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Full Text Publications > My Fifty Years at Notre Dame by Leo R. Ward, C.S.C.

Chapter Nine: Interlude on Holy Cross

The Holy Cross brothers, monks who do not become priests, are engaged in praying, teaching on all levels, prefecting, publishing, and operating the commissary and treasury departments. Anyone looking us priests and brothers over would see uniformity and much lack of uniformity in our attitudes and opinions and life styles. I am not the only oddity. A quality recommending a man for superior or bishop is that he is not an extremist, yet look at Cardinal McIntyre on the one hand and Cardinal Cushing on the other. When Notre Dame conferred an honorary degree on Cardinal Ottaviani some clerics and laics ducked the event. In my time each of two priests was censor of the Library; one of them making off with books, the other, a high official, cutting out offensive pages. On the other hand, it would be difficult to find among the priests a man under fifty opposed to the freedoms and rights of blacks, or anyone else. Only one was frankly a Goldwaterite, and the two prestigious Holy Cross Priests who were in the march on Selma didn't ask leave of the Curia.

Some priests and brothers fought against Notre Dame or any Catholic university yielding to non-clerical control. Their assumptions appeared to be that they owned Notre Dame, that bad people, bad because laymen and perhaps non-Catholic, were going to take away what we had earned, and that a college or university run by laymen could not be Catholic. There is a marked isolationism among priests and brothers.

One of the most unassuming priests was Father Julius Nieuwland, pioneer discoverer in the reactions of acetyline and a discoverer of artificial rubber. He was ultra democratic, put on no airs, asked no special concessions. This plain-dealing man was celebrated as scientist and scholar. His simplicity came home to me one summer when, squeezed into an abbreviated vacation and assured by the high boss that a place was waiting for me at the seaside, I was stood up. Just one year a priest and with no money, I would have to go vacationless for that year. Nieuwland was on vacation at the same spot; he could take vacation only where there were no chemical works, no weeds or plants, for he was botanist as well as chemist. At once he said, "If you don't mind, we'll double up." I thought he meant occupy the same room; he meant occupy the same bed. When we'd go to the beach, Jules would play ball with boys, but he told his team's captain, "That man is a pro, don't let him play!"

If a man has something special, it is up to him to prove it to religious superiors, he has to show that he can create something out of nothing. Like other people, superiors are skeptical. It would be silly for bosses at the University to embrace every project conceived by us hoi polloi. Suppose a man has a gift for music and for developing musical studies. It will take time to prove this. So it goes in all arts and sciences and various forms of the action apostolate.

The thing I was told to do was to teach; for this I was paid nothing, a fair salary. That was my "obedience." A teaching load is a limitation and constraint: You, John Brown, teach these courses to these students at these times and places. A teacher needs academic freedom, but otherwise his freedom is limited. I nevertheless progressively and almost without knowing it took on the task of searching for the idea of a university and a Catholic university, a search that could fall within philosophy, and I was more than disappointed to find that even the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, an elite group though at the start apologetic, has been wary of my pet problem; the leaders wanted to know the status of Catholic learning but, have kept shy of whether there can be any such thing. I was more or less out of bounds in working with others to set up manikin universities at Notre Dame, and our undiplomatic operations won no applause.

Father Michael Mathis, no quitter or half-man, was a student of the Bible and a promoter of Biblical studies and gave himself to these studies as if they were the only good in the world. Later, it was foreign missions, and again the one thing was all things. And lastly he landed at Notre Dame and got so steamed up over liturgy that the then Holy Cross boss, no friend of enthusiasts, parked him in a hospital. This invitational cooling-off period had no effect, and despite opposition, Father Mathis organized, inspired and directed Notre Dame's school of liturgical studies.

Patrick and Thomas Peyton came to seek work in America, but in 1940 they were ordained priests at Notre Dame, and by sheer force of faith, Father Pat rose from his sickbed and made himself the leader of the world-wide apostolate of the Family Rosary. A conservative boss could only ask: "What can you say when Pat says 'the Mother of God wants this done'?" Among other non-university apostolates I cite that of a then young Father Joseph Payne who started cycling off from Notre Dame to serve the poor in an area called "Dog Patch" where seminarians Pat Peyton, Ted Hesburgh and others had built a tiny church. Joe Payne became its pastor, living in the sacristy of that ($1200.00) church, and the enterprise escalated into one of the nation's most remarkable parishes. Men launching such works are lost to the university community, and I must add that the men operating Catholic Action units at Notre Dame -- I think particularly of Father Louis Putz's successes in this line -- failed to identify the work with university work. Trying to operate a university, even to conceive the idea of one, was a work of a different order.

Welcome to me were the words of the then Superior General who was making what was called "the visit," consulting and conselling each one. I mentioned what seemed to me the low estate of university ideals and he at once understood and suggested that men with ideals should form little groups to keep university interests alive, just the thing we were doing and the thing recommended for all American universities in terms of "islands" by Flexner in his volume called Universities, and also recommended by Maritain during the troubles in universities in the sixties.

People say, "You lucky man! Living at Notre Dame! And you an author, with nothing to do but write!" We do have a pleasant and generally peaceful time, and now, after years of teaching and writing, I have great freedom. I have lovely places in which to work; Notre Dame is one of the nation's glamour spots. We have a forest of trees; in a storm we lost eighty, a small fraction of the whole, and it was touching to see that students, professors and monks all felt badly when it seemed that a great branch of a great tree in front of the Dome building would be amputated. We have two natural lakes, which originally were one, but because the State could claim so big a lake, Father Sorin cut the lake in two. On a May day during the War an old student from New York City, turned soldier and having half a day off, could make the round trip from Chicago and have an hour at Notre Dame, a return to heaven for him. To see him off I went down town with him just as the sun was setting. On a Christmas eve, another, studying military law at Ann Arbor, came by; he was not allowed time or travel to go home to his wife and family; and Notre Dame is more than ever his second home.

For my lackadaisical part, I immensely enjoy life; arise at 5:15; at 5:00 on Sundays; shuttle past the Grotto at 5:40, am in the crypt of Sacred Heart Church then to attend a Mass and, if my eyes permit, to read part of my "office"; then perhaps a confession or two; Mass at 6:30 concelebrated with Christ and working people who on this weekday morning were fifteen; then waiting because a woman hitchhiker wants to receive; a legalistic priest says that it is verboten to distribute Communion outside of Mass -- no doubt he will get it codified that hitchhikers are forbidden the Sacraments. These my people are always asking prayers and Masses and lighting candles for the sick and deceased and "special intentions." Think of the superstition, but also the faith which can sweep superstition into kingdom come.

Well, my day is only well started. To breakfast at 7:30; some mornings a swim in "The Rock" at 8:30; if not then, perhaps late in the day. Then the mail with a rejected manuscript or two. Then to my cell in the Library, a quiet, windowless place for meditating and writing; and here I am this day at 11:30 writing, an apple and a pear, neither of which I will eat, before me. For lunch, tea and a sandwich and a mint or two. If I tire, which is likely, I roll up for ten minutes in a blanket on the tile floor. Home to Corby Hall, the Lord willing, at three or four. It's a long and easy and happy day, and a good deal of it still before me. Nice though it all is, we wear down. Today is the 15th of March and I have worked, even if slowly and peacefully, seven days every week since Christmas vacation which ended for me on December 26th.

Besides our work and play and prayer and inevitable human suffering and longing -- St. Augustine said for God -- we "have fun," as the saying now goes. The fact of two Father Leo Wards did at least cause confusion. Students soon used the ambiguity to name Leo L., who taught English, Leo Literary, and me Leo Rational. They were at the bottom of the barrel when, late one evening, one pronounced: "Leo L. is not irrational and Leo R. is not illiterate." The reply: "I don't know what the hell Leo R. is saying, but he's got something on the ball." Once Leo L. had a poem in The Commonweal about the "yellow half-moon, round and low," and I received via that magazine a letter from one Conrad Zeppelin in Germany who was looking for an English priest named Leo Ward; this priest died of punishments due to the war on Japan.

