University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter XX

THE Provincial Chapter of 1905 elected to the presidency one whose intellectual talents were surpassed only by his geniality. John W. Cavanaugh had come to Notre Dame when Father Thomas Walsh was president. Father Walsh became young Cavanaugh's idol. Although American-born Father Cavanaugh was of Irish parentage. "My father is from Tyrone, and my mother, an O'Connor, is from Armagh."[1]

Father Cavanaugh's gifts were preeminently literary. He had a facile style, both in speaking and in writing, and his language was replete with graceful force. He was a tall man, but well proportioned. His large and beautiful head, the ease of his movements, the deliberate and unhurried manner of his walk, his gracious smile, the richness of his voice, all combined to produce a most striking figure. He was, after Father Sorin, the most impressive of the presidents of Notre Dame.

No one ever heard Father Cavanaugh make a speech or preach a sermon that could be called common-place. He was a phrase-maker of extraordinary ability. Sometimes his style was a bit florid, and this writer remembers more than one occasion when the blunt and direct Morrissey, reading one of Cavanaugh's sermons, sniffed somewhat critically, and remarked: "Smell the flowers!" Nevertheless, John Cavanaugh could use English with a deft and forceful effect. Certain subjects made him especially eloquent. When he spoke about the early founders of Notre Dame, or Notre Dame's patriotism, or the Irish, particularly the persecuted Irish, his tongue became reverent with respect or flashed like a scimitar. When, as often happened, he had to administer some disciplinary rebuke, he could take an individual or group apart with amazing swiftness and irony. He could be bitter, but it was seldom necessary.

He was a man of great courage. He was never tongue-tied in the presence of "big" men. Often he was host to eminent scholars and outstanding individuals. But John Cavanaugh could stand beside them on the platform and seldom come off second best. The students were immensely proud of him. They could count on him always to say the graceful, witty, forceful thing. His very poise was a study in confidence. He was sure of his ground.

The members of his own community often deplored the fact that Father Cavanaugh had never had a chance to become a great scholar. The young priests of his day were hustled into the class-room almost before they had finished their most modest education. They were assigned to teaching so many classes that it was extremely difficult to pursue higher studies. It is a tribute to many of them that, in spite of these burdens, they were able to acquire, as it were, on the side, some advanced learning. Certainly, Father Cavanaugh would have profited by three or four years of study after his ordination. It is difficult to estimate his possible achievement had he had that opportunity.

Surely, there were defects in the man. Ordinarily, he had a sweet disposition. But he could, if provoked, rise to stupendous heights of temper. When he was displeased, it was best to avoid him. His tongue became a lash, and was used without much mercy. In such moments, he could say and do things terribly tyrannical. He would make most unreasonable demands, issue the most extreme orders. And God help anyone who opposed him. There were few who dared to. It was, perhaps, a good thing that Father Morrissey was Father Cavanaugh's superior, for he acted, or could act, as a check mate against the president's despotic impulses.

Another defect that grew more noticeable in Father Cavanaugh as the University increased in numbers was his tendency to concentrate power in his own hands. True, he had many assistants, but none of these assistants, with the exception of Father Schumacher, Director of Studies, was ever sure to be upheld. No breach of discipline could be definitely punished except by presidential approval. The University was, under Father Cavanaugh, a "one-man" affair. His assistants, capable and loyal men, were fully able to administer a delegated authority, but Father Cavanaugh seemed unable or unwilling to make such delegation. It was not until a much later date that the colleges as they now exist were organized, and well defined power given to the various deans.[2]

From the pulpit on Sunday, September 24, 1905, Father Cavanaugh inaugurated the new scholastic year. His sermon bears the title "The Function of the Religious College."[3] After eulogizing the spirit of the founders, he points out that Notre Dame must manage somehow to educate Catholic youths without the wealth and the endowment of other famous schools. Her success in this undertaking is made possible by the sacrifices of the religious dedicated to Notre Dame. And to secure that education which, according to Father Cavanaugh, is so desirable, Notre Dame seeks first to create a religious atmosphere; second, she insists that the moral life of students must be fostered, and he warns the "sporty" element which is found inevitably in every college group, that their discontent and grumbling will not be tolerated. A third function of the Catholic college ts to give sound religious instruction that will augment faith. Finally, he insists on the practice of obedience. The disciplinary regulations are for the students' good, and not for their punishment. It is evident, of course, that Father Cavana ugh was speaking to men far younger than those now at Notre Dame.

In the light of these moral restraints, it is easy to understand what Father Cavanaugh meant in the following excerpt of a letter addressed to a Chicago lad who proposed to visit his cousin, then a student at Notre Dame:

Father Cavanaugh had been president hardly a year when there occurred at Notre Dame a double celebration in which the names of Sorin and Badin were honored. For a year considerable efforts had been made to procure a heroic statue of Father Sorin which was to be placed at the entrance of the old quadrangle. It was to cost $25,000. After Mass the long procession wended its way to the site of the statue which was as yet concealed by large American and Papal flags. It was Father Cavanaugh's privilege to speak at the unveiling. His words were deeply moving and dramatic. In conclusion, he said: