University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter V

TO bring to the frontier the comparative luxury of a college is no easy task. Quite naturally, pioneers who grub the soil for a meager living in a harsh climate have little means securing an education for themselves or their families. Men who found schools must, of necessity, be a hardy lot. If they are not cushioned to indifference and opposition, they quickly succumb.

The earlier universities of the United States had great obstacles to surmount in their pioneer days. The University of Notre Dame was faced with several special difficulties and enjoyed few of the advantages of the older Eastern colleges. Most of those colleges were begun among English-speaking people, by founders who had no barrier of language to surmount. It was entirely different at Notre Dame. Among the men who founded Notre Dame, few could speak English except of the most excruciating sort.

Again, the Eastern colleges brought education to people of a distinct cultural background. When Father Sorin set up school, the only students he could possibly obtain were backwoods lads without intellectual formation or ideals. They were children of a second immigration. The courses of studies offered in those first few years at Notre Dame are not, as some might suppose, an indication of the low intellectual plane of the teachers; rather it may have been an index to the limitations of the students.

Thirdly, the founders brought with them not only their French language, but also their alien customs. Though the old Northwest had been French, by Father Sorin's time the French tradition and the French tongue had been largely supplanted by influences from New England, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. The French educational system, with its strict disciplinary supervision of a pupil's every waking moment, its tendency to suppress, its outlandish vigilance -- these were not an asset in winning American youth. The early Notre Dame boy felt there was always someone at the keyhole. It made him uneasy or angry. The French attitude was: crowd the day with so much to do that no pupil will find time for mischief. In fact, the day was so filled with lessons and recitations and examinations, and even periods of recreation were so strictly supervised and hedged about with restrictions, that the sons of pioneers from Logansport, Danville, or Fort Wayne had little appetite for this perpetual surveillance.

Though Notre Dame had been recognized as a University by the State of Indiana, the founders suffered no illusions about their school. The simple sort of instruction offered to its early students was the only form of instruction that could be imposed on this new and crude country. Nothing can hide the blunt fact that among the Catholic youth of the Northwest, for whom, primarily, Notre Dame was intended, there were only a scattered few who might have profited from a more advanced or elaborate kind of education.

With the passing of a few years, however, all this was changed. State universities and privately endowed institutions sprang up on all sides. Some of them were poor, many of them more poverty-stricken than Notre Dame. Still, a surprising number had a financial security that was denied to Father Sorin's school. Her slender resources made her hesitate to wax ambitious. Once the Council even admitted that it didn't have funds enough to erect an extra privy that was badly needed. Between hiring a competent physicist and buying a new plough, there was no choice. The stomachs came first.

In one thing only, according to Catholic standards, was Notre Dame rich. She was endowed with the firm purpose of placing first things first. Indeed she had no other raison d'être. As far as the arts and sciences were concerned, she soon found herself far out-stripped by other colleges. In laboratories, in professional staff, in physical equipment, she found herself surpassed by other institutions. The one thing that gave her courage, the one thing that seemed to inspire hope of becoming some day a great university, was her determination to give her students that moral and religious training without which no amount of secular knowledge is availing. She has been faithful to that determination. After one hundred years, she sees that hope fulfilled, that courage rewarded.

In 1843 Father Sorin outlined the sketchy details of the program of studies. What he offered was the curriculum of a tidy French boarding school. The Notre Dame boy had to rise at five-thirty. When he was dressed, he went to the study hall where he prayed and meditated under the supervision of a Brother. At six-thirty, he attended Mass, and after that, there was a short period of study, followed by breakfast. The hours from eight to ten were set aside for the study of grammar after which there were fifteen minutes of recreation. The period between recreation and noon was occupied in recitation. After dinner, the boys could play until one-thirty. For a half-hour thereafter, there was an exercise in reading. From two until four were held the classes in arithmetic, and then a half-hour's recreation. From four-thirty to six, there were classes in history, geography, and bookkeeping. At six o'clock the students gathered for a spiritual conference, followed by the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus. Supper was served at six-thirty, after which there was another period of study. Everyone had to be in bed by nine o'clock.[1]

This sounds like the most rudimentary sort of high-school work. And so it was. There was no effort to make it appear otherwise. There seems to have been no consideration for a distinction between the aptitudes of different students. Let them all take the same subjects. After all, this was a school in the wilderness. The students who already knew how to read and write would profit by repetition! Let there be nothing fancy!

