University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame: Foundations, 1842-1857 / by 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 circumstances which surrounded the foundation of Notre Dame were nearly duplicated in many of the multitude of colleges which sprang up in haphazard profusion in countless cities, villages, and hamlets of the old American West.

But there were some things unique, some things which make this university worthy of special study. For one, it survived the pre-Civil War years while most of its contemporaries failed, and, not only did it survive, but even the subsequent crises which came with the Civil War failed to halt its growth, proving the stability of its foundation. For another, it surmounted its handicap of being born in a veritable wilderness on the near-edge of the frontier, without funds or students' tuition for sustenance. There is yet another note of uniqueness: it was founded by a group of Frenchmen, only one or two of whom could boast the slightest contact with higher education, and, most incredibly, only one or two of whom could speak even rudimentary English. Finally, it was a college built to serve the missionary purposes of the Catholic Church, but it was placed in a country of suspicious Protestant Americans in the very years which witnessed the height of the anti-Catholic, anti-alien Know-Nothing movement.

An examination of the history of this university, then, has some special merit. Keeping these unique factors in mind, I sought the answers to two major -- and a host of minor -- questions. One, how and why did Notre Dame survive these critical years? -- Two, in what direction and in what manner did the university grow as it developed into an institution of higher education? The answers to these questions could be found only by viewing the growth of the university from different perspectives. First, I attempted to discover those events of American life in this period which had an impact on the new college. Next, I attempted to compare Notre Dame with other colleges and universities which were in existence at this time, particularly those whose circumstances of existence were similar to Notre Dame's. Finally, I examined the archival records of the university in order to locate those men, institutions, and ideas (as well as the accidents of history) which molded the development of the school.

The results of these inquiries are set down in a chronological history covering the first fifteen years of Notre Dame's existence. It was difficult to choose a terminal point for this investigation -- until I began to comprehend that the early history of Notre Dame divides neatly into two parts, the years of foundation and the years in which this foundation was tested by forces coming from outside of itself.

From 1842 to 1857, the college (I have used this term "college" throughout the text to refer to the University of Notre Dame since, despite its title, the new institution could hardly claim to have been a university) had its first life, and, like a newborn child, it was self-centered and self-concerned, unknown and unnoticed outside of its own locality. Like a child, too, the new college had a deep and sometimes frustrating relationship with its parent, the Holy Cross Motherhouse of Notre Dame de Ste. Croix in LeMans, France, a relationship in which Notre Dame du Lac stood often in the role of a precocious young child, impatient with the prudence and caution of its parent and eager to act on its own volition.

1857 brought the end of childhood to Notre Dame du Lac: the structure of the college had been established, the perils of natural disasters had been overcome, and the troublesome relationship with the French Motherhouse had been directly confronted and had been resolved as much as was then possible. Ready or not, the now adolescent college must hurriedly turn from its self-centered position to face the terror of the times in which it lived, for this larger world, which had up to now left the college to grow undisturbed, was writhing beneath the lashes of financial panic and fraternal hatreds as the nation faced the approach of Civil War. The great forces which the coming of this war would unleash would find their way to the young college and nearly destroy it, but the life generated in the first fifteen years would prove too hardy to be easily uprooted. Thus 1857 -- or, at least, the fall of that year, before the Panic of 1857 seized the country -- proved to be the last time in which the college could be totally self-concerned and unaffected by issues outside of its own structure. From 1857 to the end of the war, Notre Dame du Lac would struggle for survival against the background of the struggle of the entire nation, and its endurance in this conflict would bring it the mature success which it had lacked in 1857.

The University of Notre Dame Archives (cited in the text as UNDA) were the source of most of my documentation. Subsequent material was gathered from the Provincial Archives of Holy Cross (cited as PAHC) in the Provincial House for the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross in South Bend, Indiana. This material was kindly made accessible to me by Father James Gibbons, C.S.C., the Provincial Archivist, after permission for its use had been granted by Father Bernard I. Mullahy, C.S.C., then the Assistant Provincial. Those aspects of the relationship between Notre Dame du Lac and the Motherhouse in France which were not contained in the two archives mentioned above, I found in the work by Canon Etienne Catta and Tony Catta (Basil Anthony Mary Moreau (Milwaukee: 1955), two volumes, English translation by Edward L. Heston, C.S.C.). This biography, although written from a distinctly French point of view, contains much information, a good deal of it directly quoted, from papers now to be found in the General Archives of Holy Cross in Rome, which contains the papers of the Superior-Generals of Holy Cross. Since the material in this archive deals only indirectly with the history of Notre Dame du Lac as a college, concentrating rather on the relationships between those at Notre Dame du Lac and the Superior-General in France, I found the work by the Cattas to be a sufficient source for the purposes of this paper.

One further and heart-felt acknowledgement is in order. Father Thomas Timothy McAvoy, C.S.C., not only opened the Archives of the University of Notre Dame to me in his position as Archivist of the University, but also served as the Director of this thesis. All who read this who have known me and have known the fragility of the cockleshell of my will, who have seen me slip my lines and go adrift on many an intellectual sea, know also the grim task which he has faced. I owe him as much for his patience and his mystifying confidence in me as I do for his knowledgeable comments and his tactful criticisms.


