The great fire of 1879. Fortitude of Sorin. Corby again president. Rebuilding.
THE morning of April 23, 1879, was refreshing. There was sun enough to be pleasantly warm. And from the lake to the west, a slight breeze was blowing. And it was Wednesday, a free day for the students. Just a few days previous, Father Sorin had packed his bags for another trip to Europe. He would go by Montreal, and embark from New York some ten days later. He had made a point of informing the community that he disliked these frequent jaunts abroad. And on this lazy April day, so dangerously close to spring fever epidemic, the air was unexpectedly rent with the sudden, shrill cry that rose from voices of the Minims -- they were the first to see it -- "Fire, fire! The college is on fire!" It was eleven o'clock.
The flames were low on the college roof, close to the little railing that ran around the dome. Workmen had been on the roof as late as ten o'clock making some repairs. At that hour they had descended, locking the door behind them. If, when the fire was first detected, water in any quantity could have been brought to the roof, it would have been easily extinguished. But the building was six stories high; the buckets placed for just such an emergency were empty; and in the confusion that ensued precious time was lost. In ten or fifteen minutes the pitch roof began to blaze, sending forth clouds of dense smoke.
Water, by steam pressure, was finally forced into the great tanks on the roof. Everyone who could help rushed to form the lines of a bucket-brigade, but soon the water in the tanks was exhausted. Some heroic souls, panting and shouting, stayed on the roof, hoping against hope that the fire might be crushed out. But when the supports of the dome burned away, and the statue went crashing below in a billow of sparks and flame, even the most courageous thought only of saving whatever effects might be carried out of the burning building.
It is fortunate that there were no casualties. There were some close calls, however. Florian DeVoro and Brother Bruno had not noticed how close the fire was coming to them, and when they saw their predicament, it looked as though they would have to jump to certain death or be consumed in the flames. Florian noticed the great water pipe that extended down the building. Immediately he and the Brother slid to the ground, slightly shaken but immensely relieved. Mr. Klingel, a merchant from South Bend, who assisted in carrying out valuables, barely missed being hit by a portion of falling wall. Senator Leeper, his arms full of books, escaped a falling cornice by a split second. And a Sister, passing through the rear door, had not gone more than ten feet when the rear porch collapsed. A young student, Harry Kitz, was rushing out of the burning building, happy in the thought he had saved a few books. Having seen these narrow accidents, he must have been filled with unspeakable terror as he felt himself crushed and stretched on the ground. Surprised he surely must have been at his own strength in casting off what he thought, mistakenly, was a falling wall, but which proved to be only a mattress thrown from the fourth floor.
In the meantime frantic efforts had been made to get help from South Bend. That neighboring town had a fire engine of sorts, but it hadn't been used for two years. Besides, it was necessary to round up the volunteer firemen; next, they had to put the machine in order. Finally, with much huffing and puffing. and a glorious good will, the South Bend fire department appeared. If it had been there a half-hour earlier, perhaps much of the college building might have been saved. Certainly the Infirmary and the Music Hall would have been spared.
In their desire to save something, students ran to the windows with chairs and desks, books and linens, stuffed birds and geological specimens, and hurled everything below. Those on the outside hesitated, very prudently, to dash close enough to save these articles. At any moment they might have been brought low by an avalanche of beds or tables. Of course, this was sheer waste, particularly with regard to the library. Old letters, historical documents, valuable manuscripts, never to be replaced, were lost because of the thoughtless zeal of some.
Within three hours the college building, St. Francis' Home, the Infirmary, and Music Hall were in complete ruin. About three o'clock Father Corby, the President, summoned some of the wiser heads to consult about what should be done. It was determined to close the school immediately. Accordingly the students were called to the church, which had fortunately escaped the conflagration. The President explained to them that telegrams would be sent forthwith to their parents explaining the situation. They would have to go home. But he promised them that by September they would be able to return to a bigger and better Notre Dame.
Many in and around South Bend showed a good will that was immediate and practical. There had been no dinner that day, of course, and although the fire had not penetrated to the kitchens, the good Sisters were swamped with anxiety and work. Many of the South Bend residents brought food and the offer of shelter. For the most part, however, they were able to make only passable adjustment for the night. Luckily the weather was balmy and the students manifested great good will in supporting the inconveniences caused by the fire. What students remained on the grounds found shelter in Washington Hall. Bedding and pillows were spread out on the floor. The stage was occupied by the faculty. In the midst of disaster, a good-natured sense of humor expressed itself when the students, looking about at their unaccustomed plight, began singing, "The old home ain't what it used to be!" Of course, it was a heavy night for Father Corby. His most anxious thought was: "How will this affect Father Sorin?" And it was a matter of no small concern. Father Sorin was no longer a young man. It was feared that news of Notre Dame's disaster would be too great a shock for him. They determined, therefore, to notify the superior at St. Laurent College, Montreal, asking him to keep the news from Father General until a messenger could arrive from Notre Dame. That night, at nine o'clock, trusty Jimmy Edwards took the train to Montreal to break the sad news to Father Sorin personally.
Since fully two months of class should have been the lot of Notre Dame boys had it not been for the fire, a nice problem arose regarding those who were scheduled to receive degrees in June. There were no educational associations to consult at the time. The good sense of the faculty decided to give at once degrees to every candidate whose work thus far had been satisfactory. Thursday afternoon the degree of Bachelor of Arts was conferred upon three students, one from Sing Sing, N. Y., another from Natchitoches, La., and the third from Salt Lake City, Utah. Martin McCue, later Notre Dame's professor of Engineering, got his Bachelor of Science degree that day, too. Five new lawyers were made that afternoon. The following day those graduated in the commercial course got their diplomas -- that is they were notified that they would receive them later, for every bit of parchment and sheepskin had gone up in smoke.
The loss was estimated at $200,000. Only $45,000 was forthcoming in insurance. It was a terrible blow, for in three hours was wiped out the result of thirty-five years of hard, grueling sacrifice. It took something more than courage to face the future. Father Corby had promised the students a new Notre Dame by September. But as the ashes began to cool, he himself wondered if he had not been too optimistic. How would Father Sorin feel about it?
A few days later, April 27th, he found out. The sixty-five year old man walked around the ruins, and those who followed him were confounded by his attitude. Instead of bending, he stiffened. There was on his face a look of grim determination. He signalled all of them to go into the church with him.
I was then present when Father Sorin, after looking over the destruction of his life-work, stood at the altar steps of the only building left and spoke to the community what I have always felt to be the most sublime words I ever listened to. There was absolute faith, confidence, resolution in his very look and pose. "If it were ALL gone, I should not give up!" were his words in closing. The effect was electric. It was the crowning moment of his life. A sad company had gone into the church that day. They were all simple Christian heroes as they came out. There was never more a shadow of a doubt as to the future of Notre Dame.
With such an example, there was no indulgence in useless regrets or unmanly sorrow. The ruins smoldered for about three weeks, but around the edges everyone went to work cleaning away the debris. There was not a cart, wheelbarrow or wagon that was not impressed into service. Every member of the community felt it his duty to don old clothes and show how he could labor. Even some students, in a burst of enthusiasm, insisted that they, too, would stay on and do what they could. Bright and early on April 30th, the students got a wheelbarrow and began work -- loading up bricks which their Latin professor was to haul away. The work was hard, their enthusiasm waned, and the next morning, they could not be found. Father Sorin, however, insisted on being the first to give the example. He was out early in the morning, doing his share. The Scholastic said of him:
Everyone agrees that Very Rev. Father General can wheel off a load of bricks with great grace and dignity. We do not wish to discourage the efforts of a conscientious worker, but still, regard for historical accuracy compels us to state that Father Granger would scarcely command a large salary among the horny-banded sons of toil. It may be the want of skill of the loader that makes the cart almost immediately capsize, but we don't by any means say that this is the unquestionable fact.
Around the country, when Notre Dame's disaster became known, expressions of sympathy were manifold. In South Bend there were several gatherings. It was evident that if Notre Dame were to be rebuilt a large sum of money must be immediately secured. The sum needed was so great that it stunned the South Benders. Notre Dame's first pupil, Alexis Coquillard, immediately contributed five hundred dollars, and wrote a letter to the citizens assembled at the Opera House, declaring that they must not be mean in dealing with Notre Dame. He told the citizenry that South Bend had profited immensely by Notre Dame's proximity "as every merchant, mechanic, clothinghouse, boot-and-shoe store, dry-goods store, grocery, lumberman, and miller can testify."
At St. Mary's the first reaction of the girls was to promise all their pocket-money for the rebuilding of Notre Dame. Later, when they realized how little that would be, they arranged to put on a gala-concert in South Bend, the proceeds of which would go to the rehabilitation of the college.
In Chicago there was prompt sympathy. That city, from which Notre Dame drew so many of her students, and which itself had gone through flame and fury eight years previously, was generous in her response. It was recalled that the University had given a benefit performance in 1871 for the victims of the Chicago fire. Therefore, meetings were held and committees formed. And they accomplished a great deal, mostly among the merchants of the city whose credit was extended to Notre Dame.
In early May the columns of the Chicago Tribune contained an anonymous letter from someone who protested giving aid to Notre Dame. It was stated that the school had no other purpose "than making converts among its Protestant students" and that this was done "under the pretense of education." Judge T. G. Turner, in a letter appearing in the same paper May 16th, wrote a vigorous protest against the anonymous correspondent, winding up his letter by saying that no one was "asking pecuniary aid of Protestants as such, but of persons whose generosity is not blinded by bigotry, however religiously disposed. I am not, sir, nor have I ever been, nor do I expect to be a Catholic, but I am a friend of honesty and truth."
Generous as the many friends showed themselves, still a great deal was lacking. In the Scholastic for May 31st, there appeared the following editorial:
It is strange and yet true that among the countless letters of deep, undoubted and even substantial sympathy received here during the month from former students of Notre Dame, there is not one from a certain class among them. What class do we mean? We did not make it; they themselves formed it; neither is it a class of recent origin, nor of local interest, for it dates back even to the first years of the University, and its members are found under our windows, almost, as well as in many States of the Union. We do not mean the dead, for they could not write to us; we do not mean the expelled, for they would feel abashed to write to us.
We mean a class of living, would-be young gentlemen, who never paid their school bills, either while here or years after leaving college. Again and again they were reminded of this honest debt, of their fair promises, but did not even reply. They have at all times been a drag on the prosperity of Notre Dame, and they should now have been the first to come to her help in distress. Will they even be the last? If not inclined to be generous, will they not at least be just and come forward like men and pay their honest debts?
This more than gentle reminder was indeed futile. In 1881, after waiting two years, Father Sorin was disgusted with "this class." He had made a personal appeal to nearly two hundred families indebted to Notre Dame, not including at all those who had received reductions, not including those whose debts had been cancelled, but to those only who had acknowledged their indebtedness and had promised to pay. Father Sorin made the letter as strong as possible. He had great hopes of receiving a substantial sum, for the indebtedness in question amounted to about $75,000. "Shall I say how much I received?" he writes. "Why not? It may be profitable for us all to know the answer. I received $22!" We can hardly blame the man for adding bitterly: "This is the lesson I then learned: we expected to make friends by patiently waiting. . . . We failed, and what is worse yet, we made of those pretended friends ingrates, the worst class of people!" Some years later Father Timothy Maher, then treasurer of the University, gave a demonstration that he, too, had learned a lesson. On the front porch of the Main Building a man of about thirty-five or forty was passing from one priest to another, shaking hands, and expressing delight at seeing his old professors. When he came to Father Maher, he said: "Well, Father Maher, I'll bet you don't remember me, do you?" "Yes, I do. It is difficult to forget the names of those young men who haven't paid their bills yet!"
With extraordinary speed the ruins were cleared away. So promptly did everyone address himself to the work of rebuilding that the bricks and masonry were still hot while being hauled away. Near the Junior refectory, underneath a pile of charcoal and rubbish, anxious hands reached to rescue some serviceable college china-ware. The plates were quickly dropped. They were red-hot. The hose was constantly played on those spots which were still smoking. Hundreds of loads of rubbish were carted away and served to lay a foundation for a more solid road from the college toward St. Joseph's Lake over toward the present Community House. A great deal of the brick was still good. The novices were untiring in their efforts to clean and pile what might be of future use.
By May 17th, Mr. W. J. Edbrooke, a Chicago architect, had submitted his plans for the new building. On that very day the architect, together with Professor Ivers, staked out the limits for the new edifice. The fear of future fires impelled the administration to take every precaution. The new building would be as fireproof as was then possible. There would be no mansard roof, no pitch and gravel, but slate only. It was suggested that the city of South Bend extend its water mains to the college grounds, for which the city would be amply compensated.
Ground was broken on Saturday, May 17th. The first stone was placed on Monday, May 19th. It was estimated that 4,350,000 bricks were going into the new building. By June 21st the stone foundation for the front extension was in place, the window frames for the first story were up, and fifty-six bricklayers were engaged in work. On June 28th, the second story, its windows surmounted with caps of galvanized iron, was completed. The Fourth of July was celebrated by the completion of the third story. The record reads like an architectural marathon. Of course, that was a day innocent of labor disputes and delays. There was no eight-hour day, no forty-hour week. With this advantage, and with the three hundred workmen employed, the constant stream of stone that came by rail, the unbroken lines of wagons bringing brick from the kilns of South Bend and Bertrand, the all-out effort was magnificent.
The building, with its countless angles and corners and jutting points of masonry, the numerous gables and turrets, the classic pillars that support the dome and statue, puzzles anyone who tries to classify it. The architect called it modern Gothic. The ground plan was a sort of fancy T-formation, the lower portion of which had an extension of 224 feet; the cross on the T spread 320 feet. At the intersection was a rotunda extending from the second floor clear to the dome. There had been a dome on the second college building, and Father Sorin was determined that there should be another on the present structure. And the girls at St. Mary's, not perhaps without some persuasion from Mother Angela, announced that they would furnish the statue to be placed on the dome. Indeed, by July 12th, they had even determined the design of the statue. It would be a replica of that erected by Pius IX in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome for the commemoration of the Immaculate Conception just previously promulgated.
The Library had been completely destroyed in the fire. Professor James Edwards took upon himself the task of gathering books and manuscripts. Within a month after the fire, he had made a beginning. Still a month later, he had gathered over a thousand volumes. In the midst of all the expenditures, the president was perplexed how to treat the problem of reduced rates in tuition, a reduction which had been announced previous to the catastrophe of April 23rd. It was finally agreed that the reduction should go through. From $150 a semester, the payment was cut to $125. "We should here remind our friends," says the Scholastic, "that this sum is at the rate of but six dollars a week -- scarcely more than the price of board and room in a good boarding-house." Notre Dame felt as though she were making a gift of the tuition, as, indeed, she was.
The University must have been disappointed when the fall session opened. Only 324 students enrolled. That counted everyone -- college students, preparatory students, and minims. Special care had been taken to finish the Infirmary, so that the students might be accommodated in case the college buildings were not finished. But by September, those fears were allayed. The college building was finished, and ready. Even a bit of frescoing had been done on the inside. Professor Jacob Ackerman went to work in the senior refectory (the old Brownson Hall commons), painting various scenes on the walls, principally the famous churches of the world. A swift glance at these works may leave one with an impression of mediocrity. But for us who can leisurely survey them, they are full of human interest, and no little amusement. The artist, whenever he could do so, introduced small clerical figures depicting the priests and brothers of Notre Dame. Today these paintings are found in the offices of the General Administration of the University, and more than one nervous student waiting in the lobby of the Prefect of Discipline has added a moustache or a beard to the figures originally compounded by Ackerman.
In spite of the general decrease in enrollment, the Notre Dame Law School increased in numbers. As for material improvements, the students were delighted with the new gas illumination which spared their eyes, the novel introduction of steam heat and running cold and hot water in the lavatories, without which their early toilet had been a painful operation. The matutinal silence was broken by "ohs" and "ahs" of relief and appreciation, Notre Dame was emerging from her pioneer days.
After thirty-eight years of college existence, Notre Dame took stock of her graduates. What had happened to them?
. . . Of the young men who have graduated in the classical and scientific courses at Notre Dame, about 18% are priests, 27% are lawyers, 8% are educators, 6% are physicians, 3% are editors, 7% are engineers, 4% are farmers, 10% are business men. Of the others, some are dead, several are now studying law, medicine, theology, etc. Two or three are doing nothing. When graduated, four-fifths of the whole number were Catholics, two or three Israelites, and about one-fifth Protestants. . . .
You remember that Napoleon III had presented Notre Dame with a "munificent gift," the telescope. Was it saved in the fire? We are told that, to some extent it suffered in the fiery blast, not so much by being burned as by being "saved," which unnecessary process "jarred it slightly to the manifest injury of its nervous system. By the kind care of Brother Wilfred, however, it was braced up with the desired tonics, and the gentlemen of the astronomy class rallied round it for the first time on the evening of September 21st in great hopes of seeing the purple spot on Jupiter."
The Great Fire was only a memory on the 22nd of September when a great football match was played on the campus between the "Reds" and the "Blues." It was the most stubbornly contested game as yet witnessed on the campus. The stakes were a barrel of cider -- "sweet," it was said. The game was witnessed by the boys of the Senior department, some forty or fifty workmen, and several members of the faculty. Two Chicago boys were the opposing captains. "At half-past one, the members of both clubs donned their respective colors and appeared on the campus in their gayest attire." It took fifty minutes for the "Reds" to gain a goal. There was a breathing spell of twenty minutes, and then the "Blues" kicked a goal. They were all even. After a hard struggle, the "Reds" got another goal, but only after one hour and forty minutes. That night the "Reds" were slightly unmanageable. It took Father Corby's kind but firm word to quell their spirits.
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