University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter XII

DURING the last year of Father Lemonnier's presidency, Father Patrick J. Colovin had been vice-president. Upon him, as a matter of course, fell the burden of carrying on. He was a Canadian by birth, but strong in his attachment to Ireland and Irish ideals. Father Sorin did not quite trust him. He thought Colovin too independent. He had been made vice-president only on the appeal of Father Lemonnier, who had a great respect for the merits and learning of the man. Indeed, Father Colovin had great talents. He was an excellent theologian and a very dramatic, convincing orator. His lectures to the students commanded a restrained enthusiasm. His style was direct, clear, practical. During the three years that followed Father Lemonnier's death, he was in great demand as an orator on public occasions. It was unfortunate that he did not enjoy Father Sorin's confidence. His character, indeed, was in marked contrast to that of his predecessor. Where Father Lemonnier was warm, gracious, pliable, Father Colovin was dignified, and rather unbending. Unlike Father Lemonnier, he made no warm friends among the students or faculty. He had their respect, but not their affection.

Father Colovin's independent and contentious spirit was almost a personal affront to Father Sorin. Sorin could stand the sons of Erin only if they were subservient and submissive. An Irishman who dared oppose him or differ with him was frowned on, and, oddly enough, condemned on account of his nationality. Sorin thought there was something in the Gaelic temper that was bad for religious obedience. In one of Sorin's letters of a later date he notes that a Bishop is being harassed by some of the priests of his (the Bishop's) diocese. And as a proof of the justice of the Bishop's cause, Sorin declares that the accusers "are all of them Irish!"[1]

Father Lemonnier's last words had been: "Be good to the students."[2] Father Colovin, colder and more impersonal, was not greatly impressed by this injunction. He had the idea that students were not to be coddled nor made much of. Let them be docile and studious, let them be attentive and assiduous, and they would become creditable men! The angles of Father Colovin's personality were in marked contrast to the gentle qualities of Father Lemonnier.

For over two months, Notre Dame was left without a president. The obvious choice was Father Colovin, for he had been acting president since Father Lemonnier's death in October. On New Year's Day, 1875, Sorin was practically forced to make a decision. As was customary, he presided at a faculty banquet that day, and listened to a speech in which the speaker, a layman, after extolling Irish Americanism, asked Father Sorin publicly if he did not have some announcement to make that would give this banquet historical importance in the annals of Notre Dame. What could Sorin do? He well knew what the hint implied. He therefore arose and proclaimed that Father Colovin was appointed President of the University.[3]

Things seemed to move along in their accustomed manner. There was, indeed, an undercurrent of opposition to Sorin and the French, which found expression in Colovin's speeches and actions. But it had the external appearance of innocence and guilelessness which excused all intent of venom. After all, a Christian charity and justice was expected of priests and, in externals at least, Notre Dame was not cheated of this expectation. When Father Sorin and Father Colovin sat down together at public gatherings, they gave the appearance of good will. It did credit to both of them. When the Papal Delegate, Archbishop Roncetti, arrived on June 7, 1875, there was no appearance of friction between Father Colovin and Father Sorin.[4]

At the June commencement in 1875, a friendly gesture was made toward Latin America. An honorary degree was conferred on Joseph Emanuel Barcia of Rio de Janeiro. There were three Masters of Arts, one Master of Science, two Bachelors of Arts, two Bachelors of Science, one Bachelor of Laws (Jimmy Edwards), one Civil Engineer, three pre-medics, and forty-three graduates in the Commercial course. The premiums and prizes were distributed by Father Colovin, who spoke with a certain cordial frigidity. It was not to Father Sorin's liking. But the Scholastic says his speech was received "with loud applause, which it deserved."[5] The commencement was made sorrowful by the drowning of Frank Foxen, from Detroit, in St. Mary's lake. He had just been graduated with highest honors in the Commercial department.[6]

The Pinkerton detective agency in the 1870's commanded a reverent awe. It was the F. B. I. of the age. It was a matter of pride for Notre Dame students to recall that two of the original Pinkerton's sons had studied at Notre Dame, Robert and William. A search through the disciplinary records of the time fails to reveal any offense that might presage future greatness. A Brother prefect in the senior study hall, who kept a diary in 1867, writes:

