University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter VII

IN the 1840's and 1850's, the question of discipline at Notre Dame was an interesting one. We might add, it still is. Of course, the Notre Dame of today is for men of college age. The restrictions placed on the students in this year of centennial jubilee are few and mild when compared with those of former days. But in 1850, there were boys of every age at Notre Dame. In fact, boys in the grade school and preparatory school far outnumbered the collegians. As a consequence, the discipline imposed was more for children than for grown men.

The founder of Notre Dame, with his French background, had never lived in a school in which there were many liberties. Nor could he understand with sympathy an educational system that left the student much freedom of action. in fact, no one at Notre Dame had any freedom. Even the professors, whether laymen or religious, were bound by rules that governed all their movements. A lay professor must live on the college grounds; must conform to all the religious exercises; must not go to town without permission; must put out his candle by nine o'clock; must, under no consideration, imbibe. In fact, this last stricture was looked upon with such severity that, in the contracts of the lay-professor, it was often stipulated that its violation meant the forfeiture of a certain portion of the professor's salary.[1]

The conduct of the pupils was, in theory, the province of the Prefect of Discipline. Under him, he had a certain number of prefects, or overseers, as they were called at first. These minor officials went into the dormitories in the morning, and saw to it that students got up promptly and dressed in silence and with decorum. The boys were then accompanied to the chapel, many of them clattering downstairs in their wooden shoes. Leather boots were a luxury. There was a period of study before breakfast. Occasionally, monotony was illegally disturbed. For instance, young Falvey, who had cut up during chapel, had only one piece of bread for breakfast.[2]

Then came a short period of recreation, during which the students were supposed to take care of the necessaries. Even in this intimate matter, there were restrictions. The disciplinary council cautioned the overseers to make the boys walk, not run, to the privy.[3] Moreover, it would be well to have one of the overseers take up a post very near this primitive structure lest the boys inside tear the place to pieces.

In the college building were two large study halls. The desks and benches were all home-made. Each student was provided with quill and ink-steel points had not yet appeared. Writing paper could be procured from the Brother in charge. A pen knife, to sharpen the quills, cost only a few cents. The Brother had some fancier ones from France, but they were more expensive. When the bell rang for the end of recreation, the students were lined up in the yard, weather permitting, each class in separate ranks, and were marched into the study hall. And there they stayed, working at their desks, until the professor appeared at the door, and called out: "Algebra I." Students enrolled in that class left their desks, stood silently in ranks until all was ready, and then the professor, at the end of the line, marched them to the class-room.

It all sounds very tidy. This sort of regimentation was not wholly resented by the students. In fact, the boys of that day were more amenable to these petty rules than the students of a later era. Of course, there were compensations. We gather from the early records that lectures and lessons were made more tolerable by the abundant chewing of tobacco. The minutes of the council frequently decree more serious efforts to put a stop to it. One entry orders that pupils who insist on chewing tobacco shall be punished by being obliged to pay the servants who had to scrub the class-room floors.[4]

The monotony of school life was occasionally broken by some obstreperous youth who couldn't knuckle down. Willie Ord, for example, felt his oats more than once, and must have caused great diversion to the students as he caused a certain amount of trepidation among the teachers. He was a big, strong lad. On four separate occasions he attempted to strike one of the professors. The council decided to "give him his trunk," the expression used during that period to indicate expulsion. The council, however, was prevented from carrying out its decision by Father Sorin, who had the final say in these matters. The boy's bills were not yet paid. Father Sorin spoke to the lad, but the monition, if effective at all, did not have any lasting effect.

The saga of Willie Ord is fascinating. A few weeks later, in company with three other lads, Willie went to South Bend. All of them, by their own admission, stopped at Chafin's and had a few beers, but not enough to make them drunk. They were feeling very happy on the way home, though, for Willie started prancing around, yelling at the top of his voice. Nearing the river, he conceived the idea of a swim, and throwing his clothes, piece by piece into the air, he plunged in without the formality of a bathing suit. It was considered quite indelicate on Willie's part. This time, Father Sorin almost yielded to the council, but Willie was still in debt to the college. To expel him would preclude the possibility of collecting.

