the wagon. the cattle became restive and started milling about. Finally, they plunged, one after the other, into the stream, and, of course, swam for the wrong shore. The chronicler makes no reference to what the Brothers said.

The trek northward was never forgotten.[13] Twice they had to sleep out in the open. When they wished a piece of bread, the frozen loaves had to be cut with an axe. A day was lost when one of the wagon wheels gave way, and they had to buy a large sled and transfer not only the load, but what remained of the wagon, to this new mode of conveyance. One of the Brothers froze his toes; two others had their faces frozen. Probably, in later years, they could laugh about that trip, but living through it must have been terribly grim.

They finally reached Notre Dame on February 27, 1843. It was Mardi-Gras and after all their suffering it must have seemed a very Fat Tuesday just to have warm soup. They had hardly arrived, when Father Sorin pointed to the unfinished roof of the new chapel. The next day, all of them set to work. By March 19th, the roof was on. They had Mass that morning, -- it was the feast of St. Joseph -- the first in their new church. During the summer, an addition was made to the chapel, and still another was planned, which would make the building ninety feet long.[14] Moreover, under the roof of the chapel, a loft was prepared for the expected Sisters.

In spite of these improvements, Father Sorin doubted that he would have room enough for his colony and students. He had acquired students from almost the day of his coming. That young Coquillard boy, who led him to the site of Notre Dame, was enrolled as a student, perhaps the first student of Notre Dame. We say perhaps, because from the records it appears that a certain Clement Reckers disputes Coquillard's claim to be considered Notre Dame's first student.[15] There were more than two students, of course, even that first winter. There is every reason to believe that the courses of studies were neither profound nor thorough. It is a difficult task for the head of a college to be too meticulous about credit hours and standardized degrees with the wolf so constantly at his door. If he was to begin at all, the head of this new college had to be mightily concerned about frost-bite and empty stomachs. The more elusive problems of intellectual development would have to wait.

In spite of this first sketchy sort of education, pupils did show up. They brought hardly any cash. It was as though a father, wishing to register his son, rode up to the registrar's office and paid for his son's orthography with a sack of potatoes, for his arithmetic with two likely-looking shoats. Moreover, as the months wore on, inquiries came from parents about the new school by the lakes; and this curiosity was, to Father Sorin, a sort of advanced registration. He was mightily encouraged. The faculty and personnel of the school were about to be increased by the coming of a new colony from France. This new colony included two priests, one seminarian, one Brother, and four Sisters.[16] After a hazardous trip across the ocean, and a journey by land from New York to Detroit and thence to Notre Dame, they reached their destination the last of July, 1843.[17]

The presence of the Sisters was a great novelty, both to Catholics and Protestants. The first Sunday after their arrival, the chapel was packed. Black-robes they had seen aplenty. But these were strange looking women in their sombre dress and blue cord and flaring hat. Father Sorin took this occasion to tell the congregation who these women were and why they had come. Their devotion, he said, would make possible the development of the school, for they would cook, wash, mend, nurse, even milk the cows, making possible an economy that would permit a financial outlay on other projects. And they lived in the loft over the chapel, where their fluted caps scraped the roof. There was only one window. The place was dark and stuffy. The bugs came through the chinks, and there were rats and cobwebs and fleas for the first few nights. Apart from this, remarked Father Sorin, the Sisters were quite comfortable![18]

Before quitting Vincennes the previous November, Father Sorin had consulted Mr. Marsile, an architect, and together they had drawn up plans for a college building to be erected at Notre Dame. It was to be in the form of a double hammer, one hundred and sixty feet long, thirty-six feet wide, and four and a half stories high. It was a pretentious project for one who was having difficulty getting enough meat and potatoes. Nevertheless, when Father Sorin left Vincennes it was understood that Mr. Marsile would come to Notre Dame the following spring to erect that building. In the meantime the architect expected Father Sorin and his Brothers to prepare as much lumber and brick as possible. And this they did, sixty thousand feet of lumber, and two hundred and fifty thousand bricks and the necessary lime.[19]

When by late spring the architect failed to appear, Father Sorin and the Brothers began to get nervous. Without the guidance of Mr. Marsile, they did not feel capable of erecting so large a building themselves. But they had to have more room. So they drew up a plan of a small square brick building, of two stories. In a short time the building was ready. It is what is now called "Old College" or the "Mission House." It is wonderful what Father Sorin packed into that building. There was a dormitory for the expected students; a dormitory for the Brothers; a refectory; a bakery; a class-room; and a clothes room. This building is the only original landmark on the campus. It rests to the right of the library by St. Mary's Lake, in the midst of deep shade, dwarfed by stately halls, like a shrunken but contented mother surrounded by her numerous well-to-do children. To be sure, a little brick and plaster have been added. But the building still retains the simple, frank expression of the humble inception of Notre Dame. No gilded dome or towering spire, no flêche that cuts the sky, no ornate cornice or sculptured porch was born except in the lowly hopes of "Old College."

