University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter XI

WHEN class resumed in September, 1872, Notre Dame had a new president, Rev. August Lemonnier. While destined to be brief, his term of office witnessed some important reforms. His character was such as to leave an indelible impression on students who knew him during his years as teacher and administrator. While serving as President, the fact that he was Father Sorin's nephew did him no harm, either. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Lemonnier ever took advantage of that relationship. In character the two were quite opposite. Lemonnier was amiable where Sorin was stern; he was modest where Sorin was bold; he loved rather to suggest than to dictate. But his leadership was made very effective, of course, by the consciousness that his wishes would generally be supported by higher authority.

Father Sorin's eldest sister had married a certain M. Lemonnier Dubourg, and they dwelt at Ahuillé, Father Sorin's birthplace in La Sarthe. Auguste Lemonnier[1] (he dropped the "Dubourg" after coming to the United States) was one of their children. He was born April 8, 1839. When thirteen, he enrolled as a student in the college at Precigné, and spent seven years there. Thereafter, he took up the study of law, apparently having no idea of the priesthood. But after two years he began, quite simply and without ostentation, to think of things more spiritual. He had a brother, Louis, who was studying for the ecclesiastical state. Auguste joined him in the Seminary at Le Mans. There he found himself longing for something more strenuous. He determined to enter the foreign missionary seminary at Paris.

The year was 1860. Father Sorin was in Europe on one of his numerous tours of duty." Quite naturally, he visited the Lemonniers, and gave full play to his powers of persuasion. If Auguste was set on being a missionary, very well and good! But had he thought particularly of the missions in America, of the vast, uncultured, unconverted New World? The picture, as drawn by Father Sorin, quite fascinated the young Auguste. Thereupon, with the understanding that he would join the Congregation of Holy Cross in America. Auguste was packed off to Rome to study with the Holy Cross seminarians at Santa Brigitta.

Before he had had time to finish his course, Lemonnier was summoned to Notre Dame in 1861. Among other preoccupations, he completed his theological studies and on November 4, 1863, was ordained a priest. Almost immediately he was flung into the hurly-burly of college life. Vivacious and sympathetic, he won the students' hearts by his zeal and prudence. In his nature there was no harshness. His character had no angles. It was easy to get on with him. He learned, with remarkable rapidity, the language and customs of Americans. He was a striking contrast to his brother, Louis, who had also come to Notre Dame. Louis was so uncompromisingly French that Father Sorin said to him, some time later, "If you insist on being so French, it would be better for you to return to France!"[2] Which he did.

Soon after his ordination, Auguste Lemonnier was made Prefect of Discipline. The students were grateful. He had such a broad view of things. Then he was made Prefect of Religion, and in this post he was admirable. His priestly conduct deeply impressed Notre Dame boys. They could understand a man who was at once so clever, so lovable, so exemplary. Later, when Father Patrick Dillon was made President, Lemonnier was, at Father Dillon's request, made Vice-President and Prefect of Studies. He continued in these two posts until 1872 when he became President.

During his term of office occurred one of those incidents which make every Notre Dame executive realize he is more a priest than a president. Maurice Williams, a student at Notre Dame from 1860 to 1865, had fallen a victim of tuberculosis. His mother wrote to the authorities at Notre Dame, saying that Maurice, realizing his last days were drawing to a close, longed to return to the scene of his childhood piety to prepare himself for eternity. She asked if Notre Dame might receive him. Of course the request was immediately granted. Father Lemonnier dispatched a letter to Mrs. Williams, and Maurice soon arrived on the campus. Every day Father Lemonnier visited him, solicitous about his welfare. When the young man, surrounded by the consolations of religion, finally succumbed on the 17th of December, 1872, Father Lemonnier was very sad, but very happy.[8] Notre Dame was, he felt, a success in teaching boys not only how to live a good life, but also in showing them how to die a good death.