This elementary program, coupled with the strange disciplinary regulations imported from France, somewhat galled the students. They were not slow to show their restlessness. It is to Father Sorin's credit that within two years he saw that some attempt must be made to accommodate his plan of studies to the demands and spirit of the boys he counted as his students. He knew that the Jesuit Fathers must have encountered the same difficulties with which he was faced. Accordingly he wrote to them at Georgetown University and St. Louis University, as well as to the priests who conducted Mount St. Mary's College at Emmitsburg, Md., and asked them how they had solved the problem. From the responses, Father Sorin chose the plan of studies followed at St. Louis University.[2]

At the beginning of the school year of 1848, the students were divided into two groups: those following the classical course and those following the commercial course. The only difference between two lay in the fact that those in the classical course studied Latin and Greek, whereas those in the commercial course substituted book-keeping and allied subjects. The college course comprised six years of work. Into these years was crowded all that was elementary in what we know as modern high-school, without any of its flounces, plus the Latin and Greek and English grammar, the natural history and philosophies that characterize the classical course. There was mathematics a-plenty. And, of course, all the religion -- although it was not mentioned in the catalogue -- that could be absorbed by the young student.[3] Moreover, by this time Sorin had professors who were competent in all these branches. It was a simple program, but thorough. As yet there were no theses to be defended nor dissertations to be written. These things, Father Sorin felt, would follow in their own good time. For the present he was concerned with the strict fundamentals of education.

In fact he could be concerned with little else. In those first few years Father Sorin not only headed the college and dictated its policies, but he had two other great concerns that demanded his attention. First, there was the question of subjects for his community. He was obliged to seek vocations both for the Brotherhood and the Priesthood. With only meager income, the newly founded university relied for its existence upon the lives of men who, for the sake of Christ, were willing to give themselves to the cause of education. To search for such men, and to form them both for the religious life and for the work of teachers, was in itself a great task. That alone could have occupied all Father Sorin's time.

But in addition to this burden the founder of Notre Dame realized that he must care for all the Catholics of the surrounding territory. Notre Dame was the center of a parish that extended in a radius of one hundred miles. The President of Notre Dame had little time to spend in his office. Often he was in the saddle headed for Goshen to administer the sacraments to a dying woman; or, of a Saturday, to hear confessions at Paw Paw where the Catholics had not seen a priest for two months; or, in company with Brother John, who was a native of England and who acted as Sorin's interpreter, he rode out to the Indians so that they might have Mass.

Gradually, of course, more priests and Brothers came to help him. Father St. Michael Shawe, a secular priest from Vincennes, joined the University in 1845. He was a very distinguished man and an eloquent preacher. So great was his reputation that when notice was given of his intention to preach in the Court House at South Bend, the building was jammed. He preached a series of fifteen sermons at that time, and not once was there even standing room. In addition to his powers as a speaker, he was also a splendid scholar. He taught Latin, Greek, and English. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the Bishop of Detroit heard him preach and offered him a position which he accepted in 1849.[4]

Then, too, there was Father François Cointet, upon whom Father Sorin relied in a most extraordinary way. François Cointet and Edward Sorin had been class-mates in the Seminary at Le Mans. Edward had joined the Auxiliary Priests of Father Moreau, while François worked as a secular priest in the diocese of Le Mans. One day François met Father Moreau, just when the latter had received from Edward Sorin the first of Sorin's letters from Notre Dame. Reading it, François caught the fever of Edward's enthusiasm. He joined the Congregation and begged Father Moreau to send him to America.