Robert Pinkerton is frequently mentioned as the recipient of scholastic honors. He seems to have been almost too good. It was with pleasure, however, that years later the students read the following:

Bob Pinkerton seems to have been duly impressed by the frequent notices given of him in the Scholastic of the times. That he appreciated his old school's remembrance is proved by an excerpt of his letter printed in the school paper.[9]

* * *

It was in the fall of 1875 while the old church was being razed and the new one being constructed, that the Scholastic noted the removal of the remains of Fathers Deseille, Petit, Cointet, and Mr. William Phelan. Mr. Phelan, it will be remembered, was one of the earliest benefactors of the institution, and the stepfather of Rev. Neal Gillespie who had died shortly after the decease of Father Lemonnier. Today, these bodies lie beneath the foundations of the present church at Notre Dame.

In November, 1875, Father Sorin embarked on another ocean voyage -- his thirtieth. Before his departure, Tom Gallagher of Lynn, Massachusetts, and Master Lee Frazee of Portsmouth, Ohio, delivered appropriate addresses.[11] Father Sorin's passage was destined to cause Notre Dame great anxiety. In mid-ocean the machinery of the L'Amérique was shattered by the rough sea. The vessel had put out from New York on November 13th. She was due in Le Havre ten days later. "Sunday morning (the seventh day) a terrible commotion shook the whole vessel for 20 seconds, as though she was riding over a series of rocky hills." The captain of the boat announced that the shaft of the propellor had been broken, and that they were left to what make-shift sails they could improvise. They wandered helpless on stormy seas for over two weeks. It was a time of intense anxiety and much suffering.

One of Father Sorin's most devoted friends and co-workers was the aged Mother Ascension. She it was who had taken such exquisite care of Father Lemonnier in his last illness. For this young priest, the old nun had a remarkable devotion. There is no doubt that she looked upon him as a saint. She had his photograph where she could see it constantly. She kept a little diary. In it, Sorin's name is nearly always indicated by a tiny cross. Soon after Sorin's departure on this perilous voyage, we note some remarkable entries.

On the fifth of December, the Ville de Brest drew alongside, and offered to take aboard those passengers who would risk the transfer. Father Sorin was among the refugees.[13] He arrived in Queenstown, December 18th.[14]

* * *

Shortly before his trip to Europe, Sorin had organized at Notre Dame among the smaller students a society called the "Guardian Angels of the Sanctuary," whose chief purpose was to pray for the Holy Father. Luigi Gregori, the artist, heard about it, and painted a graceful little water-color, in which the Pope, Pius IX, was represented as kneeling in the sanctuary at Notre Dame, surrounded by Father Sorin, and some of the priests, Brothers and students. In passing, we call attention to the happy coincidence that later on, Cardinal Pacelli, the present Holy Father, did kneel in that same spot, October 25, 1936, where Gregori had painted the Pope of his day.

Father Sorin had several audiences with Pius IX in the spring of 1876. The Pope was delighted with Sorin's announcement about the "Guardian Angels of the Sanctuary," so grateful and delighted, in fact, that Sorin dared to ask His Holiness to write a few words on the tableaux painted by Gregori.

"Certainly, certainly, my beloved son," said he, "let me see again that fine drawing by Gregori!" When the picture was brought forth, the Pope took his pen and wrote in a rather shaky hand:[15]

Benedicat Deus omnes qui ambulant in semita mandatorum suorum.

At an earlier date Father Joseph Carrier had been largely responsible for the existence at Notre Dame of a "scientific department." He was greatly interested in botany and biology. One of his young pupils was John A. Zahm, listed in the University catalogue as from Huntington, Indiana.[16] Zahm later joined the Congregation of Holy Cross, began his teaching career in 1873, when he is listed as "assistant in Chemistry, Physics and the Natural Sciences."[17] This devoted and determined subject of Holy Cross was destined to have a far-reaching influence on Notre Dame. It was under his administration as Provincial, at a later date, that the priests of Notre Dame were enabled to prosecute their studies and attain a certain amount of intellectual distinction. Father Sorin was fond of Zahm, and, as might be expected from his arbitrary character, furthered his intellectual longings. Where others would push and fight, Zahm was content to mind his own affairs and replenish his intellect. Father Sorin found him a very fine subject.

Zahm's influence as a teacher, lecturer and writer cannot be over-estimated. Almost every month for a period of twenty years he gave special lectures to the students on scientific subjects. In old Phelan Hall, a structure which stood behind the church, his lectures were attended with respect and admiration. There was little original about the man -- although his brother, Albert Zahm, was one of the pioneers in aeronautics, concluding his experiments in Science Hall with a shadow of secrecy and mystery. John Zahm, however, was the great impetus for the furthering of scientific investigation and research. It was his example and encouragement that gave Notre Dame a name in science.

South Bend was a growing town at the time, and it attracted many of the famous lecturers and actors of the day. The Scholastic of May 13, 1876, says: "A number of persons from Notre Dame went to South Bend, on Monday night last, to see Edwin Booth's rendition of 'Hamlet.' On the afternoon of that day, Mr. and Mrs. Booth visited Notre Dame and were highly pleased with what they saw. Want of time prevented them from remaining long. . . . It is now some fourteen years since Mrs. Booth was here, and her visit was a special pleasure to her."[18]

When Commencement, 1876, rolled around, William J. Onahan of Chicago was the principal orator. After apologizing for his appearance on the program, he launched into a magnificent oration on "The Catholic and the Citizen." It was what was expected of him, and he did himself proud. His discourse was long remembered. For this and other demonstrations of his profound Catholic spirit, he received the Laetare Medal in 1890.[19]

At Commencement that same year, 1876, were conferred five degrees of Master of Arts, two degrees of Master of Sciences, four of Bachelor of Arts, six of Bachelor of Sciences, four medical certificates, and eighteen commercial diplomas. The hard times, resulting from the post-war period, were beginning to tell on Notre Dame. Father Colovin was in a difficult spot. The number of students was beginning to diminish.[20] It was later claimed that Father Colovin's frigid disposition was in no small way accountable for the vanishing student body,[21] but it should be remembered that the charge was made by those who were not his friends.

For some years a boat race on St. Joseph's Lake had been a feature of the graduation exercises. The boats were long, heavy clumsy affairs. There were two of them, in 1876, called the Minnehaha and the Hiawatha. About four o'clock, one Saturday afternoon, the crowd of visitors gathered near the boat-house and lined the shores of the lake. There was a good breeze blowing that afternoon, and the water was a bit choppy, something unusual in June. "The Hiawatha started well, but on the first turn, her rudder became useless, whereupon the Minnehaha took the lead and kept it, winning the race in 5:55. Gold anchors and fine rosettes were awarded to the victors, Miss Logan, daughter of Hon. C. A. Logan, United States Minister to Chile, doing the honors of the occasion." 22

When Notre Dame now resumes school in September, student interest is focused on one sport only, football. But in Father Colovin's day, the game, as it is played at present, was unknown. It is interesting to note, however, that one fall day in 1876, when it was too inclement for baseball, it was decided to have what was called "one of the old fashioned games of football." The prizes were to be a couple of barrels of apples.

Young Ben Heeb of Dubuque and Jim Hagerty of St. Louis were asked to choose sides, not "on account of their age or size, as they were both rather young, but it was said they could play more football for their inches than any other boys in the place." Imagine, there were forty-two boys on each team. It is probable that they were not all playing at the same time, although we know there were only a very few sombre spectators on the side-lines. They didn't play quarters; they were called "innings," and each lasted until the ball had been borne across the goal. With so many players on the field at once, they must have resembled a couple of Indian tribes playing lacrosse. The fourth "inning" took forty-five minutes of pushing and tussling without any time out. By then, the score was even, each side having procured two goals. They were about to begin a fifth, but the umpire decided to call the game. They divided the apples evenly.[23]

In the fall elections of 1876, two of Notre Dame's good friends, Judge Stanfield and Professor Arthur Stace, were running for office, the former seeking the Circuit Judgeship on the Republican ticket, the latter asking for the office of County Surveyor on the Democratic ticket. All at Notre Dame who could vote turned out to give their friends a hand at the October primary. The consequence was that the poll of votes in Clay township was almost twice as large as in any previous year. For the run-off in November, there was a surprise at Notre Dame. Certain persons imagined that because of the great turn-out in October, Notre Dame must have been manufacturing votes. They were determined to put a stop to it. On the morning of the election several residents of the college went to cast their votes, only to find their right challenged. Upon inquiry, the challengers, who, by the way, were not residents of the township, answered that they had received orders "from headquarters" to challenge the vote of "everyone who came from the College."