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. The major crisis in American higher education in the pre-Civil War years was one of over-expansion; an unwise and uncontrolled desire to fulfill the democratic dream of education for all by scattering colleges and universities throughout the new states, a movement which inevitably led to a high rate of failure among some of the new colleges, as well as low educational standards in many of those colleges which did survive.

At the end of the War of 1812, an increasing flood of settlers poured into the Old Northwest as the land-hungry Yankees and Southerners were joined by northern European immigrants whose numbers increased yearly until they reached proportions which seriously alarmed the native Americans in the 1840's and 1850's. In many of the communities in which these pioneers finally settled, the erection of a college building followed close upon and occasionally preceded such other symbols of collective life as the town newspaper or the town jail. This unprecedented passion for college-building was the result of many factors. Some new colleges were the products of an egalitarian enthusiasm which pictured the college as a road to success for every American boy, while others came into existence when a youthful community subscribed money for a college building as a reflection of pride and faith in its own rapid growth as well as an inducement to the settlement of greater numbers of people in the community. In certain cases, the new colleges were the children of the state governments which had set aside lands for the building and endowment of state colleges and universities.

However, in most cases the impetus for college-building was supplied by the various religious denominations. These groups saw the Midwest as a potentially great missionary field and built their colleges in order to create centers for missionary activity and conversion, to supply an educated ministry for their churches, and to permit an education for their young people which would reflect their religious convictions. Much concern was felt in the East over emigrating church members who went to raw Western settlements which were without religious or educational opportunities, settlements in which they might become lax in the practice of their religion or where they might fall into the hands of ministers of different sects. The Catholic clergy were especially concerned with the emigration to the West. The Indian missions and the old French settlements in the West had long been the scene for the activities of the 'Blackrobes,' and now the old Catholics in these areas were daily being joined by immigrant Catholics from Germany and Ireland. In turn, the presence of Catholic priests and settlers in the Mississippi Valley was in part responsible for the rise of the anti-alien and anti-Catholic crusade which culminated in the Know-Nothing movement of the early 1850's, a movement which spurred the Protestant groups to an active and vocal interest in 'defensive' denominational college building in the Midwest. {1} Such bigotry made the foundation and potential success of a Catholic college much more perilous by creating a climate of suspicion and mistrust.

During the first fifty years of the nation's existence, the number of colleges and. universities in the United States had increased at an amazing rate. That the nine colleges which were in existence at the end of the American Revolution grew to sixty colleges enrolling five thousand students by 1830 is in itself remarkable, {2} but this achievement was far overshadowed by the next forty years when the collegiate scene literally exploded, scattering colleges to the very limits of the frontier. In 1840, the census listed 173 colleges or universities containing some 16,000 students; in 1850, the census officials found 29 institutions and 28,000 students. By 1860, these figures had almost doubled: 467 colleges or universities and 56,000 students, and, by 1870, after the end of the Civil War, it may be estimated that there were some 600 colleges and approximately 85,000 students in the United. States. {3}

Of course, a direct result of the rapid multiplying of colleges in the American states was a high rate of failure. No complete study has as yet been made of the number of colleges which succumbed to the pressures of the period, but one scholar who examined the records of sixteen of the thirty of our states in existence before the Civil War, states chosen as representative of the various sections of the country, has found that of the five hundred and sixteen colleges which had been established in these states before 1861, only one hundred and four were in existence in 1927, an alarming mortality rate of approximately eighty percent. The rate of failure for Catholic colleges was almost as serious. Of the fifty-one Catholic colleges which were chartered in all of the United States before 1861, only sixteen were still in existence in 1927. Students, faculty members, and administrators simply could not be found to fill and staff many of the new colleges. Funds were scarce, donors were disillusioned, and creditors were apprehensive; most of the colleges quietly disappeared, leaving an old stone building or two for the wonderment of the children of future generations.

More subtly, this importunate rush to populate the American West with a skilled and learned and properly God-fearing people inevitably brought about an even more serious problem than failure, as the standards of these new colleges weakened under the killing competition for students and faculty. In some areas, colleges appeared before even the most rudimentary school houses were built, and, in almost every case, faced with the impossible task of giving an education in the classical tradition to rough pioneer boys barely able to read and write, the colleges were forced to become preparatory and even common schools in order to educate these young men to a point where they might be admitted as college students without straining the credulity of their teachers too far. The professors themselves were a mixed lot, underpaid, often subject to humiliation by their students, ill-equipped temperamentally and, often times, intellectually to cope with the rigors of academic life on the frontier. Some were truly heroic men, displaying their ideals and beliefs in the face of incredible conditions; others were lonely, disillusioned men who sank quickly into mediocrity, into compromise, into pedagogery.

Even judged on traditional, classical standards, apart from the new standards of scientific learning which were seeping into America from Europe. could these new institutions really be deserving of the name "college?" More particularly, was there any such thing as an American university? A modern American historian has aptly summarized the problem:

When asked about American universities in the nineteenth century, the first instinct is to reply: Were there any? But a little investigation soon sets you to wondering: Were there anything else? And this question in due course gives way to the still more painful inquiry: Were American universities ever what they said they were?{6}

The University of Notre Dame du Lac, founded in 1842 by a Catholic religious order, chartered in 1844 with the full powers of a university by the State of Indiana, was one of these confusing "American universities."

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