* * *

The amendment to Notre Dame's charter, which we mentioned previously, was nursed through the legislature under Father Lemonnier's administration. Special thanks were tendered State Senator L. Hubbard, and Representatives W. W. Butterworth and Joseph Henderson. To the opponents of the bill, Notre Dame tried to explain that the property was held by two separate corporations, namely, the University of Notre Dame and the Brothers of St. Joseph. These latter, having as their special charge, the Manual Labor School, destined for the instruction of poor youths, had been exempt from taxation by a charter separate from that of the University as far back as 1844. In spite of this fact, the county of St. Joseph had insistently claimed the right to levy taxes. The question was finally settled in favor of Notre Dame.[4]

The Manual Labor School had, at this period, between forty and sixty pupils. It was not an organization that could be self-supporting. The students were poor boys who could pay little or nothing for their instruction; the period of apprenticeship was long; great quantities of material were wasted in learning trades. "Financially, the Manual Labor School would have been a failure had it not been supported, not by the Township or the County, but by the Brothers of St. Joseph themselves. As it stands now, the Brothers try to fulfill the requirements of their charter at a disadvantage to themselves."[5]

* * *

June, 1873, saw a graduating class of eight, four in the classical course, four in the school of Science. Father Lemonnier tightened up the requirements for graduation. He demanded, first, that the head of each faculty (what would correspond to our present Deans), be

sure that a candidate had taken all the courses prescribed. The Director of Studies was to prescribe the matter to be treated in a written examination. The professors giving this examination must turn in to the Director of Studies a report giving a percentage rating according to the merits of the written examination. Then, came the oral examinations, which were to take place in the presence of the respective faculties. A secretary must keep track of the number of the questions propounded to the candidate, and the number correctly answered. The percentage was calculated and handed to the Director of Studies.

Finally, when the examinations were over, there was to be a meeting of the entire faculty. The names of the candidates must be gone over thoroughly, each professor giving his own personal estimate -- in percentage -- of the intellectual merit of the candidate in question. This last percentage was added to the previous two and an average was struck. If the resulting percentage was above 80, the candidate was admitted for degrees; if it fell between 75 and 80, the President had discretionary power to confer or withhold the degree; if the mark fell below 75 per cent, the candidate was rejected until such time as he made up for the deficiency. It sounds very formidable, and it was a system which, perhaps, would not produce profound scholars. But it did produce good students. It was at least a fairer method of determining the merit of candidates.[6] Above all, it represented Father Lemonnier's determination that there should be nothing questionable about the University's degrees.

By his mildness and suavity, Father Lemonnier won the very affectionate adherence of all the students. Their enthusiasm for him was too genuine to call it veneration. They really loved him. Of his meekness, no one took advantage, for his soul was also direct, frank, and intelligent. The faculty was no less attached to him. On the occasions when custom demanded some formal presentation of congratulations or good wishes, the expressions of the faculty, voiced, as they usually were, in stiff formalities, were, nevertheless, genuine to the core.

For Father Lemonnier, the very center of life at the University was his uncle, Father Sorin. Everything turned around him. And the nephew was the light of Sorin's eye. Well aware of the criticism which might arise from their relationship, Father Sorin tried to maintain the impression that he regarded Lemonnier as just another worthy priest of Holy Cross. After the death of Father Lemonnier, Sorin wrote to the community: "With my habitual fears of the dangers of nepotism, I never left him [Lemonnier] a chance to benefit by our relationship; it ever stood against him in my mind, and often proved to him a loss -- and even now, when he is gone, I prefer abstaining from further remarks concerning him, save to thank, from my heart, the faithful souls who attended him through his long illness.

The uncle was no less the secret pride of the nephew. About Father Sorin, Father Lemonnier spoke sparingly to community members. But when he wrote to his people in France, it was apparent that the honor and glory of Sorin was uppermost in his mind. In the following letter, Lemonnier was describing the Solemn Mass at Easter, 1863.

As priest, no less than as President, Father Lemonnier was outstanding. In the numerous letters that came to Notre Dame after his death, tribute is paid, not so much to his intellectual genius, as to that power he possessed and used as a priest. As a mere educator, his influence was dimmed by his persuasiveness as a teacher of Christian virtue and Catholic practice. Old students testified that, as a result of Father Lemonnier's presidency, they were, not necessarily better students, but better men.

Numerous were the means employed to make Notre Dame boys behave themselves. Above all, of course, their sense of Catholic honor was appealed to. If this failed to produce results, as it often did, there was always the threat of expulsion, with subsequent disagreeable results at home. In Father Lemonnier's time, when the average student age was considerably lower than in later times, the maintenance of discipline was an arduous, but not impossible, task. Students ordinarily responded to the promises of some material and temporary record for good behavior. In one of his letters to France, Father Lemonnier describes how some "Notre Dame paper money" had been printed and given to the students for deserving merit:

There are still, among the scrap-books in the archives, some remnants of this paper money.

Great publicity was given to the mid-semester examinations of January, 1874. Shame or no shame, the names and results of the examinations were published in the Scholastic so that parents and others might know how the students stood scholastically. In the college, the average of the senior class was 87 per cent; that of the junior class (numbering only two students) was 88; of the sophomore class, 79; of the freshman class, 82. The students in the Commercial class, which outnumbered the enrollment in the classical and scientific courses by two to one, were not so successful. The seniors had an average of 81; the juniors, an average of 76. In the preparatory department the averages were terrible: an average of 68 per cent for the senior group; and an average of 66 per cent for the junior group. On this occasion the Director of Studies, Father M. B. Brown, got the name of being a "hard man.

On May 20, 1874, Father Lemonnier deemed it wise to insert in the South Bend papers the following warning:

This statement of policy was largely determined by an incident which occurred on February 12th, of the same year. That afternoon, a free day, some of the students took a long hike, in company with a By April 8, 1874, Father Lemonnier was, though only 35 years old, unmistakably a sick man. Perhaps the students realized that this might be their last opportunity to fête a man in whom they had so much trust, and for whom their affection was so great. Anyhow, they set to work to prepare a program honoring the President. It may have been admirable. The Scholastic says it was, but we may suspect that source as being somewhat partial. First, there was music by the band, then a selection by the orchestra. Frank Weisenberger, from Defiance, Ohio, stepped before the curtain to give the opening address, and then hurried behind scenes to don his costume for the first show.

There were six separate theatrical performances! First, there was "The Public Benefactor." Then, Frank Claffey, from near Bertrand, gave a declamation, after which, the curtain rose on "The Great Elixir," said to be a farce in one act. Billy Breen, from Fort Wayne, read an address from the St. Cecelia Philomathean Society. "The Brigand and His Son" followed as soon as the scenery could be changed. Then there was a comic interlude by Tommy Gallagher and Pete Daly. Finally came the pièce de résistance: "The Prince of Portage," or (subtitle) "The Burning of Bertrand." This title, suggestive of a conflagration in a neighboring village, never failed to evoke the most hilarious cat-calls from the students. No vaudevillian overlooks the sympathetic hearing to be expected from joking about the rival town. As the curtain rolled down, the Notre Dame Cornet Band played a buoyant air, mercifully so, for this marked the end of only the first half.

John Kelly from St. Paul represented the Columbian Library and Debating Club in a fulsome address, after which the curtain rose on "Handy-Andy," a drama in two acts. There was an interlude called "Where the Woodbine Twineth," followed by Carl Otto and Eddie Kimm in a duet. After another interlude, an address was given in Spanish, by Alfred Home, a student from Montevideo, Uruguay. Tom Cashin then sang "Molly Darling," and finally came an address from the Minims -- it took three of them to execute it. The Band appeared again, and at long last, the final dramatic episode, "Box and Cox."

Perhaps not an ordeal by fire, but it surely took a man to stand all that, a Notre Dame man![13]

It would have been heresy, in 1873, to imply that Notre Dame was not a great school. From its inception, it bore the name of a University. But if we accept the term "university" as indicating more than limited courses in the arts and letters, if the name signifies more than a faculty whose most outstanding quality is devotedness, if "university" stands for the production of great scholars, Notre Dame was not, neither then nor for many years to come, a university.

To an impartial observer, the comparatively elementary status of Notre Dame is not puzzling. There was, first of all, the poverty that clung like chains to the institution. It was visible on every page of Notre Dame's life. Men who might have become great teachers, and who, in turn, might have attracted worthy scholars, could hardly be expected to embrace the life of Spartan poverty which was the lot of a professor at Notre Dame. In the decade of which we speak, an annual salary of six or seven hundred dollars was thought liberal, almost prodigal. Again, the great number of hours of teaching prevented any scholarly research work.

Another difficulty that prevented intellectual expansion was the fact that Notre Dame, as a Catholic school, had not yet accustomed herself to seeking professors outside her own Catholic ranks. The day had not yet come when a non-Catholic teacher might safely instruct Notre Dame boys in even the most secular subjects. Even decades later, a professor of physics was astounded that he had been granted a contract without being even questioned as to his religion. "Just one thing before I sign," he could say to the President, "you have not said a word about my religious affiliations?" "Professor," he was told, "you take care of the physics; we'll take care of the religion!" But this incident occurred many years later. In those early days the staff of the school was exclusively Catholic.