In a few days Willie was in trouble again, this time because he had actually thumped Mr. St. Mar, the drawing teacher. Mr. St. Mar said that unless something were done about Willie Ord, the institution would be minus a professor. As Mr. St. Mar's services were quite necessary, and since Willie's bills had been adjusted, he was told that the University could do without his presence.[5] Willie was really caught off base that time. We don't know what happened to him eventually, but the chances are that he made a success of life. Expelled students have a way of acquiring fame and fortune that embarrasses the institutions which turn them out as too hot to handle.

The yard in front of the college was divided, half for the older students, half for the little fellows. There was a strict injunction that each division should keep to its own play-ground. The prefects and overseers were present to see that order was observed. The students could not run in or out of the buildings during the period of recreation. If they wanted a drink, the Brother in charge was instructed to bring them a pitcher of water. Now and then the prefects would caution the boys not to slouch around in careless postures or unbecoming attire. It was also strictly forbidden students to blow their noses with their hands.[6]

When they went to the refectory for meals, they stood until Father Sorin entered. They all said grace together, at first, in Latin, later on, in English. The food was simple to the point of poverty. There was always soup. In one instance, Mr. Gouesse, later Father Gouesse, complained that the students wouldn't eat the soup. It was ordered that the cook make better soup, and not water it down in order to procure greater quantity.[7] Poverty sometimes rendered the food unsatisfactory. There is the tendency, however, on the part of boarding students to think that they are being swindled, no matter how elaborate the table. To complain about the food is a privilege of college boys. No one takes it very seriously, particularly when they keep adding unbelievable pounds to their skinny frames. In any case, the complaints against the table at Notre Dame never approached the grievances at many another private school. Harvard, in its first year, seems to have reached an all-time high in this regard. The estimable Mrs. Eaton, who set the table for the first Harvard students, said, in her own defense, that although she had not served beef as she should have, it was wholly untrue that she had served ungutted mackerel; and the charge that she had put goat-dung in the hasty pudding was absurd.[8]

Everything possible was done to keep the boys away from South Bend. When it was necessary to make some purchase in town, a student was obliged to inform the superior. Most often Father Sorin would tell the student that the steward would make the purchase for him. But if the student had to go himself, he must always be accompanied by a prefect. Once in a while a student or two would evade the vigilant eye of the prefects, and scoot off on a little expedition of their own.

These little forays into South Bend were trifling affairs. Occasionally there were complaints, and Father Sorin put a notice in the paper saying he would appreciate the cooperation of the South Bend citizenry if they would quickly report any misdemeanors.[9] On the whole, South Bend then and now has suffered little from the pranks of the students. It is a matter of pride that their fear and reverence for the priests who govern them prevent the students from starting those town and gown riots to which some college towns are subjected from time to time.

The early students at Notre Dame were not renowned for their wealth. It was a school primarily for poor lads. Consequently there were few fancy clothes. A boy grew accustomed to wearing plain and patched garments. His Sunday suit was kept carefully in the trunk-room to be issued only on appropriate feasts. It was embarrassing to the authorities when the parents of a boy paid a surprise visit, and found their offspring clad in his shabbier garments. Father Granger, to whom parents must apply when making a visit, was warned by the Council to see that the object of such a visit was thoroughly combed and shined before the parents were allowed to see him.

The rules for cleanliness are interesting. At first, baths were permitted only once a week. Later on, permission to bathe was extended to twice a week.[10] It was ordered that the boys, presumably the smaller ones, had to see the Sister in charge twice a week to have their feet washed, and their hair combed. This latter injunction was a precaution against extra boarders who might have taken up lodgings in the shaggy locks that crowned such innocent heads. Those older pupils, whose beards were beginning to cause them anxiety, had the privilege of shaving twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday after dinner.[11]

Corporal punishment was thoroughly discouraged, even from the beginning. Father Sorin told his men that if a boy could not be corrected without a beating, then he should be sent away. In fact, one professor was severely censured for having whipped a boy in music class.[12] A boy was reprimanded, was deprived of his recreation, was compelled to memorize a certain number of "lines," was even detained in what Father Sorin called the "jail," a room in which a boy was locked up for an hour or so. This is a far cry from discipline of two centuries earlier, concerning which a recent author has written: "Two young men, . . . lately come out of England (were condemned to be flogged) for foul misbehavior, in swearing and ribaldry speeches."[13] Now and then, we suppose, a student must have received a good belting from some outraged prefect or professor, but it was not and never has been the policy here. Sometimes the wrong person may be belted.

Fear of parental resentment was, no doubt, the reason in many instances, for withholding the rod. Now and then, however, the University authorities were shocked at the reaction of parents. For instance, in 1847, after many attempts to reform Tom Bracken, the Council agreed that he should be dismissed. A letter was written to Bracken, Sr., to this effect. Therein, the Prefect of Discipline enumerated all the complaints against the boy, and asked his father to come and get him. The Prefect was totally unprepared for the response. Mr. Bracken concurred so heartily in the judgment of the University authorities, so readily seconded all the complaints they had against his son, that the council relaxed and decided to give the boy another chance.[14]

The recital of all these disciplinary strictures must not lead the reader to the conclusion that the boys had no fun. Besides their daily games in the school yard, there were long hikes, There was plenty of hunting in the countryside, and under the supervision of an overseer, the boys bagged many a rabbit and pheasant.[15] They fished and swam in the lakes. But the walks were the principal diversion. We find a letter from Neal Gillespie to his sister, Eliza, dated Nov. 17, 1850, which runs as follows:

Those who were charged with the execution of disciplinary measures were often chagrined by the lack of support they received from the higher authorities. In the very first years, the Prefect of Discipline wrote in the Minutes of the Council Meeting that unless their decisions were seconded by the President, ruin would come to the institution. Father Sorin however was inclined to the side of the students, and defended himself by demonstrating his ability to reform a lad by kind words. Even so, the position of the disciplinarians was not made easier. According to the records, George Darr caused a lot of trouble. The Prefect of Discipline writes that George "deserves to have his name recorded here for his successful efforts to observe no rule of the institution and not get expelled." In a note added later, the Prefect does justice to George by adding: "He returned to Notre Dame three years afterward and conducted himself very gentlemanly."[17]

The most frequent complaint against students, as the college grew, was their tendency to imbibe. The authorities would not tolerate such action. There is hardly a page of the disciplinary record on which it is not written: "This student was expelled for coming home drunk;" "this student, arrested for intoxication and lodged in the South Bend jail, was sent home." Of course, the fellow who went to South Bend and "returned beastly drunk, first wishing to fight, then to embrace, the Prefect of Discipline," was given his trunk.[18] Students would go to the infirmary, complaining of feeling ill. When the infirmarian had gone to bed, they would make a quiet get-away to South Bend, and return in the early hours, the infirmarian none the wiser. Of course, there were miscalculations. The Prefect of Discipline records this one: "Mr. G., a frequent patron of the Infirmary . . . got so much whiskey that he could carry neither it nor himself. He was permitted to go home as soon as he was able to make his way to the cars."[19]

Sometimes the more independent scholars banded together in concerted rebellion. The University might expell single individuals, but it would not think of wholesale expulsions. So reasoned the students. Of course the University dreaded the necessity of taking action against a crowd, but it often did. here is the instance of the "dirty nineteen," as they called themselves. They were a "lot of scampishly inclined gents," according to the record, "who absented themselves in a body from the study-hall one afternoon, went to town, came home at night with more liquor concealed about their persons than they could well carry." The "dirty nineteen" had a surprise waiting for them. When they got back to the University, there was neither supper nor bed for them. Their trunks were packed and on the front porch. They were driven back to South Bend in company with three or four Brothers. One of the lads was very much inclined to fight the Brothers. The record says very simply that the offender was well thumped. [20]

The discipline of Notre Dame was widely acclaimed. Many a harried parent thought it just the place for a boy who was getting out of hand. One such student of the early days writes:

As sometimes happens, the mutinous youth became a brilliant success. In 1911, the University made him a Doctor of Laws. No trace of the nail-clinched book has been found.

Many a present day student who, by chance, might read these pages will be tempted to exclaim: "It hasn't changed a bit!" This would be unfair. The discipline most certainly has changed. But there is still a great deal of it, for which Notre Dame is not ashamed.