Those receiving such treatment, after having established their right to vote, returned to the University and spread the news of what had occurred. There was deep resentment on the campus. As a consequence, they "determined to let the hired gang from South Bend see that they would resent it." Everyone who could do so -- even those who had not intended to vote -- rushed to the polls. In an ordinary election there would have been no more than fifty votes. On this occasion there were over double that number, and all of them went against the too tricky candidate who had sent the challengers into the township.[24]

* * *

The Irish at Notre Dame were accustomed, according to some, to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with too much abandon. Quite true, the sons of Erin were a bit favored at the University in that no other nationals had celebrations of this kind. When March 17th rolled around, anyone who tried to dampen the Irish spirit was summarily looked upon as an enemy, almost. In 1877, one apologist wrote that there were two good reasons why Notre Dame should celebrate the day: first, most of the students were of Irish parentage, which was undeniable; second, March 17th was the anniversary of the ordination of Notre Dame's president, Father Colovin.[25]

To the objection that too much time was lost in these celebrations, and studies were interfered with, the answer was made: "According to a custom of long standing, . . . entertainments . . . are always given the evening before, and as the day following is a holiday, the extra sleep . . . in no way interferes with their studies." This was the answer made to those "who would make the year one of dry study merely."[26] No doubt, Father Colovin could have ingratiated himself with Father Sorin had he stepped in and forbade the celebration. But he was not that sort of man.

Due to a series of misunderstandings, August of 1877 found Notre Dame with a new president. The choice fell on Father Corby once more, a reliable, steady, earnest priest, on whom Father Sorin could depend to do his will. Much as the students revered Corby, and had many times manifested their cordiality for him, there was however a bit of resentment at Father Colovin's removal, or what was euphemistically called his resignation. Martin Regan, then a student, and later a noteworthy Prefect of Discipline at Notre Dame, read a public address to the retiring president. Between the lines, one may read the sentiment of the students -- Father Colovin was somewhat of a martyr for the Irish cause.

Father Colovin left Notre Dame and took Father Corby's place in Watertown, Wisconsin, as president of Sacred Heart College. That the students lost none of their enthusiasm for him is evidenced by the fact that when he returned for a few days in the spring of 1878, a spontaneous serenade was his welcome. The boys let him remember that they did not forget. That night, as extra recreation was granted, he spoke to them with dignity and brevity.[28]

Regulations concerning the students had, with the years, undergone some change. An enumeration of these rules now occupied only half a column in the Scholastic. They were more general. The authorities had got away from the prescription which bound so-and-so to be here-or-there at such-and-such a time. They were content to warn the student he must be docile and decent; not to leave the premises without authorization. There is the understandable reference to the prohibition of liquor; and the rather quaint one to the necessity of bathing regularly.[29]

Modern educationists would be amused at the thought of a spelling bee in a university. Or would they? It is not unusual in these days, modern though we be, to hear teachers complain that even advanced students misspell with uncommon dexterity and persistence. On September 24, 1877, we note that the students of the Junior department held a spelling bee in which "Charles Hagan spelled down over one hundred young gentlemen."[30]

Two nights previous, the heavens being propitious, an unusual cavalcade halted at the college gates. In a four-horse carry-all fifteen or twenty ladies, members of a South Bend "literary club," had come to peer through the telescope. With much swishing of skirts, and cacaphony of soprano voices, they alighted and were decorously conducted to the observatory by Professor Howard. The professor "operated the instrument and replied with instructive clarity and commendable patience to the numerous questions that were showered upon him." We are told that the mysteries of the heavens were so fascinating, and the night so beautiful that many of the ladies were loath to leave.[31] Professor Howard was not single at the time, but there were other mustachioed bravos on the campus.

The students received some instruction in fencing at that early date. Probably this form of athletics had its principal appeal because of the numerous dramatic representations, in many of which a fencer could find prominent employment. One day, while the instructor was coaching his rather clumsy pupils, a "gentleman of the road" stopped to survey them. He had just been fed at the college kitchen, and was in a mood for some relaxation. For a while, he watched with some patience, and then asked if he might take a hand. "He was given the foils, but declined them. One of the larger pupils took a hand with him, but was quickly vanquished," much to his chagrin. The tramp, turning to the instructor, asked if he cared to fence a bit. It was very embarrassing. What could he do? His reputation was at stake. Sinewy, lithe, quick, the little stranger had another victim. Dusting his hands, he strode away.[32] Probably the fencing instructor was a master of parsing, but none too good in the more graceful art of self-defense.

On February 7, 1878, occurred the death of Pius IX. The pontificate of this tried and saintly Pope had corresponded with the early development of Notre Dame. The University and its students had often been the indirect object of the kind beneficence of Pius IX. It will be recalled that when the Papal States were in jeopardy, the students had expressed the willingness and the desire to rush to the protection of the Pope. Father Sorin had been the object of extraordinary kindness on the part of Pius IX. In all, he had twenty-two private audiences with His Holiness.[33] At Notre Dame grief was genuine and profound. The church was decked in mourning, and great black streamers were suspended from the arches. A catafalque six feet high was erected, and surmounted by a canopy some fifteen feet from the ground. Atop the coffin-like structure there gleamed, in the light of tapers, the chalice blessed and used by the Holy Father himself. There was a solemn march, a Solemn Mass, a solemn panegyric. Father Sorin would have liked to be present for the occasion, but he was in Europe, in Rome, in fact, at the funeral of the Pope.[34]

The success of a college, in large measure, is secured only by a brilliant faculty. It will probably pain those who are devoted to Notre Dame to know that during this period there were no truly outstanding scholars on her faculty. Neither among the lay-faculty nor among the priests can we discover a great university name. There is no question of the devoted loyalty or the excellent intentions of the staff. But devotion and good intentions are no substitute for scholarship. We do not blame the men so much as the system. Father Sorin's idea of Notre Dame's purpose was to produce, not Catholic scholars, but good Catholic men for the ordinary walks of life. To that end, he countenanced no moves that might make of Notre Dame a real university. This lack of interest in real scholars clung to Notre Dame for years, but the misfortune was not unique. Other institutions have experienced the same impediment.

The students at Notre Dame were chiefly interested in pursuing studies for the business world. This is well illustrated by the degrees conferred in June, 1878. While twenty-four diplomas were given in the Commercial department, there were only four Bachelors of Arts, one Bachelor of Science, and three Bachelors of Law. There is some truth in the statement that most of the people whom the University drew to her were not prepared to accept high scholarship; that Notre Dame's sphere of influence was limited to those who could afford only two or three years of college life, and then had to get out and earn a living. It is not evident, however, that if Notre Dame had tried to get a renowned faculty, she would have been left without a clientele. There was always, of course, the nightmare of debts and financial impotence.

The only teacher who seemed to have left an impression of scholarship at that period was Father John A. Zahm. He was devoted to science and was, practically speaking, the whole department of science. Strangely enough, Father Sorin liked him especially, although in many ways he was the antithesis of the founder. Father Zahm longed for scholarship, admired it, tried to cultivate it in his students. His weekly lectures in Phelan Hall, his experiments, his field trips, his efforts to enlarge the "Scientific Cabinet," were noted in each issue of the Scholastic. In the winter of 1878 he delivered a lecture on "The Phonograph, or Edison's Talking Machine." Sound, and the reproduction of sound, had been a favorite subject of research with Father Zahm. The audience was delighted, but somewhat skeptical. When the students heard Father Zahm say that the machine would reproduce whatever sounds were recorded, one Irishman offered to put the thing to a test. He spoke into the recording device: "Mr. Phonograph, how are you? How are your wife and children." "These questions the phonograph repeated with a distinctness that merited an encore" and removed all doubts from the mind of the speaker.[35]

The students at Notre Dame lived in very close touch with one another. The joys and heartaches were common property. A disaster that occurred on October 7, 1878, plunged the students into grief. George Sampson, from New Jersey, a student at Notre Dame for the previous two years, went hunting. He had a new "fowling piece," and, anxious to try it, tramped over to St. Joseph's River. Without warning, George's gun went off, the bullet entering his own body. Father Tim O'Sullivan from Laporte, an old Notre Dame boy himself, happened to be walking along the opposite bank. When he saw George fall to the ground, he immediately plunged into the river, risking his own life, and got to George before he died. It was one of those catastrophes which has its compensations -- one Notre Dame man helping another to die a good death.[36]

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