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Online Exhibits > Father Edward Sorin and the Founding of Notre Dame


A Brief Sketch of Father Founder's Life

Notre Dame Scholastic, November 11, 1893

Very Rev. Edward Sorin, Superior-General of the Order of the Holy Cross and founder of the University of Notre Dame, was born February 6, 1814, in Ahuillé, near Laval, France. In early youth he received that education which so firmly laid the foundation of an afterwards glorious and successful life -- a life of which any might be happy to look back on when the final summons comes calling the soul from all things earthly. His youth was not wasted. Studious from childhood, he formed habits that followed the youth and became more pronounced in the man and firmly fixed in the priest. Study was his food, and gave him vigorous existence, building body and mind, and preparing them for the splendid life which has just passed to eternal rest. His learning became deep and proficient even in the lad, and as years touched his faculties, his knowledge broadened and increased. When twenty-six years of age Father Sorin attached himself to the Congregation of the Holy Cross -- a religious society then recently established at Mans, France, by Father Moreau, for the instruction of youth and the preaching of missions to the people. He soon became one of its most earnest workers, devoting himself to education, and preaching with a zeal unsurpassed.

May 27, 1838, Father Sorin was elevated to the priesthood, and on June 9, the same year, he celebrated his first Mass in the land of his nativity. It was an epoch in the long life of the grand, good man, always referred to by him with a heart filled with joyous emotions at the sacred remembrance. But he was not destined to remain long in France. His energetic, never-failing nature was needed elsewhere, and the Bishop of Vincennes, knowing the qualities of the man, asked him to establish a branch of the Order in America. Accordingly in August, 1841, Father Sorin, accompanied by seven other members of the society -- Brothers Francis Xavier, Gatien, Patrick, William, Pierre, Basil and Vincent -- all gone but Brother Francis Xavier -- sailed from France landing in New York September 13, the eve of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The young, zealous priest looked upon it as a signal favor from Heaven to land on the eve of the great festival consecrated to the Sacred Symbol of man's Redemption whose name the Congregation bears, and to exalt which he had left country and home. Father Sorin, the leader of the brave band, at once turned his steps toward the great undeveloped West.

In 1830 Rev. Theodore Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States, purchased from the Government St. Mary of the Lakes -- a portion of the present Notre Dame, -- and for some time dwelt in the lone wilderness, teaching and preaching to the Indians and the few whites. The mission was finally abandoned.

Some time after the Bishop of Vincennes offered it to the Congregation of the Holy Cross on condition that it would erect and maintain a college. Father Sorin saw other places in his travels towards the West, but St. Mary's of the Lake impressed him with its beauty, its grandeur, although nothing but a mission in the wilderness. Doubtless foreseeing the good that might be done he accepted the gift, first setting foot on the-to-be celebrated ground Nov. 27, 1842, over a year after landing in America. His presence seemed inspiring. By his touch the wilderness was transformed. On that cold November day he gazed on ground that few had seen and but few more heard of. To-day we look upon the great, the grand, the inspiring result of a master.

His first efforts were to reclaim the abandoned mission of Father Badin. With the aid of the Catholic inhabitants he cleared some ground and erected a church of hewn timber 40 x 24 ft. The ground floor served as a residence for the young priest, while the upper story was the only church or chapel possessed by the Catholics of South Bend or vicinity. Clinging to this large log-house was a smaller one occupied by the family of a man who acted as interpreter between the Indians and whites.

Notwithstanding limited means Father Sorin determined to fulfil the terms of the contract entered into with the Bishop of Vincennes and establish a college. The name was changed to Notre Dame du Lac, now generally shortened to Notre Dame. After months and months of hard labor the corner-stone of the first college edifice at Notre Dame was laid August 28, 1843. Before winter the building was under roof and by the following spring it was completed. In June the few students who eagerly sought education in the old farm house or church were removed to the new structure, and in August, 1844, the first commencement exercises took place. Just before this, and through the efforts of the late Hon. John D. Defrees, then a member of the legislature, the college was granted a charter with all the rights and privileges of a university.

In 1844 Father Sorin organized a manual labor school. His labors were shared by the late Fathers Cointet and Granger, the latter arriving in 1844. Father Sorin became the first president of the University of Notre Dame in this year continuing until 1865, Father Granger being his first vice-president and Father Cointet his second. To these three men, therefore, is largely due the rapid and successful early development of the now great University. Father Sorin laid deeply and solidly the foundation of the institution. With willing hand he did whatever would advance it; and in his last days it was one of his greatest pleasures that from his cozy room he could look out on the solid, massive and magnificent buildings that now speak to the world through the scores of young men sent out into the vast arena of progressive civilization.

Although this original edifice was 80 x 36 feet and four stories high it soon became too small. In 1853 two wings 40 x 60 were added. Father Sorin thought the building now large enough for many years; but the error was discovered, and in 1865, under President Dillon, the structure was in two months' time transformed into an imposing edifice 160 feet long by 80 and six stories high surmounted by a colossal statue of Our Lady. The new building was dedicated May 31, 1866. On April 23, 1879, Father Sorin saw this handsome edifice destroyed by fire together with nearly all the surrounding buildings that had been erected from time to time. Not discouraged, Father Sorin and his many able assistants at once prepared to rebuild Notre Dame. With what a grand result need not be told, for the great University is known wherever civilization exists, and is a greater earthly monument to the life just passed away than his admirers on both sides of the Atlantic can ever hope to erect.

It is a remarkable fact that Father Sorin, during his long life, never left Notre Dame for any great length of time. Many times, perhaps fifty, he crossed the Atlantic on his pilgrimages to Rome. These trips were happy remembrances in his eventful life and were looked on with the greatest pleasure. Father Sorin was elected to the office of Superior-General on July 22, 1868. One of the brightest events in his life was the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of his priesthood. The anniversary occurred Sunday, May 27, 1888, but was not celebrated until August 15 following. The occasion was observed with great splendor and magnificence and was attended by scores of well-known priests from all parts of the United States. For years he acted as Provincial, having been elected August 15, 1865.

Father Sorin was a good man and he had thousands of warm admirers in all parts of the civilized globe. None at the University but loved and admired the great man, and none but now feel that the world's loss is also their individual loss. Those who were not intimately acquainted with him cannot realize his inward greatness. He was a man of deep learning, a great thinker, an energetic worker, a man who transformed thoughts into deeds and with what result can best be told in the illustrations herewith of Notre Dame in 1842 and Notre Dame in 1893. Few knew Father Sorin's pen. When it was guided by his hand the thoughts were almost sublime and clothed in language whose sweetness fondly lingered in the mind. His private letters were literary efforts, perfect in composition and with a rhythmical effect charming in the extreme. His inner life is admirably revealed in the "Circular Letters" which from time to time he addressed to his spiritual children throughout the world, and many of which, we are glad to say, have been published in book form.

In the death of this grand man, says the South Bend Tribune, the world loses a character that has done much to make it better. He was the fountain-head whence flow the splendid results daily achieved at the University of Notre Dame. His hand made the initial stroke, and to-day its magnificence, its grandness, its marvellousness echo and re-echo far and near. Notre Dame then, Notre Dame now! What a sermon in those six words! What greater honor could mortal man desire than is embodied in them? Nothing, everything. That is what they express. No greater, no more magnificent, no more lasting monument can ever be reared in honor of Very Rev. Father Sorin than the University of Notre Dame!