University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter XXIV

JAMES ALOYSIUS BURNS was born in Michigan City, Indiana, on February 13, 1867, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Burns. By one day, he missed being a valentine. The proximity to that date is arresting, for in our age St. Valentine's day has come to be associated with an easy levity and sentiment that found its perfect contrast in the character of James Burns. In all the history of Notre Dame, there was hardly a priest who continually carried himself with comparable dignity, restraint and modesty. These were not his only characteristics. In contrast to Father Cavanaugh, who was his good friend and fellow student, Father Burns seemed cold and drab. Cavanaugh was such a spontaneous and sparkling companion that Burns appeared almost uninteresting. He had a heart, however, fully as warm as Cavanaugh's, though he was incapable of expressing it in Cavanaugh's way. Only those who were in some deep trouble ever suspected the profound and sympathetic understanding of Father Burns. Father Cavanaugh never had to work very hard to attain his ends. He had such a lively capacity for seeing what should be done, and such an easy facility for expressing it. In his presence, others appeared much less his equal. But Father Burns had one gift that John Cavanaugh did not have, the gift of work, hard, continuous, thorough work. And in retrospect, he seems to have had even a greater vision. Certainly, in university matters he was the superior of John Cavanaugh.

When he was fifteen years old, he came to Notre Dame and enrolled in the Manual Labor school. He became an apprenticed printer. That was in 1882. The following year, while continuing his work as a printer, he moved over to the college building and began taking classes there. He was a serious student, but that did not prevent his expressing his interest in sports. In fact he was for years the catcher on the baseball teams. That was in the days when the catcher did not use a glove. If you ever got a chance, in later life, to get a good look at Father Burns' hands, you might wonder at all the swollen joints on his fingers. Those protuberances were the relics of his baseball days. In appearance he had so much the dignity and bearing of a scholar, that, after he was ordained, anyone seeing him would certainly think of him as being innocent of all interest in sports. It was for this reason that, years later, he might pick up some youngster watching a game and ask him to explain the finer points to him. The boy, innocently enough, would patiently elucidate what was meant by a "foul ball," why only three strikes were permitted, and the difference between a hit and a run. Without cracking a smile, Father Burns would thank the boy for the information and be off to try his game on someone else.

Graduated from Notre Dame in 1888, Father Burns then went to the Novitiate. The following year he went to Watertown, Wisconsin, to teach and pursue his theological sciences. It was a wretched system of study, and what Father Burns and some of the other young subjects were able to achieve under such an arrangement is a great tribute, not to the system, but to the industry of these men. Burns came back to Notre Dame in 1891, and during the next two years followed much the same program at Notre Dame.

On July 21, 1893 he was ordained at Notre Dame by Bishop Rademacher of Fort Wayne. It was a Friday, and the following Sunday the new priest said his first solemn Mass in his home church of St. Mary's in Michigan City. Let him tell of the occasion:

Father Burns began to teach chemistry in the fall of 1893. Father Morrissey had just been made president. Father Zahm, under whose encouragement Father Burns had set out to make a scholar of himself, was a member of the faculty. We have already alluded to the friction between Zahm and Morrissey. Things were to get no better with the passing years. Father Burns, although be saw very clearly Father Zahm's faults, was temperamentally closer to him than to Father Morrissey. We know how Father Burns felt for he kept a diary during those first years of his priesthood. Zahm was alarmed at the system under which those destined to teach in the University were prepared for their work. He wanted the Provincial to educate his priests and Brothers thoroughly, to give them the opportunity for further study and research before they went into the class-rooms. Father Corby, who was Provincial at the time, and Father Morrissey thought otherwise. But the new Superior General, Gilbert Français, was determined that the young men should have an education commensurate with their calling. Father Français had ordered that a new house of studies should be opened near the Catholic University in Washington. There was much opposition to it on the part of some of the older priests at Notre Dame, but Français forced the matter. Here are some of the entries in Father Burns' diary.