Father Sorin was mightily pleased to have him. His scholarly attainments made him a welcome addition to the faculty. His disposition was so mild, his devotion so great, his influence so salutary, that Father Sorin leaned on him heavily. His companionship, his comforting encouragement and sound advice made him Sorin's right hand man. Knowing this, one can understand why Sorin, in 1854, as François Cointet lay dying, wrote: "The day I saw that Father Cointet was going to die, I almost lost my mind!"[5]

Father Cointet's death was a blow not only to Father Sorin and the students, but also to the Catholics of the vast parish of Notre Dame. Although he taught his classes regularly and skillfully, Father Cointet's greatest interest was in the missions. He arranged his classes so as to be free for one or two days at a time. "It was to the sons of the forest, the remnant of the red race passing from the plains of Indiana and to the advanced guard of civilization, the poor Irish laborers of the railroad that he delighted to break the bread of life. Now riding at nightfall over a wide extent of country to reach some Indian wigwam, or seated in a shanty, by the side of an unfinished railroad, hearing the confessions of the poor Irish women, explaining the catechism to a crowd of wild ragged little children who formed a circle around him; or collecting the men at the close of the day as they returned from their hard toil, he taught them their duties as citizens and Christians. How often have their shanties, by the railroads of Michigan and Indiana, been converted, by his presence, into holy temples where the poor laborers, strengthened by the Blessed Sacrament and the consoling voice of the priest, became new beings."[6]

After 1858, when the diocese of Fort Wayne was erected, and when John Henry Luers[7] was consecrated its first bishop, the priests of the University were relieved of the onerous and unremunerative years spent on the mission. When it was charged that Father Sorin had derived a large sum of money from these missions, he was able to lay before the bishop some astounding figures. In the eight years that the Notre Dame priests had been taking care of these outlying parishes, each priest averaged a gross income of $143.37 per year. Father Sorin added the ironic touch that no bishop in the country would expect any of his own priests to operate on so small a capital.[8]

In spite of Father Sorin's numerous preoccupations, the college went on its way, sometimes very shakily, but nevertheless, making progress. We have seen the almost ridiculous daring of the man, building his four-storied brick college when the student body was almost less numerous than the professors. Into that building went his whole heart, for within its walls he hoped to mold a new generation of Christian gentlemen. If he had to skimp and save and worry about how to pay for the building, he quickly turned to the Blessed Virgin. Had he not dedicated the whole thing, community, buildings, and students, to the Mother of God! He had an unshakable confidence that this wealthy Queen would not fail him. So, when the fall term of 1845 began, he walked through the building and surveyed his work. There in the basement was the study hall, quite satisfactory, with its twelve-foot tables and backless benches attached to them. Above this, on the ground floor was the refectory seating thirty or forty, and the kitchen. On the second floor, there were nine private rooms for the priests and seminarians. The third floor was divided into dormitories for the students, similar to those we find in Carroll Hall and Brownson Hall in the present Administration Building. Private rooms for students were unheard of. Finally, there was the garret which served as a dormitory for the workmen and for working boarders.

The whole arrangement was considered pretty elegant. Within eight years, however, there was crying need for more room. It was decided, therefore, to build the wings called for by the original plan. This was made possible by the assurance of a very substantial gift of ten thousand dollars.[10] With this additional expansion the University could take care of two hundred and fifty students. Though it would be some time before such a large number could be reached, all the additional space was put to good use. There was now a large assembly room that could be used as a theatre or lecture hall. There was also a museum, a rudimentary sort of science laboratory, and an armory with fifty-two stands of arms. There were, of course, additional study rooms and dormitories.

And the museum! We have always wondered about the museum. When visitors came to the University, it was displayed with a great deal of pride. We know that Father Sorin acquired it from a Doctor Cavalli in Detroit. Sorin owned a couple of lots in that city and made the trade with Doctor Cavalli.[11] Simple as it must have been, it nevertheless excited a tremendous amount of curiosity. At the commencement exercises of 1845, a certain Mr. M. R. Keegan reported to the Philadelphia Catholic Herald: "The greatest rush was to the hall occupied by the splendid museum. . . . It is a splendid collection of beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, antiquities, etc., from the various parts of the globe."[12] We may be sure that the worthy Brother in charge of the collection kept the priceless treasure well locked.

Father Sorin also built a two storied Infirmary near the north-east corner of the college building.[13] This was in 1844. Eight years later the building was enlarged, and a good portion of it was used to house regular students who were desirous of having private rooms. Prospective students were warned that if they wanted private rooms they had better make early application.[14]

In 1850, however, a new infirmary was built. It was erected at the north-west corner of the administration building, on the site occupied until recent date by the old kitchens. It had a sad fate, as will appear in a later chapter. With the erection of this new infirmary, the "old infirmary,"as it was called, was used for class rooms and for a band room.

All this time the faculty and students were obliged to attend religious services in the log chapel built by Father Sorin when first he came to Notre Dame. In the winter it was frightfully cold, and a constant menace to the health of the students. A new church, one nearer the college building, was imperative. Where was the money coming from? The council met. It was determined that they would expend $1500 in erecting the new church. Five hundred dollars was to be in cash, the rest in kind, particularly from the lime kilns which, for some time, had been operated by the Brothers on the Notre Dame property. The building was begun on May 25, 1848.[15] It stood on the site of the present church, and was ready for dedication on November 12th, of the same year. It was only ninety feet long, thirty-eight feet wide and twenty-four feet high. But it was the largest Catholic church in northern Indiana and seemed quite distinguished. With pardonable pride, Father Sorin thus describes it: "The style is Greek, with rounded arches. There are three vaults and six columns which produce a very pretty effect. The tribune, which has been built for the use of the Sisters, is elliptical like the sanctuary. It is already enriched with an organ of Mr. H. Erben, and, though a little weak for the church, is one of its most precious ornaments."[16]

The following year, 1849, on November 11th, the church was solemnly consecrated by the Bishop of Vincennes, Maurice de St. Palais. Neal Gillespie, one of the students at the time, wrote a letter to his sister describing the event. He says that the members of the band were routed out of bed at an early hour. By five o'clock, with fingers half frozen, they were sourly serenading the visiting prelate. When he was vested in pontifical robes, they formed a procession to the chapel on the island. There they procured the relics and marched back to the church. When the numerous prayers and processions and incensings were accomplished, and the twelve crosses marked on the walls, Mass was celebrated. Father St. Michael Shawe preached, and Gillespie remarks that they could have listened to him longer. After that, the Sacrament of Confirmation was administered. Altogether the ceremony lasted from seven-thirty in the morning until two-thirty in the afternoon. Then, there was a dinner. It must have been a grand dinner, for there was, to use Gillespie's own expression, a bowl of French coffee at the end of the meal, and there was brandy for the coffee. Indeed, it was under the influence of this final course that Gillespie, returning to his room, wrote to his sister and described the banquet so enthusiastically. He ended his letter by saying that he was very sleepy.[17]

During the summer of 1848, a long brick building of two stories was erected on a plot of ground north of the Administration Building. The first story housed the carpenter shops, locksmith, shoemaker, and bakery. The second story was used as a dormitory by the apprentices. Together with the Administration Building and the infirmary, the new building formed a little court, something like that which exists today behind the Main Building.

In 1853 Father Alexis Granger cut away the underbrush on the northern edge of St. Mary's Lake and chose a spot, with Father Sorin's approval, for a novitiate for the priests. There they laid the foundations for what was known as St. Aloysius' Novitiate. It had fourteen private rooms and a chapel. In this quiet spot there was an atmosphere of deep religious peace. It was built on the site of the present Holy Cross Seminary.

Then, finally, there was the post-office, a small brick building to the south of the college, on the road that leads to South Bend. It was in 1850 that Father Sorin made his first attempt to secure a postal station for Notre Dame. The effort failed. It was asserted that Notre Dame was so close to South Bend as to make a post-office at Notre Dame unnecessary. New requests were made to no less a personage than Henry Clay. Thanks to his support, and to that of Congressman Fitzgerald of Niles, the request was granted on January 6, 1851.[19] Father Sorin was made postmaster, a position which he held until his death. After the establishment of the post-office at Notre Dame, the four-horse mail coaches stopped at Notre Dame three times a week en route from Logansport to Niles.[20]

The post-office at Notre Dame was a great convenience for the college. It also brought in some welcome revenue. Father Sorin wrote: "The regular passage of the mail coach under the college windows makes the college better known, and causes the public highways leading to it to be carefully maintained."[21] This interest in the upkeep of the roads around Notre Dame prompted Father Sorin to seek and gain appointment as Inspector of the Public Ways.

In those early days, when the struggle to survive as a college was so bitter and keen, Father Sorin and his subjects were unbelievably artful in devising means of income. The post-office is only one instance. The priests and Brothers used every device to bring in a few extra dollars. It meant the difference between life and death for the institution.

One who looks at the older campus, notes the peculiar yellow brick used in the buildings. All of these bricks were made here on the grounds of Notre Dame. One of the first things that Father Sorin noted on his arrival was the number of marl beds that surrounded the lake, a white putty-like substance into which more than one unwary student has stepped only to spend an hour cleaning his shoes. This marl was a prime factor in the manufacture of lime and bricks. From the very first, the community built a kiln, and from this marl and sand fashioned the bricks. This meant a great saving in the construction of the newer buildings. This industry, also, was one of the first at which students, trying to work their way through college, were employed.[22]

By 1847, Father Sorin told his council that he had more than enough bricks for his own use, and was selling 100,000 of them for $3.00 a thousand.[23] By 1858 half a million bricks were being made annually on the premises. But getting into the brick business was not all profit. In fact, it was soon decided that it would be better to lease the marl beds for so much a year to men who knew the business better than the community members.[24] For over a period of thirty-five years the marl beds were a source of income, not much, to be sure, but at times enough to make the difference between eating and not eating.

Despite this struggle with poverty, there were, however, some simple luxuries. It is incredible what little things, in the midst of want, will bring pleasure to men. It seems wonderful that such a thing as a bell could make the priests and students so happy. Yet, on Christmas night, 1843, the joy of the mid-night Mass was complete. They had a bell. It had been brought over from France the previous month by Brother John. It weighed six hundred and sixty pounds, was hoisted to the college tower, and was blessed by Father Sorin on Christmas eve.[25]

When the new church was built, the bell was transferred to the belfry above the sanctuary. One night, in the spring of 1851, a howling wind swept belfry and bell to the ground. This, the first of Notre Dame's bells, was then given to St. Mary's College, as there was a prospect of Notre Dame's obtaining even a larger one. To be sure, Notre Dame purchased a great bell that summer in Cincinnati. It weighed three thousand, two hundred and twenty pounds. After being blessed on the feast of the Assumption, it was elevated to one of the towers that had been built at the front of the church.

In 1856, the chimes were added. As these things go now, the chimes are nothing much. But in that day there was nothing so fine this side of the Alleghenies. They consisted of twenty-three bells, tuned in chromatic scale, and so arranged that a revolving drum, with pegs at suitable places, tripped a hammer against the lip of each bell. A student of those days wrote: "No music in the world, as we believe, is more pleasing than on a sweet summer evening, after all the world is hushed to rest, to listen to the melody of some holy song . . . borne from these bells over the surface of the lakes." [26]

Still later, a booming bourdon, weighing 15,400 pounds, was hung beneath the chimes. In those far away student days the ringing of this great bell signified not only solemn Mass and great ceremony, but also chicken fricassee and oblong pies such as only the Sisters could make. Its ringing produced a nervous expectancy among the students that lasted until noon. When they were well glutted, and the bell rang again for vespers, it can be doubted that there was any alacrity in the response. I have often wondered what would have been the reaction of the student body, if, after the ringing of this great bell, they had trooped into the dining hall to find only round-steak and jello. It would have been as though the University authorities had played on them all morning the cruelest sort of trick.

In the early council records of Notre Dame there is ample evidence that constant attention was exercised lest the pupils should get out of hand. Every effort was made to engage the attention of the student on his studies. In the first years the classes were so small that each professor had considerable time for criticism of the work of his students. One incentive to make them study harder was the monthly distribution of prizes. To be sure, the prizes weren't much -- a little cross for the first prize, and some ribbons for the runners-up -- but it made competition a little keener. Of course, there were times when a student was too brilliant. It was a foregone conclusion that if young Hays were permitted to enroll in all the classes, he would get all the prizes. So Father Sorin saw to it that there were some classes to which Hays would be refused admission.[27] The prize awards, or exhibitions, as they were called, took place on the first Tuesday of each month. The Director of Studies conferred with the professors as to the best and most diligent students. Lists were made. The good students had their names written on a list called "Diligents" Those at the tail end were entitled "Negligents." To appear on the list of the "Negligents" was calculated, so thought the authorities, to fill a student with such embarrassment that he would see to it that his name would not be found there next month. It worked in most instances. But as always, there were some who didn't give a hang about any list. All they wanted was to get out of school. Such an attitude did not fail to shock some of the early professors. Father Sorin, however, seems to have understood the matter. Without compromising his ideals, he tried to take a milder attitude. There was the case of young Lafontaine, for example. Though a bit spoiled, he was, in Father Sorin's eyes, a good rascal. The council of professors considered him worthless, and stated that Father Sorin should punish the lad or even expel him. No one, however, was able to force Father Sorin's hand, a fact which seemed to be particularly galling to Brother Gatian, who wrote the minutes of these council meetings, and, who, in his own fretful way added: "The whole affair was referred to the decision of the Rev. mild-measure-taking Superior!"[28]