On a fine day years ago one of our naive priests went down town to a movie. Another priest, German or Austrian in background, was naive, too, and took himself with ultimate seriousness. He flexed his muscles in public and often told the hexed bosses how he was overworked: many classes, many hours in laboratory and library. "Busy man" was written all over him, no time for nonsense. Now as the other was seated one day in the theatre, in front of him was Rev. Seriousness Himself. The show nearly over, the scalawag inched out and managed to mount the old Hill Street car with the other fellow for whom he made room. "Sit with me. I must tell you. Listen, there's the most wonderful show, it's called Snow White and" --

"Don't talk to me about shows! If I had time, but believe me, I'm a busy man!"

On a November evening an Irish priest walked with an ex-president of Notre Dame, the deadly clerical black of the two shaming the night. Clergymen take a kind of reverential and sanctuary stride, especially in the dark, their cassocks and coattails falling solemnly over their hams; and in those times, under Navy occupation, the navy had put on guards to catch a fire-bug. All at once, a guard shouted: "Halt! Halt, Sirs! You are under arrest!" He marched the gents to an officer: "Sir, I have two suspects." The ex-president was Matthew Walsh, a soft-spoken, prudent man always ready to appreciate and to stir up devilment. His time (1922-1928) was the heyday of Rockne, and it was an irreparable loss that Notre Dame did not get firsthand the matters known intimately only to Father Walsh, not only Rockne matters but dozens of important records; all the greater pity since he was an accomplished raconteur.

Pre-war II, a boy named John Smith took up residence as a hurdler at Notre Dame, an ordinary occurrence, but John, a Protestant boy, was advised to stay out of priests' clutches, a thing hard to do. This freshman, his eye on the hurdles and also on the clergy, came leaping down the track; taking his gaze off a hurdle in order to miss the clergy, he missed the hurdle and almost hit Father Will Carey who said in a sepluchral voice: Young man!" This almost sent hurdler Smith home without a monogram. The priest went on solemnly: "The custom at Notre Dame is to jump over the hurdle and not alongside it." The boy went to the war and returned with his bride, a girl who with a hundred other brides lived in "Vetville" and trundling their babies across the campus did much to civilize and domesticate Notre Dame, most of all the clergy. The John Smiths' baby was named Carey.

When Father Carey died, Father Doremus and the Smiths adopted each other, and as had so often happened, this most human priest began a long and happy comradeship. When he himself was going away for a year, he asked me to adopt these orphans. Joanne Smith inquired: "Do you have the art of stealing chickens? Here's the sack! If you can sack them, I can cook them!"

The priest noted as a campus cut-up was Father Gene Burke. Students were supposedly in his hall by ten at night and because they then commonly went down the corridor to replenish their water jugs, he wrote "The ten o'clock walk," composed music for it, and all Sorin Hall sang it. Father Gene became assistant superior and in that capacity was presumed to observe decorum, but he himself led the capers. A young priest who prided himself on singing Mass managed to be the celebrant-songster for a full church the day after a football game. Father Gene dispatched a letter to an old student named Abie Lockner, and Abie mailed it back congratulating the young priest on how he sang, yet suggesting that a priest on ceremony should keep his eyes lowered: "at the Dominus vobiscum, don't look at your audience." The letter was signed by the alleged choir-director of "St. Ambrose Choral Society." The man rushed to receive his superior's congratulations.

A nerve-wracked priest, befriended by a good man, turned on his benefactor. Father Gene sent for the ingrate and afterwards enacted the scene. Seating me, he knocked on the door in the nervous man's role; he swept in, his long cassock swinging across the room. "Father Superior, did you send for me? . . . I am an obedient man," and out swung Father Gene in the same role. Another knock: "Do you mean, Father Superior, I shouldn't say those things any more? . . . I am an obedient man." Out again, and yet another knock: "Is it all right to think about them?"

Copyright ©2000 by the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross. All rights reserved.

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