When it was finished and inhabited, the long-awaited architect arrived. On August 24th, he came with two workmen. Why he had so long delayed, we do not know. It seemed almost too late to start putting up the larger college building that had been planned. Nevertheless, the presence of the architect and his helpers kindled the feeling that the new structure might be started and, with good fortune, be reasonably complete. Most of the lumber and bricks were at hand. But there was very little money. Father Sorin got out the leather pouch and counted. All too little! But there were friends. Mr. Byerley, who had entertained Father Sorin in New York the day of his arrival, was now a resident of South Bend. He offered to loan Father Sorin five hundred dollars outright, and to extend two thousand dollars credit in the store he conducted in South Bend. Moreover, Father Marivault, one of the new recruits, had an inheritance in France. This he turned over to Father Sorin.[20] It amounted to twelve hundred dollars. In all, Father Sorin had cash or credit for the sum of probably four thousand dollars. Well, what were they waiting for? Father Sorin decided to start building the central part of that double-hammered edifice; the two wings could wait for more prosperous days.

The architect had arrived only on the 24th of August; on the 28th, they had a formal laying of the cornerstone. Father St. Michael Shawe, vicar-general of the diocese, was there to bless it. Brick upon brick, you could see it growing every day. The mildness of the weather favored the workmen. It was hoped that it would be under roof before the snows came. And it would have been, too, had not a fire broken out in the yet unfinished building. This was the first of a series of fires that dogged the early college years. Fortunately, this time, the damage was slight, but it was sufficient to hold up the plastering until the following spring. By June, 1844, some of the rooms were ready for occupancy, and by fall the whole was completed, even to a bell hung in the cupola.[21] The first condition laid down by the Bishop had been fulfilled. The college was launched.

In the meantime the second condition was well on its way to fulfillment: the novitiate. It will be recalled that the Bishop wanted the Novitiate kept in the south, at St. Peter's. But when Father Chartier withdrew, it was imperative that the novices move north, where they could be under the direction of a priest. The Bishop had to be content with a novitiate erected at Notre Dame. In November, 1843, Father Sorin drew apart from the community to make his retreat in silence and seclusion. The spot he chose was called simply "The Island." It was an eminence between the two lakes, the site now occupied by the Community House. It was surrounded by marshy ground. One had to use a boat to get to it. During his retreat Father Sorin experienced such peace and freedom from care that he determined there should be the spot where novices, in prayer and study, should lay the foundation of the spiritual life. There, he felt, they would receive that godly strength of which they would stand in so great need if Notre Dame were to succeed. Even during the days of his retreat Father Sorin chopped down trees and cleared some of the ground, while he thought over the kind of building he would erect. It was not until the following summer, 1844, that he was able to proceed. But by December 8, 1844, two buildings had gone up, the novitiate and a chapel. Father Sorin surveyed his work. The Bishop had said, "Within two years, let this be done." Well, it was done.

This chapel on the island was to be the spiritual center of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Indiana. There is no trace of it today. It was torn down in 1858 to make room for a larger building. But in the early days it was the place, above all others, where the Community really enjoyed itself. All the old records speak of it with reverent attachment. In the morning, at meditation, Mass and Communion; in the evening, when the community, in two canoes, paddled to its shores, recited the beads and said the Litany; on the days of retreat; the anniversaries of profession and ordination -- always this place, above all others, was sanctified by a religious peace. For years it was the only thing at Notre Dame that made any pretention of being extra fine.

Only a year after Father Sorin's arrival, and before the walls of the new college building had yet been finished, his zeal had made itself felt in a telling way. John B. Defrees, a resident of South Bend, and state Senator to the Indiana legislature, admired the courage of Father Sorin. In a year's time, he noted this energetic priest had laid the foundations of what gave promise of being a fine educational institution. Although a Methodist, he came to see Father Sorin, and offered to procure from the legislature a charter setting up at Notre Dame a university with the legal right to exist and grant degrees. [22].

One January day in 1844, Father Sorin called all his professors together in his little room in Old College. He explained to priests and Brothers that if they were to be worthy of the Senator's generous offer, they must organize their courses of studies in such a way as to justify the promised charter. It is not difficult to imagine some of the things which Father said to the group of priests and Brothers. "During this present year, about twenty-five boys have been enrolled in our classes. If their education is to be solid and attract others, we must give to each one every attention possible. Surely, we must offer more than spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic! You, Father Cointet, will teach Latin and Greek! You, Brother Gatian, will teach history and French! Brother Augustin, you will see what you can do with Botany and Zoology!" This was the first faculty meeting. This weekly get-together was to continue unbroken for over thirty years. [23].

