University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter XXX

WE REALIZE that the judgment of future writers may differ considerably from our own. We live so closely to the men and events we describe that we undoubtedly lack the perspective necessary for correct appraisal. That does not, however, excuse us from trying to evaluate persons and things at their true worth. Our judgment of Father Charles O'Donnell has been gathered from sources very close to him, not trusting altogether our own experience for, although we knew him well, we were not an intimate.

Indeed, he had few intimate friends. He was, we think, a man who longed for closer ties, especially with members of his own religious family but something in the man's nature prevented the easy familiarity, the hearty good fellowship, which begets a large number of close friends.

Perhaps his closest friend was George Finnigan. When Father Finnigan was rector of Holy Cross Seminary, Father O'Donnell was Provincial. Between the two priests there was the most cordial exchange of ideas and sentiments. Oddly enough, they were very different in temperament. George Finnigan was excessively active, buoyant and gay; whereas, Charles O'Donnell was more of an introvert, critical -- even self-critical -- and at times moody. Father O'Donnell profited greatly by this friendship, for George Finnigan's light-hearted cheerfulness drove away the clouds that often depressed O'Donnell's spirit.

When George Finnigan was made Bishop of Helena in August, 1927, Father O'Donnell was by turns glad and saddened. It meant the end of that continuous intimacy from which Father O'Donnell had derived so much strength and satisfaction. Contacts were maintained by occasional visits and correspondence. Most often, when Charles O'Donnell wrote the Bishop, he dispensed with his secretary, so we have copies of very few of his letters to Bishop Finnigan. The friendship ended tragically when Father O'Donnell was in northern Wisconsin on a fishing trip. News was flashed to him that the Bishop of Helena had died very suddenly. He left at once for the west and returned to Notre Dame with the Bishop's body. The day they laid Bishop George Finnigan beneath the pines in the Community cemetery, Charles O'Donnell left half his heart in that grave.

In his letters Father O'Donnell often displayed a playful, sometimes a biting humour. There was a friend of his, a Bishop, who suggested that very likely the shadow of the purple would soon fall on him. Father O'Donnell wrote:

Once an intimate acquaintance of Father O'Donnell notified him that a very famous educator was about to set out for the Middle West and desired to call at Notre Dame. It was in August when nearly everyone was away from the University and, practically speaking, there was hardly any one around except some workmen, most of whom were of foreign extraction. Father O'Donnell sighed as he answered:

To one of his fellow priests, went a letter urging him to come to Notre Dame as a faculty member during the next summer session. As a further inducement, Father O'Donnell added:

In the same letter Father O'Donnell includes a savory little anecdote concerning Father Moses McGarry, a venerable patriarch who lived countless years among us, growing old and deaf and very blind. He was a man of singular innocence and humility, and he loved the young. When Father Matthew Walsh was dangerously ill of pneumonia in the spring of 1929, Father McGarry worried about him endlessly. Father O'Donnell writes:

Over at St. Mary's College there is a small body of water which in a gracious euphemism is sometimes called a lake. There is water in it, but hardly more than would slake the thirst of two frogs and four blue-gills. The girls took little interest in this minute body of water but they did desire to play golf on the newly opened course at Notre Dame. Through their superior, Sister Eleanore, they asked for permission. Such an important matter would have to be taken up by the University Council, Father O'Donnell answered. In a few days, he wrote:

Of quite a different stamp were some of his other utterances. There was nothing playful about him when he was aroused. A great many men have a faculty for absorbing criticism or abuse. They brush it off, laugh at it, or let it pass without notice. Father O'Donnell did not have this gift. When the University was criticized, especially in print, something vitriolic usually followed from the presidential pen. Such a reaction was very often justified. In many instances, however, particularly in the case of sport-writers, it is suspected that they enjoyed pecking at Notre Dame because they felt sure that Father O'Donnell would rise to the bait and furnish good copy.

Two well known writers, Westbrook Pegler and Paul Gallico, were often in Father O'Donnell's scalding kettle. Pegler sneered that Notre Dame, as a University, was known for nothing but its football. Gallico wrote that he was weary of hearing about Notre Dame championships and suggested that if Notre Dame was tired of being known for nothing but its football, there was an easy way out: Fire the coach. Father O'Donnell often replied in a sarcastic vein, accusing the gentlemen of ignorance of the University. To recite the glory of Girac's music or Gregori's art, or the scientific discoveries of Zahm, Green and Nieuwland would have been wasted effort.

It was bad enough to get this kind of thing from Americans, but when an Englishman followed in the lists, it was like vinegar in fresh wounds. Early in 1932, The Saturday Review carried an article by John Boyd-Carpenter entitled "A Briton Looks at American Education." He was critical of nearly all American universities, certain ones excepted, and of them, he said they were not really American. Of Notre Dame, he wrote:

Father O'Donnell was filled with cold anger. He got out his sword and hacked Boyd-Carpenter to small bits. This answer, which appeared in the Review on May 7,1932, was, to put it mildly, rather vehement.[7] Shane Leslie read it in Ireland and wrote to Father O'Donnell praising him for it. In reply, the president said:

Father O'Donnell was inclined to take consolation in the thought that so much criticism of the University probably meant that Notre Dame was not doing so badly after all. He came to feel that there was not much use in answering these cheap gibes. "The truth is, of course, the people capable of this sort of thing will not be set right. In most cases of persecution, the victim is hated for his virtues. I am convinced that, if Catholics had not served with so much distinction in the world War, their Americanism would never have been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan."[9]

What he held up his sleeve for the Abbé Dimnet was a really cold icicle. The following letter was written to an agency which had inquired if Notre Dame would care to have Abbé Dimnet appear for a lecture:

On one occasion a very prominent non-Catholic was invited to give the Commencement address. He acquitted himself very creditably. Everyone was well satisfied. Imagine Father O'Donnell's surprise the following week when he found an editorial in a Catholic paper condemning the University for employing a cheap publicity stunt by inviting this speaker, well known in industrial and political circles, and condemning the speaker for having omitted the mention of God. The charge was so wanton that Father O'Donnell wrote to the editor:

The mordant quality of these letters is considerably discounted by the recollection that Father O'Donnell was not only temperamentally brittle, but also that he was a sick man. A streptococcus infection first settled in Father O'Donnell's throat in 1931. It traveled to his ear and produced a partial deafness. Treatment for this disorder seemed to produce some relief, but in the winter of 1932-1933 he was quite ill and spent considerable time in the infirmary and in the hospital.

In the spring of 1933 it was thought that an ocean voyage might clear up the infection. At first Father O'Donnell planned a boat trip from New York to San Francisco, but later abandoned that long journey in favor of a boat trip from New York to Galveston. On his return he stopped off at Washington to witness Franklin Roosevelt's first inauguration. When he returned to Notre Dame at the end of March, he was again suffering.

He later became much worse, as appears from the following letter to the widow of Joyce Kilmer:

Commencement in June 1933 found Father O'Donnell just able to be up. He sat on the stage for the exercises, but his appearance was enough to strike every heart with sorrow. It had been suggested that a trip to Europe might be just what he needed, but his superiors thought the journey too risky. He wrote to a fellow-priest: "I am actually relieved because in my present debilitated state, the travel involved would be a real hardship." Instead of a trip to Europe, he and his secretary, Tom McNicholas, went fishing at a lake in northern Michigan. Even this proved too exhausting. On his return, his doctors in Chicago advised him to try a month's rest on the seashore. Accordingly, he left for New York where, suddenly, he developed a constant dizziness that made travel impossible. A friend of his suggested that he enter the Medical Center and have the doctors go over him thoroughly.

Late in 1933 the doctors sent him to the Mayo Clinic.

On the journey southward, Father John McGinn was his companion. In the warm sunshine of Florida Father O'Donnell seemed to be recovering. He managed to get out now and then. His letters to Notre Dame were cheerful and seemed to indicate bright prospects for a cure. He began to get anxious for home. He arrived at Notre Dame on the last day of April, 1934. He was in such an utter state of exhaustion, that he was sent to the hospital next day. To Aline Kilmer, Tom McNicholas sent the following telegram on May 26th:

Father O'Donnell's good friend, Father Eugene Burke, went to the hospital to tell Father O'Donnell that the end was near. He did it gently, but Father O'Donnell seemed a bit surprised and asked him bluntly: "Am I going to die?" "Yes, Charley, you are going to die."

The Commencement of 1934 occurred on June 3rd. On the stage were several prominent figures -- the Apostolic Delegate, Most Reverend Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Governor Paul McNutt, and Frank C. Walker. Over all the exercises, however, hung the pall of expectant death. Father O'Hara spoke to the alumni:

In the early morning of June 4th, the day after Commencement, Father O'Donnell died calmly and with no struggle.

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