According to Father Burns, Father Morrissey's educational policy suffered from Father Zahm's proximity. Along in February, 1896, the Procurator General, Father Dion, left for Canada as provincial. Father Morrissey asked Father Burns what he would think if Father Zahm replaced Father Dion. Burns was mildly horrified. He replied that the departure of Father Zahm for Rome would be a terrible blow to Notre Dame. "And I don't think that Father Zahm would accept the procuratorship," added Father Burns. "Well, whether he accepts or not, I don't think he'll be here next year!" Then come these words in the diary (Feb. 18, 1896):

On March 4, 1896, Father Zahm returned to Notre Dame from New Orleans where he had been giving a series of lectures. Father Corby called him to the Provincial House and handed him a letter. It was in the handwriting of the Superior General, dated from Neuilly, Feb. 21st. In virtue of holy obedience, Father Zahm was ordered to accept the post of Procurator General and proceed forthwith to Rome. Zahm was much surprised. He did not seem to suspect that his removal from Notre Dame had been suggested by anyone at the University, and Father Burns, with all his tact and good sense, did not disabuse him. During the next two years Father Burns was to miss Zahm. But he went on, industrious, edifying, devoted. The seeds that Zahm had dropped into his young life were developing a profound thirst for knowledge in the mind of Burns.[4]

And things were happening to the educational program for the priests. Since the Superior General lived then in France, Father Zahm, who resided at Rome, had a better opportunity to confer with Father Français. They made up their minds that the new enterprise at Washington would not be rendered ineffective by its opponents. Just at this time, too, one of these opponents, Father Corby, died. Father Français in the meantime had come back to the States, and after the death of Corby he cabled for Zahm to come home at once. In his diary, the first entry for the year 1898, Father Burns wrote: Father Zahm Provincial! . . . I first learned the news on the evening of the 2nd when Father Cavanaugh came over and read me the General's Circular Letter (which he had been commissioned to translate) appointing him (Zahm) to that position. Father General said to Father Cavanaugh when giving him the circular [to translate] that it was the greatest thing he had ever done!

In 1900 Father Burns was appointed superior of Holy Cross College, the Washington House of studies for the seminarians. It was an appointment Father Burns could not help but welcome. In spite of its responsibility, Father Burns was so deeply interested in seeing that the young priests had a thorough training that he was glad to have an opportunity of assisting in this work.

In Washington he was not idle. Besides teaching one or two classes a day, delivering conferences, and maintaining the general discipline of the house, he interested himself in educational questions, particularly problems of Catholic education in the United States. Besides his bachelor's degree, he had obtained, in 1894, his master's degree from Notre Dame. In 1906, for his work at the Catholic University and after the completion of a scholarly dissertation, he was awarded his Ph.D. He was one of the leaders in the formation of the Catholic Educational Association, which was brought to fruition in 1904, and of which he was named Vice-President.

During his uninterrupted stay in Washington, which lasted from 1900 to 1919, he wrote three works. In 1908 appeared his book Principles, Origin and Establishment of the Catholic School System Four years later he published his second book: Growth and Development of the Catholic School System. In 1917 he brought out his Catholic Education -- a Study of Conditions.

During this period he came to know and value the young men whose studies he was directing. Someone has said that Father Burns gave small thought to the present, so great was his preoccupation for the future. It is, of course, an exaggeration but the statement fairly hits the mark. And the mark is that Father Burns was fired by a determination to turn out men who would be educators. He endeavored, first of all, to discover in what field of study a seminarian's interest lay. Then he would outline a course of studies for him, suggest supplementary reading, or, if he could not do this himself, he made the young man acquainted with someone at the Catholic University who would be able to assume the direction of his studies. For his seminarians, he often undertook to plead their cause with higher superiors. The consequences, of course, were plainly evident in the teaching staff at Notre Dame as these newly ordained priests took their place on the faculty. Whatever prestige was attained by men like Father Matthew Walsh, Father Frank Wenninger, Father Charles O'Donnell, Father J. Leonard Carrico, Father Ernest Davis, and many others, must be shared, in large part, with Father Burns.

As we mentioned previously, the new Canon Law brought to an end the custom of keeping superiors in office for long periods. Father Burns knew, of course, that his time as superior of the house in Washington would be terminated in the summer of 1919. Privately, he expressed to Father Cavanaugh his desire to go to India, and work there in the newly established seminary in the diocese of Dacca, a mission which had for years been entrusted to the Congregation. However, at the Provincial Chapter held in July, 1919, he was elected superior and President of Notre Dame. Father Burns, after serving so long as a superior of young men studying for the priesthood, brought with him many of the customs peculiar to a house of studies. He even appointed Brother Maurilius to act as excitator, knocking at the doors of the religious in the early morning to make sure they were up.

Through his years of interest in Catholic educational circles, Father Burns brought to his new position a greater vision and more progressive spirit than any of his predecessors. He was faced with some tremendous problems. The first thing that occupied his thought was the internal reorganization of the faculty. At the first meeting of the officers of administration he produced a large envelope from which he drew a sheaf of papers.

"I have here," he said, "a lengthy communication from Father Schumacher Before he left to take his new post at St. Edward's, I asked him to outline for me a plan dividing the University into four distinct colleges. This plan I lay before you today." Father Schumacher's suggestions were adopted almost without change. A dean was to be appointed for each of the colleges -- Arts and Letters, Science, Engineering, and Law. The College of Commerce, only in its infancy, was added some time later.

Under each dean, there were to be several heads of departments. Then, too, the plan proposed a division of authority that would obviate any overlapping of jurisdiction, so that each professor, each head of a department, and each dean might know to whom and for what he was responsible. Needless to say, the plan was of such magnitude that inevitably there were imperfections. Some of them have, in course of time, been rectified. Others are still in existence.[5]

Almost immediately Father Burns was faced with the problem of caring for the great number of students who were signifying their desire to enter the college courses at Notre Dame. Up to the end of Father Cavanaugh's regime, practically half the student body belonged to the preparatory department. There had been a great deal of discussion about the advisability of doing away with the "preps." Certainly their presence on the campus tended to lower the spirit and atmosphere proper for good college work. They required a different sort of discipline, and they were not sufficiently removed from the college students to permit a very different kind of discipline for the older boys. Then, too, until living quarters at Notre Dame began to be crowded, there was always the financial argument that the preparatory students represented a necessary source of income.

But in 1919, with increasing enrollment, the presence of the "preps" meant the exclusion of college students who had applied for admission. In this matter Father Burns did not hesitate to act. During his first year it was determined to close the first two years of preparatory work. Accordingly, parents were notified that the University would accept no students who had not finished at least two years of high school. This decision met with a great deal of opposition, not only from parents, but from members within the institution. Father Moloney said that it was madness. Father Zahm, for all his enthusiasm for higher studies, said: "The idea of throwing away a good ready-made prep school! It's folly!" By most of the faculty however, the change was enthusiastically welcomed.

The closing of the preparatory department, of course, made room on the campus for men of college age. Already, when Father Burns came to the presidency, there were about twelve hundred college students, in addition to the preps and minims. This overcrowding of the campus meant that hundreds of college men had to live in South Bend.

These off-campus students naturally enjoyed their comparative freedom. At the same time the more careless of them created a disciplinary problem that was, at times, very malodorous. Some of the priests, particularly Father Walsh and Father Joseph Burke, urged Father Burns to start building some residence halls and a dining hall to do away with the disciplinary problem created by the off-campus students. The President, who had shown so much courage in solving the academic organization, shied away from the suggestion. "Where will I get the money for such an outlay as we will require?" He was not impressed by the explanation that residence halls produce a reasonable revenue and can be expected to pay for themselves within a comparatively short time. During his three years as president, Father Burns erected no buildings on the campus. Academically, he was a progressive, but as far as the physical plant of the University was concerned, he was a reactionary. Father Walsh, who was so closely associated with Father Burns at this time, remarks that an extraordinary change came over Father Burns in 1922 as he was about to lay down the reins of government. Then he became almost fanatically enthusiastic about the building program, and was the leading figure in the procurement of funds to assist the program.

In 1921 the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation offered the University of Notre Dame $250,000, and the Carnegie Foundation offered $75,000, provided the University could raise $750,000 among its friends. These offers had been procured through the instrumentality of Father Burns. His genuine interest in scholarship was well known in circles where such a reputation counted. Father Burns set to work immediately to raise the money. There was so much enthusiasm among old students and friends of the University that Father Burns felt it advisable to set the goal of the endowment drive at two million dollars. The first million was to be in the way of a general fund for the salaries of lay professors, whose number had greatly increased during the latter years. The second million was to be expended in much needed buildings.[6] Thus was inaugurated what is still known as the "Drive," to which Father Burns was to contribute so much time and labor, not only during his presidency, but for three years thereafter.

As the "Drive" went on, it became apparent unfortunately, that Notre Dame would be fortunate if she raised even one million. The terms laid down by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations were that by June 30, 1922, $750,000 would have to be raised, either in cash, or by commitments which would be paid by 1925. It was hard work. Even as late as May, 1922, there was still lacking about $350,000. In that month, around the Chicago area, the drive was intensified. The Chicago alumni worked feverishly to raise the amount. As Father Burns wrote to his friends: "It would be a shame to forfeit the offer made by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations. We must work hard to fill the quota."

For all his seeming absorption in scholarly pursuits, Father Burns turned into a salesman sans pareil. Many a tale is told of how he gathered funds from even hostile forces. Notre Dame had done business with one great manufacturing concern for years, and had bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment from that company. Father Burns sought an interview with the head of the concern. The gentleman in question listened while Father Burns explained how, in looking over the accounts, he had been impressed by the volume of business contributed by Notre Dame, and felt sure that the head of the company would be interested in knowing of Notre Dame's needs. "Yes," he answered, "I am interested. But let me tell you, Father Burns, I am not interested in college problems. I don't believe in college. I don't think it prepares men for life. Through force of circumstances, I was obliged to send my two sons to college, and I've regretted it every moment since. I have over a thousand people working for me, and I am happy to say, not one of them is a college graduate, nor ever went to college. I tell you what I'll do. You have luncheon with me tomorrow, and I'll bring along a friend who feels about this matter much the same as I do!" The offer was accepted. The next day at luncheon the matter was again discussed. A few days later Father Burns received a letter from the head of the company. it said: "Our conversations did not change our viewpoint at all. But when I got back to the office, I called in a great many of the officers, and I put the proposition up to them. I let them decide. Well, here's the result!" The letter contained a check for $1900.

On another occasion, a very wealthy and prominent business man was encountered. He was adamant. The solicitor urged the fact that Notre Dame was a school which fostered the ethical and religious principles of life. "Listen," answered the business man with some heat, "I don't care anything about religion. My business is my religion, and this building is my cathedral. I wouldn't give a cent for religion!" "Well," answered the other, "whatever your private opinion may be, schools like Notre Dame are necessary for the welfare of the country!" "If you put it that way," answered the big business man, "I'll give you a thousand dollars!" And he did.

Another wealthy man to whom Father Burns appealed had a low opinion of colleges. Father Burns was very affable, took no umbrage at the replies given him, but proceeded on another tack. He left the gentleman's office without anything. But a few days later there came to the University a check for $500. It was accompanied by a short letter which said the donation was not to be considered as a gift for the furtherance of education, but as a tribute to Father Burns' salesmanship. To another member of the community, the benefactor remarked: "If he were not a priest, I'd offer him a job in my concern!"

From the beginning of his presidency, Father Burns had some notion that the University might fall heir to some riches, and he had in his mind a plan for the administration of such moneys. This plan evolved into the "Associate Board of Lay Trustees." He had spent one summer school at Harvard and he admired the manner in which Harvard had invested its money. He wrote to find out more particulars. After he had his answer, he proposed that the Board should consist of twelve elected members: six of them were to be chosen by the Alumni Association; the other six were to be appointed by the University in the first instance, but thereafter, would be elected by the Board itself, and were not to be members of the Alumni. They were to have control and administration of all permanent funds of the University. Their particular business was so to invest the funds as to yield the best possible revenue. All through the early part of the school year of 1920, Father Burns had busied himself with the formation of this Board. They held their first meeting in January of 1921.[7] The Hon. William P. Breen, of the Class of '77, was elected President of that Board. But ill-health forced his resignation in the fall of 1921, and to his place was elected Albert R. Erskine, President of the Studebaker Corporation, one of the most loyal supporters of Notre Dame. He retained that position until a month before his tragic death in July, 1933.

The prudent investment of the million dollars that was to be Notre Dame's at the end of 1922 was of prime importance to the University. The great increase in the number of lay teachers was accompanied, unfortunately, by a notable increase in the cost of living. Father Burns was able to announce in 1921 that the salary of the lay professors had increased 25%, and that of the instructors, 10%. While the student body was also increasing, it was insufficient to meet the living expenses of professors. Nor would there be any hope of attracting great names to the teaching staff unless Notre Dame could increase the financial remuneration. A teacher's work had so often been, and will probably always be, insufficiently remunerated. Up until this time Notre Dame's endowment had been less than $100,000, and more than a quarter of that had been given in scholarships. Of course Father Burns did not neglect to point out to inquirers that the University had had a "living endowment" which in many instances had been overlooked. To the Superintendent of Public Instruction in the State of Indiana who had sent Father Burns a questionnaire concerning the endowment of the University, Father Burns pointed out that while Notre Dame

In such a brief summary of one hundred years at Notre Dame, it would be impossible to set down the names and contributions derived from this "living endowment." Success, as we would wish to measure it, namely, as it is seen in the mind of God, is not always a success that will be known to men in this life. The names of the many priests, Brothers and Sisters who have labored here, will not be revealed for human eyes until a just God makes them known. We cannot pass over this matter without reflecting, however, that sacrifice and devotion to duty so often bury themselves in the depths of humility that, even were it possible to resurrect them, it might be indecent to do so. Perhaps the best tribute we can pay to those whose hidden labors have helped to build and preserve Notre Danie is to assure ourselves that their names are written in the heart of God. For those who were so modest, that is reward enough.

* * *

Notre Dame's eighth president, Andrew Morrissey, who had become Coadjutor Superior General in 1920, went to Rome in the spring of 1921 on official business. He had been ailing during the previous winter, but was sufficiently recovered to make the long journey. He saw the Pope, settled his business with the dispatch characteristic of him, and went to Paris with Father George Sauvage, the Procurator General. They stayed with a Holy Cross priest, Father Jamet, while awaiting the day of sailing. The day before they were to set out for Le Havre (May 27th), Father Morrissey and Father Sauvage went for a little stroll. They passed an open church and Father Morrissey, always skittish about the possibility of death, suggested that since they were to sail on the next day, they should go in and go to confession. Afterward, returning to Father Jamet, they sat down for luncheon. Before the dessert, Father Morrissey excused himself, saying that he felt tired. He went into the adjoining room. Father Sauvage heard him drop into a chair, and there was the rustling sound of a newspaper, as though Father Morrissey were glancing through a Paris journal. Not more than fifteen minutes later the two priests rose to join him. They found him dead.

Six months later, Father John A. Zahm was on his way to Europe. He had just written From Berlin to Bagdad, and he wanted to verify certain details before giving his manuscript to the publishers. He got as far as Munich, where he contracted a severe cold. At the time, he was the guest of the Benziger family. His hosts perceived that Father Zahm's cold was developing into something serious. It was too late to move him to a hospital, but the kindly Benzigers gave him every possible attention, calling the best doctors and nurses. He was told of the gravity of his condition. He asked for a priest. Calmly, he prepared for his death which occurred on November 11, 1921.

For a great many things, the University of Notre Dame is grateful to Father Zahm. Not the least of these is Zahm's Dante collection. When the present library building was being planned, Father Zahm admonished Father Cavanaugh to provide a room suitable to receive the Dante library which he intended to convey to the University. Father Cavanaugh was anxious to give Father Zahm entire satisfaction in this matter. Accordingly, the northwest corner room on the top floor of the library was decorated and reserved for Zahm's gift. At present the Dante collection is one of the best in the United States. Cornell University, with the assistance of D. Willard Fiske, had brought together what is undoubtedly the greatest collection in this country. Perhaps Harvard comes second, although there are some who consider the Notre Dame collection as second only to Cornell's. In one respect, Father Zahm's Dante library is superior to all of them -- in the number of different editions, both in the original Italian and translations. The commentaries on Dante are not so copious as those at Cornell or Harvard.[9]

Neither the death of Father Morrissey nor of Father Zahm affected the students. But the death of George Gipp was another matter. He had come to Notre Dame in 1917. He was a likeable boy, for under his veneer of sang-froid, the students recognized an unostentatious friendliness. His rise to football fame came about quite by accident.

He had not come to Notre Dame to play football. But nearly every boy at Notre Dame takes part in some form of campus recreation, and in the fall that means playing around with a football. One day Rockne happened to pass when Gipp was doing some kicking. He marveled at the length of Gipp's punts. In his dry, crackling voice, Rockne hailed Gipp, who shuffled toward him with an indifferent air. After a brief talk with the boy, Rockne asked: "Why don't you come out for the team?" "Oh, I don't know. I don't know anything about the game!" "Report tomorrow. I'll give you a suit."

Thus simply, began the career of George Gipp. During the fall of 1920, his name was on the lips of every sports writer in the country. Not only by his spectacular passing, his dazzling runs, and his power to out-kick the opponent, did he win acclaim. He was shrewd, too, and his calm, poker-faced poise revealed nothing to the adversary. Most of all, his spirit of fair play, and his unstinting praise of his own team mates, who made possible his gains, were publicly recorded by the press. George Gipp was a unanimous "All-American" in 1920.

After the final game, George had a sore throat. When it was discovered that he had a bad infection, he was removed to St. Joseph's Hospital in South Bend. The doctors and nurses and Sisters gave him every care. He was thought to be in a dying condition. His parents were notified. Father Patrick Haggerty, who had often heard that Gipp wanted to die a Catholic, baptized him and gave him the final rites of the Church. Gipp died on December 14, 1920 while the sports writers, ignorant of his approaching end, were still eulogizing this great football player.[10]

* * *

Eamon De Valera, the first President of the Irish Republic, was one of Father Burns' most outstanding guests. When he arrived on the campus at Notre Dame, October 15, 1919, the students gave him an enthusiastic welcome. After laying a wreath before the statue of Father Corby, the Irish President went to another part of the campus to plant a tree in honor of his visit to Notre Dame.[11] Next, the entire party moved to Washington Hall where twelve hundred students were packed to hear him talk of Ireland's cause. At the conclusion of his address, Notre Dame gave him one of the greatest ovations in the history of the University. "It was," said Mr. De Valera, "the happiest day since coming to America."[12]

* * *

In 1922, Father Burns' first term as President came to an end. He might have been elected for another term, but he suggested something else. It was imperative that more money should be raised, both for endowment and for the building program. Father Burns volunteered to keep on with that work in which he had been highly successful the year previous. The Chapter accepted the offer. It named Father Matthew Walsh to succeed him in the presidency, at the same time bestowing upon Father Burns the title of President-Emeritus.

For three years, Father Burns worked at the endowment drive, seeking to raise another million dollars. He got little cash. Later, he remarked to one of his confreres that he had secured $300,000 in promises, largely in the form of remembrances in wills. There can be no doubt that he interested hundreds of people who, otherwise, would have remained strangers to Notre Dame.

In 1926, the Chapter appointed him superior of Holy Cross College, Washington. There he remained until the summer of 1927 when the Superior General, Father James W. Donahue, appointed him to fill out the unexpired term of the Provincial of the Indiana Province, the Most Rev. George J. Finnigan, who had been named Bishop of Helena. To the provincialship, Father Burns brought all that esteem for scholarship which had characterized his earlier years and he exercised a large influence. He was particularly interested in the formation of his seminarians and Brothers, constantly interrogating them on their plans for further study and pointing out the special needs at the University. To all who wished to engage in higher studies, he lent a sympathetic ear, and was most generous in granting opportunities for graduate work.

In 1938 Father Burns was elected First-Assistant Superior General. He took up his quarters in Dujarie Institute. But during the next two years, he was frequently sick. In the summer of 1940 he had to be taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in South Bend. In his last illness, the doctors tell us, he must have suffered a constant agony. But no word of impatience or complaint dropped from his lips. He died September 9, 1940.

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