The end of a school year is, generally speaking, the cause of great rejoicing. Pupils especially are relieved of the serious tension of study and discipline. They little realize what a feeling of relief comes to the teacher and administrator. The concluding days, however, when examinations are finished and plans for vacation are being projected, are passed in a whirl of excitement. In the small Notre Dame of the early years, these final days seemed of tremendous importance.

Even in 1844, there was a commencement, of sorts.[29] Of course, there were no graduates. But certain prizes could be given, some certificates awarded. Cordial goodbyes were said. Father Sorin and his co-workers, patting many a sluggish little head, hoped that the promising and the paying might return another year to this infant University.

In 1845, the celebration of July 4th closed the Academic year. Father Sorin invited the more important personages in South Bend, Mishawaka, and Bertrand to be present for the festivities. In the Main Building there was one fairly large room called the Music Hall. This was converted into a theatre. The ceremony began with the reading of the Declaration of Independence. That beginning had an irresistible appeal to these pioneers of the Northwest, many of whom had seen two wars fought for the principles laid down in that hardy document. "At sunset," runs the story, "they were there in crowds. The avenues were covered with people. The portico, the dormitories, and especially the museum, were crowded with people." At eight o'clock, the doors of the improvised theatre were opened, and the visitors listened to an address by one of the professors, probably Father Sorin. Then came the play. It was called "Procida." We know nothing about it save that it went off with great success, and, as the chronicler says: "Everybody in South Bend is talking about that night at the college."[30]

Mr. Keegan, correspondent for some Eastern newspapers, attended one of these early commencements. The lengthy notice of the affair written by him and appearing in the papers suggests that he was paid by the word. Nevertheless, what he says is interesting:

There is no record of a "Commencement" in 1846. But in 1847 Brother Gatian, whose account we follow, writes that Mr. St. Mar, a youthful professor at the University, had rigged up and painted the scenery for a theatre erected under the "new shed." The students tried their hand at Shakespeare's Henry IV and a decorous Falstaff. Before the curtain rose, there were gymnastic exercises whose purpose was to impress parents with the fact that the physical life of their offspring was not being neglected. Between the acts, "our band of music, lately organized . . . discoursed excellent music." The chronicler, speaking of the crowd, concludes: "There were about eighty carriages, and four stages, and upwards of seven hundred persons." Not a bad showing for the University which less than five years previous had begun with a log chapel and an unbounded confidence in the goodness of God's Mother.[32]

In 1849, however, the surrounding populace -- which had already begun to look to Notre Dame for its fourth of July entertainment -- was doomed to disappointment. It was all an accident. This year, a certain Mr. Nightingale was in charge of the commencement affairs. He was a choleric and sensitive individual, somewhat inclined to over-value his own capacities. He couldn't put up with what he thought was mediocrity. He had no sense of how to get along with the boys from the backwoods. The students didn't like the play he had chosen. The boys in the band didn't play to suit him. After a long morning of heavy rain, nothing was prepared. At the last minute, Nightingale, with ostentatious indignation, washed his hands of the whole affair and left his performers to themselves. It is said that he rode away on a horse that night and was never heard of again. Brother Gatian, in his record, says: "The whole thing was botched."[33]

In 1849 was held the first commencement in the real sense of the word. There were two candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts and Letters, and not only the records of the time, but also subsequent events, prove that those degrees were really earned. The first graduates were Neal Gillespie of Lancaster, Ohio, and Richard Shortis. Both of them became priests of Holy Cross; the first, designated as professor, Master of Novices, Director of Studies, and editor of The Ave Maria; the second, as professor and third Vice-President of the University.

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