When Father Lemonnier was alive, there were few outstanding Catholic scholars in America. There was, of course, Orestes A. Brownson, a convert, and serious effort was made to add him to Notre Dame's faculty. Mr. Brownson entertained the idea for some time. When he asked what might be his stipend, and what might be his duties, he was horrified at the answer. We do not know what were the terms actually offered, but Brownson did answer that he was "appalled that his services should be required daily from six in the morning until ten at night."[14] Naturally, he refused. He did consent, however, to be buried at Notre Dame.

Perhaps the greatest single obstacle to Notre Dame's intellectual expansion was Father Sorin himself. If it did not sound so frivolous it might be said that, as a University, Notre Dame has succeeded, not because of Father Sorin, but in spite of him. To say it seems like inviting, even today, the thunderclap of one of his fearful judgments. The man's powerful will is still an influence. It cannot be gainsaid, however, that Father Sorin's idea of a school was very different from that entertained at most universities in America at that time. His French mind may have been adaptable in other ways, but not in this matter of higher education. Even as late as the first decade of the twentieth century, Father Sorin's ideas had so impregnated those in authority, that Father Morrissey, president from 1893 to 1905, said: "What we need here is a compact, tidy little boarding school. We can't compete with these other institutions that have all the money!"[15] At the Commencement exercises of 1874, there were eleven graduates in the college department: five in the classical course; six in the scientific course. In addition to these, the degree of Master of Arts was conferred on three students, that of Master of Science on three others. The Law school graduated five. Medical certificates, -- really no more than pre-medical certificates -- were issued to three students. Commercial diplomas, signifying successful completion of the commercial course, were issued to thirty-nine. Bill Gavitt, instructor in telegraphy, recommended four of his students for certificates in that subject, which was something of a novelty.[16]

As the students and professors gathered for their banquet on the evening of June 18th, Father Lemonnier was not present. This caused some apprehension because he was known to be in bad health. When, after some long delay, he cama in, the entire student body gave him a hearty ovation. The chronicler of this occasion wrote a few days later that the assemblage was greatly relieved to note that the good Father seemed altogether recovered from his late indisposition. This, however, was a manner of speaking merely to spare the feelings of Father Lemonnier. It was to be his last commencement. He sat patiently at his place, and listened with quiet attention to the numerous toasts that were offered, toasts that Bill Breen announced as a "feast of reason and a flow of the soul!" When it came his turn to respond, Father Lemonnier, looking very tired and wan, rose to say a few words, then excused himself, "saying that he did not feel able to do full justice to the subject," and asked his kind friend Professor Howard to respond in his place.[17]

When the fall term opened, Father Lemonnier was a very sick man. Father Sorin, full of apprehension, had hastened from Europe. The sick priest was sent to Wisconsin, but became so ill that Sister Ascension was dispatched to bring him home. He begged Father Sorin to replace him at the college. He could barely drag himself around. He had not been able to celebrate Mass since August 2nd. When the doctor told him there was no hope, he was perfectly resigned. He said: "I came into the world with nothing; I take nothing with me; I am detached from everything; I desire nothing but the grace of God!"[18] Father Granger, with his great gift of consolation and comfort, came to his bedside and heard his general confession. Through many crises, in which he gave some hope of recovery, he suffered with buoyant resignation. Finally, on the evening of October 29th, after blessing those who had taken such exquisite care of him, he died, very quietly. The next morning, when his death was announced to the students, the campus was shrouded in sorrow so genuine and poignant that no greater tribute could have been paid to this energetic and zealous priest.[19] For years, the name of Lemonnier was associated with the University Library, and justly so. For it was this fourth president of Notre Dame who conceived and executed the idea of a "circulating library" to which the students might have general recourse. Some concept of Notre Dame's limitations may be derived from the fact that the University had no general library. There were, indeed, books which the students might borrow from their various professors. But students were, up until this time, given the distinct impression that if they applied themselves diligently to their text-books, there would be no necessity for outside reading or reference. There may be, indeed, something to be said for this point of view, but it was not Father Lemonnier's idea. He got Jimmy Edwards interested in the plan of a library. And in 1874, before Father Lemonnier had yet succumbed, Jimmy announced that, with funds allocated for that purpose, he had already collected over 1200 volumes.[20] It is impossible sufficiently to praise the energy and initiative of Professor Edwards. He so ingratiated himself with the Catholics of the country that they were willing to give him almost anything. For almost forty years he visited bishops, priests, and laymen, collecting valuable manuscripts and important souvenirs. It is largely through his efforts that Notre Dame today possesses archives which, for the student of American Catholic history are among the richest in the country.

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