On January 15th, 1844, by legislative act. Father Sorin's school became a University.

This encouraging act on the part of the State could hardly have created any illusion in the minds of the faculty. Like the students, the professors were just beginning. Even the most venerable universities had humble beginnings, and in their case, too, the term university implied, not so much that actual state of things, as dreams for the future. But in the case of schools which are built on mission foundations, that dream is brought forth only slowly and painfully. Such a school cannot dip into the public till to pay the salaries of professors. No taxes are set aside for its budget. Of course, it often has the endowment of flesh and blood of men like Sorin and his associates, who ask nothing but a little food and shelter, and who give of their all to realize the dream.

On the 2nd of December, 1843, Father Sorin inserted in the South Bend Free Press a notice of his intention to found a college at Notre Dame. The notice is too long to give here, but we will summarize its more important points. To begin with, he states that the location is one both beautiful and healthful; and that the school can be easily reached from any large city in the region. He describes the college building as being equal to anything in the United States, probably quoting the architect; he promises a gymnasium to provide the last word in recreational facilities. He assures anxious parents that the good Sisters and competent physicians will guard the health of their children.

As to the discipline, students may expect a paternal yet firm attitude. Their morals and deportment will be carefully guarded, their reading matter assiduously watched. During recreation periods, a member of the faculty will always be with them. There will be no whipping or beating. If students cannot be corrected by measures short of corporal punishment, they will be dismissed.

While the college is Catholic in tone, and under the direction of Catholics, students of any faith will be accepted. There will be no interference on the part of the faculty with the religious tenets of a non-Catholic student.[25]

* * *

John Smith from Fort Wayne drove over to South Bend. He dropped into Benjamin Coquillard's tavern. We suppose that Mr. Smith picked up the South Bend paper of December 2nd. He read the notice inserted by Father Sorin. He laid down his glass, refusing the offer of a second drink, mounted his horse and rode to the lake.

Over on a high piece of ground, there was the noise of hammering and sawing, the tinkle of trowel on brick. Smith rode over slowly, and observing a tall be-cassocked man moving among the workers, he drew alongside, and said:

"I'm looking for a man named Father Sorin. Be ye him?"

"Ah, I am Father Sorin!" Smith then dismounted.

"I seen your notice in the paper! My name's Smith!"

"Ah, yes, yes!"

"I got a boy, a right smart lad, an' I thought mebbe we could make some kind of dicker for his schoolin'."

"How old is the boy?" asked Father Sorin.

"He's nigh on't fourteen now. His maw's dead, and I'm thinkin' of catchin' me another wife. Thought's how the lad might be better off away from the house!"

"Some arrangement, I think, can be made. Has the boy been to school?"

"Oh, yes. His maw was a bright woman, and she spelled him and learned him to write. The school-master down at Fort Wayne said he is the brightest lad in school. O'course, his maw helped him a lot. But, now. . . ." his voice trailed off.

Father Sorin cleared his throat.

Smith resumed: "What do it cost?"

"Well," said Father Sorin, "for one hundred dollars we will feed him, wash and mend his clothes, give him medical attention; teach him the complete English course -- spelling, reading, grammar, history, bookkeeping, surveying, astronomy! Yes, one hundred dollars a year!"

"I ain't got a hundred dollars," said Smith, quite simply.

"No? Well, perhaps some other arrangements might be made," suggested Father Sorin. "How much could you pay?"

"Twenty-five or thutty dollars, mebbe!"

"What do you do for a living?" asked Father Sorin.

"I farm. An' I got me a little grist-mill, too."

"Perhaps you could give us some of your farm produce, if you can't pay in cash," said Father Sorin.

"Yep, I was thinkin' about that. Could you use some corn meal?"


"Could you take a couple o' hogs?"


"My wife had a lot o' clothes. I don't suppose. . . .

"No," said Father Sorin.

"Mebbe some furniture? I got a nice highboy, brought out from Vermont!"

"Yes, I think so!" mused the priest.

"Is that enough?"

"Yes, I think that is enough, Mr. Smith," answered Father Sorin.

"Good!" They shook hands. "When can I send him?" asked the traveler.

"We can take him any time. What is his name?"

"Like his paw. John Smith!"

"Very well. We will expect the boy. You can, perhaps, eh, pay

something in cash when the boy comes?"

"Yes, I reckon I can." Smith started to remount, but then turned to Father Sorin.

"Do he get Latin, too?"

"No. That will cost another hog!"

"Do he learn to play the piano-forte?"

"Ah, no, that is much extra! Two hogs! Two big hogs!" exclaimed the priest.

John Smith said nothing until he had mounted. Then, turning to priest, he said quietly but resolutely: "I'll git the hogs!" He rode off in the direction of Fort Wayne. A new student, perhaps, enrolled.

If there were a John Smith starting to Notre Dame that year of 1844, besides the hogs and cornmeal and highboy he would have had to bring his own bed and bedding, his own knife and fork, six shirts, six pairs of stockings, handkerchiefs and towels, and other specified bits of clothing. The chances of John's having any spending money would be slim, but anyway, he would be told that all pocket money must be turned over to the Treasurer of the college. The Treasurer would see to it that John spent nothing foolishly. Finally, John's parents would be told not to make any unnecessary visits. And, "if parents write to their children, please pay the postage. We don't want any 'postage-due' letters!"[26]

* * *

That July afternoon, 1835, when Father Badin had met Bishop Bruté in Pittsburgh, and transferred the Notre Dame property to the Bishop, he stressed particularly his desire that the care of orphans should loom large in the plans of whoever finally got the property. Poor and crowded as the community was, Notre Dame began to acquire orphans from the very first.[27] Almost without exception, these orphan children were destitute. The most reasonable charity, therefore, was to teach them some useful trade whereby to earn a living when they should reenter the world. Among the Brothers, Father Sorin had many excellent tradesmen -- bakers, carpenters, brick-masons, farmers, and tailors. These orphans, working under the Brothers, could acquire a trade, while, at the same time, their industry would, in part pay their way at the school.

The orphans, or rather apprentices, as they were called, had a program quite distinct from the ordinary student. It was to their advantage to learn a good trade, and that as quickly as possible. They took no part in the course of studies as outlined for the college boy. In fact, but for the over-crowded conditions, they would have had little contact with the ordinary student. Not that any premium was placed on snobbery. Not that the apprentices were not considered good enough. But since their whole day was spent in manual labor, they had little interest in what the college boy was doing. This distinction became all the more actual when, once more Senator Defrees offered his kind services in obtaining a charter for the Manual Labor School.[28] It was organized under the Brothers of St. Joseph, and for over sixty years procured for hundreds of unfortunates, a hope and chance for the future.

This Manual Labor School was the first Catholic trade school in the United States. The Sisters of Charity, and others, had for years maintained orphan asylums for younger children. But no provision had been made for these children as they grew up. Now that the Brothers of St. Joseph were taking care of this problem, several Bishops, among others, Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati and Bishop Hughes of New York, pleaded with Father Sorin to give them Brothers that they might erect in their own dioceses schools of the same kind.

If, at the end of this two years, we might have witnessed the improvements accomplished at Notre Dame, and if, while looking around, we might have encountered that tall, strong figure of the priest who began it, we might exclaim: "How did you do this? Tell us, what were your resources!" Perhaps he would make answer in this fashion:

"Voila! It takes money, or something like money, to make this beginning. See what I had! First of all, this land was given to us by the Bishop, land which is ours now, and which we can cultivate. Secondly, I have this devoted band of priests and Brothers, some of whom will plant the crops and, God willing, reap them; others will teach; all of them will live like poor men, exacting only the merest trifle for their own sustenance. There! We are rich -- already.

"But in addition, the Propagation of the Faith has been generous, too. This past year alone, $1850 came from them, and we have every assurance that from time to time they will continue to help us. And see how my friend, Father Delaune, for a whole year went about the country begging for us. He brought us 15,000 francs. My own Brothers, too, have not disdained the role of beggar. Many a needed dollar they have brought to me.

"Some of us priests, notably Father Marivault and myself, have used up the private patrimony that would come to us on the death of our parents. And see the kindness of Mr. Byerley! Ah, there is a friend! Sometimes, I wonder how he can have such faith in my work! But, thank God, he has. Without his extension of credit, I should never have been able to do all this.

"Then, too, as I go about the country, caring for the Catholics in St. Joseph, Berrien, Niles, Bertrand, and Plymouth, they give me what they can. It is little enough, for they are poor, and like us, they are making sacrifices, too. But it all helps. Often, I have no cash on hand, and many a night I wonder where I will get food for all my hungry mouths the next day. But something always turns up.

"For, let me tell you, if all men fail me, there is one treasury that is always full, and from which, when all else is exhausted, I can draw. That is the treasury of Our Most Holy Lady. That afternoon, when first we set foot on this land, we went on our knees in the snow and placed our confidence in her. In the darkest hours of our need, in the moments of deepest discouragement, I have called on her for help. Never once has she failed. More than that, so great has been her protection that I am compelled to go right ahead with this work, knowing that her power and kindness will not fail us in the days that lie ahead.

"Look, when this school, Our Lady's school, shall grow a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a golden dome, men may look and find the answer!"

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