John Theodore Wack
The story of the conception and birth of the University of Notre Dame, although without doubt an unusual one, should by no means be viewed as totally unique among the histories of colleges and universities in America.
The first half of the nineteenth century found most of America's institutions of higher learning still in an embryonic stage, far more concerned with the simple statistics of survival than with the new courses and methods of learning which troubled and intrigued the great colleges and universities of Europe.
I. Foundation, 1840-1843
II. Beginnings, 1843-1845
III. Tremors, 1845-1848
IV. Interlude, 1848-1850
V. Americanization, 1850-1852
In 1850, the United States began a half-century of growth which would be noted not only for the agony of a civil war, but also for the abrupt rise of industry at the hands of a group of individualistic business entrepreneurs who vigorously exploited the opportunities offered by a raw and growing America.
VI. A Crisis of Identity, 1852-1855
VII. A Crisis Resolved, 1855-1857
By 1857, fifteen years from its unnoticed birth in the snow-blanketed forest in 1842, the University of Notre Dame du Lac had achieved the stability which characterized a successful and vital institution.
Notre Dame was founded in November, 1842, by the Reverend Frederick Sorin, a young French priest who had come to America to work in the Diocese of Vincennes, which then encompassed the state of Indiana. Sorin was a member of a newly-formed religious order, which, when officially recognized by Rome in 1857, would be known as the Congregation of Holy Cross. The Congregation, centered in LeMans, France, under the direction of Father Basil Moreau, included priests and lay-brothers as well as an auxiliary order of Sisters. Members from all three of these groups served at Notre Dame.
Over five hundred acres of land, centered by two small lakes, was given to Sorin as a site for the college by the Bishop of Vincennes. The land was situated in northern Indiana, near the town of South Bend. Despite the primitive conditions, a college building was erected and some students (few of them of college calibre) attended. Sorin viewed the college, which was chartered in 1844 as a university with full power to confer degrees, as the future center of a nationaL system of Catholic education in the United States.
The embryo college faced a number of vital problems in the next fifteen years. Fire several times threatened to destroy it and illnesses sometimes reached epidemic proportions, especially in 1854 when many of the religious community died in an epidemic of typhoid fever. The finances of the college were often at a crisis; however the sale or mortgage of donated land averted disasters; in addition, aid came from France, especially from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons. Faculty members were difficult to come by and indifferent in ability. Seminarians and college students taught the preparatory and business course which attracted most of the students; there were few students who were enrolled in the collegiate program. In 1849, a new classical curriculum was introduced, but it was only incompletely implemented.
Difficulties between Sorin and the Bishop of Vincennes marred the first years of growth, as also did internal tensions in the Congregation. These tensions grew more binding, heightened by the lack of communication between the French Motherhouse and Notre Dame, as well as by the actions which Sorin took to secure his new foundation. Chief among these actions was Sorin's Americanization of the college and its attendant institutions. Faced by the suspicions of a Protestant America and realizing the futility of operating a French institution in a new land, Sorin adapted both himself and his foundation to the environment of the post-Jacksonian West, operating with verve on the very edges of bankruptcy and successfully riding the crest of the wave of settlement in the Old Northwest. Through Sorin's unorthodox methods, the college survived, but the American situation puzzled his French colleagues. The controversy reached a critical stage in 1853, but Sorin averted a split by submitting to his Superior-General, Father Moreau.
A visit by Moreau to Notre Dame du Lac in 1857 found the college securely established. Sorin had wrought his university from the Indiana wilderness; it was now strong enough, under his guidance, to withstand the coming blow of the Civil War.
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