Notre Dame regards the moral conduct of its students as one of its essential concerns. It cannot be content with planting knowledge in the mind of a young man. It worries about the lad whose brilliant mind is not supported by rectitude of will. Knowledge without character can prove ruinous, not only for the individual, but for society as a whole. It can be said that Notre Dame's effort to direct the wills and the conduct of its students sharply differentiates it from the majority of this country's educational institutions.

As a Catholic priest, Father Sorin could have been no more indifferent to the moral life of his pupils than to their intellectual development. The Catholic priest knows that in every man there is a mind, whose principal object is to know God; there is a will, whose primary aim is to love God. The Catholic priest knows that a man who fails in the knowledge and love of God, no matter what may be his other attainments, has failed in the most important part of life, the end of life. And if a Catholic priest, when setting up a school, shows no interest in the moral development of his subjects, he belies his own faith. This is particularly true of Notre Dame where thousands of boys eat, sleep, play, study, and pray under one roof. Notre Dame cannot take the place of the student's parents. But it can do its best. And what it asks of a student is not just an external conformity to rules of decent conduct, not just a veneer of good manners. It asks its students to cultivate in their hearts a love of God, a profound respect for His law, a deep-seated fear of offending Him.

The set of regulations that governs the conduct of the student body is at times burdensome. In conforming to it, the student certainly makes some sacrifices. His freedom of action is somewhat cramped. The necessity of asking permission for a week-end; of going to bed at stated hours; of attendance at classes -- all these things, and dozens more, can sometimes become very annoying. Perhaps the University is wrong in requiring these sacrifices. But it has good reason to think otherwise. They are, generally speaking, the same kind of sacrifices that conscientious parents demand, in their own homes, of these same young men.

Nor must it be thought that the disciplinary picture of Notre Dame is composed of nothing save these rather negative features. There is a very positive side to it. The serious effort made to inspire the student with the reverent conviction that, at all costs, he must save his soul, has not been without reward. The powerful agencies of the sacraments, of confession and communion, and the study of Catholic doctrine and moral practice, give students perspective of reality never to be obtained by any other method. That reality is the accepted fact that some day the student will have to render an account, that unless he lives well, the chances are he won't die well. This is the positive side of Notre Dame's discipline.

And it is not without its consolations. When, on a May evening, strong men gather in the moist coolness before the grotto and sing tn praise of the Mystical Rose; when thousands of young feet, on Sunday morning, startle the occasional visitor by the sudden tramping to the altar-rail; when, during Lent, one finds, all day long, in the Lady chapel, a string of young men kneeling in silent adoration before the Eucharist; or when, as often happens, a priest is permitted to gaze into the soul of a sorely tried youth, kneeling at his feet, to lift from his heart a burden become most trying, to fill his mind with peace and the assurance of pardon, to know that in some dark corner of the college church, he will kneel in silent thanksgiving for the indescribable relief he now experiences: these are the things that justify the word "discipline." These are the things discipline is meant to accomplish. These are the things it has done.

Most of the petty technicalities attendant upon the discipline of Notre Dame when it was a school for little boys have disappeared. But in training his scholars, Father Sorin was inclined to regard seriously the things we call trifles. One day in 1845, when the council met he had something to say about this point. It is recorded in the picturesque English of Brother Gatian:

There is more, but this is sufficient to convey the idea behind Father Sorin's acts: if the prefects are always on the job, their presence has a gentle driving force, a suave compulsion to keep the rules. Huge-framed and powerful man though he was, Father Sorin had a thorough dislike of floggings and beatings. Not only a dislike, but a thorough mistrust. If a student had to be treated in a way that would alienate his good will, he preferred to have him withdraw from the institution. He was opposed to expelling the students. Let them withdraw. If their presence was bad for the general discipline of the school, convince them that they could do better elsewhere. This advice determined the language, no doubt, of the Prefect of Discipline who, on one occasion had to deal with a boy frequently inebriated: that he go back to his home town where he could have easier access to good liquor.[23] Father Sorin felt that expulsion "ruined the reputation" of a young man, and spoiled his chances of recovery; and secondly, that the school earned his bad will. Expulsion was a precarious procedure, especially for a college that was begging for students, and fighting off its creditors.

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