University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame: Foundations, 1842-1857 / by John Theodore Wack

Chapter I
Foundation, 1840-1843

Notre Dame was French through and through -- French in conception, nomenclature, personnel, methods, ideas and aims.{1}


The history of the State of Indiana, as well as that of the area of the Mississippi Valley, is intimately connected with France and with Frenchmen. The first white men to set foot on what was to become the territory of Indiana were French explorers, missionaries, and trappers. The first major settlement in Indiana was the French town of Vincennes. Even after the turbulent and bloody years in which this area was successfully torn first from the grasp of the French and then from the English, there still remained French-Canadian trappers and traders in the Northwest Territory, as well as French missionary priests who remained in the area to serve the isolated communities along the Mississippi River valley, and who labored to win converts among the whites and the Indians.

Settlement by the pioneers from the Eastern states was delayed until after the stubborn resistance of the Indians had been broken at Fallen Timbers and at the Battle of the Thames, but sufficient settlement was made, particularly in southern Indiana, to allow the organization of the land as a separate territory in 1800 and, ultimately, its creation as a new state in 1816. The flood of American settlers into Indiana quickly submerged the French character of the early settlement, and what had been French trading posts or missions soon became American towns and villages. Nevertheless, despite the changed political condition of the territory, France retained an interest in her old lands. Priests were needed to serve the parishes of the old French-speaking settlements. In northern Indiana, the Indians, most of them from the Miami or Potawatomi tribes, once strong and feared, now were prostrate and helpless before the American advance which was determined to exterminate them. The missionary priests of France felt the pull of an old responsibility and an old attraction to these Indians, among whom so many priests had labored in the days of French might. Thus the Mississippi Valley, and Indiana in particular, continued to see French-born priests and nuns whose activities for the most part were supported by donatians from private individuals in France and by the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons and in Paris. To be sure, priests and nuns of other nationalities were active in the American West, and donations came from other sources, particularly the Leopoldein Stiftung in Vienna, but Indiana unofficially remained the particular province and responsibility of the French.

After the War of 1812, settlement in Indiana began increasingly to show the effect of the mounting Immigration from Europe. Many of these new Americans were Irish and German Catholics. By 1834, the Diocese of Bardstown in Kentucky had become overtaxed, and a separate diocese for Indiana was created. The first bishop was the Most Reverend Simon G. Bruté de Rémur, a native of France, and the episcopal see was in the old French settlement of Vincennes. Bishop Flaget of Bardstown, Kentucky, estimated that there were approximately ten thousand Catholics in Indiana in 1830, many of them Indians.{2} These numbers were swelled annually as new Catholic immigrants arrived, giving new importance as well as new problems to the missionary diocese at Vincennes.{3} Many more priests and nuns were required; new churches, schools, seminaries, and convents awaited their founders. Logically, Bishop Bruté turned to his homeland to recruit the men and women to labor in his diocese. In 1836, he left Vincennes to seek clerical volunteers among the priests and seminarians of France. Here he found six men, several of whom would figure in the history of Notre Dame: Benjamin Petit, Michael Gordon Shaw (a former English army officer who was a seminarian in France at this time), Julian Benoit, Father Celestine de la Hailandiere, Father Corbé, and Father Maurice de Saint-Palais.{4} In 1839, Father de la Hailandiere was sent back to Europe to secure more recruits, particularly among the Germans (since many German Catholics were entering the diocese).{5} While in France, he learned of the death of Bishop Bruté and of his own appointment as the new Bishop of Vincennes. He did not return immediately to Indiana, but continued to search for priests, seminarians, and nuns to send to his diocese, and he also appealed for material aid and donations. De la Hailandiere was particularly interested in providing permanent institutions for Catholic education in Vincennes; one of the major demands of the Catholics in the area of Indiana had been for Catholic education for their children. In his search for people to found and establish schools of all sorts in his diocese, the bishop learned of a society of teaching Brothers, the Brothers of St. Joseph, who were under the direction of a French priest, Father Basil Moreau, who was the Superior as well of a group of priests known as the 'Auxiliary Priests.' These two groups, priests and Brothers, were later to become known as the Congregation of Holy Cross, although their formal organization under this title would not take place for several years.{7}

In July of 1839, Bishop de la Hailandiere contacted Father Moreau at his residence at Notre Dame de Sainte Croix, located in LeMans, in western France, and the Bishop explained to Moreau the deplorable condition of Catholic education in the Diocese of Vincennes. De la Hailandiere pleaded for four Brothers under the direction of one of the Auxiliary Priests, expressing his desire to establish a community of Brothers who would teach in the schools throughout the diocese.{8} Moreau promised to send some of his men to the Bishop; however, he was unable to do so immediately, and de la Hailandiere returned to America, where he anxiously awaited news of the coming of the mission. Circumstances prevented their departure for some time, a delay which caused a growing impatience on the part of the Bishop.{9} Eventually funds were raised and a small mission was prepared, to consist of six Brothers, who were to be accompanied by one of the priests as their superior.{10}

Without doubt, it was necessary that the priest who would be chosen to direct and lead the Brothers as their superior in America be a man of exceptional ability. It was to be his duty to establish the congregation and to secure the funds and recruits needed to keep it in existence in a land of alien traditions and among a people of a foreign tongue. Moreover, this new community would be several thousand miles from Notre Dame de Ste. Croix and the capable direction of Father Moreau. New and unprecedented situations would arise which would call for quick and logical decisions. Such qualifications are not the possessions of the average man, and Moreau had a limited number of priests from whom to choose. The man he finally selected was twenty-seven years old, Father Edward Frederick Sorin. In many ways, his youth was his greatest asset, for it would enable him to adjust to the new country, to become genuinely American, just as thousands of young men from Europe were doing every year. It even may be said that Sorin, aside from his mission as a priest, was the ideal American immigrant, young, educated, ambitious, flexible, self-confident, and already endowed with a white-hot optimism molded around a hard core of practicality, an endowment which was characteristic of many Americans. Without a doubt, had Sorin not been a priest but simply a French immigrant to America, he would have sought (and, likely, found) his fortune on or near the American frontier, engaged in speculation in land or ore or cattle, building an institution of some sort: an industry, a town -- or perhaps even a college. A natural leader of men, he thought in terms of building and expanding, never considering the security of the status quo. A man of confidence, he was, confidence in himself and confidence in Providence -- and, it must be admitted, that there are those, impressed by the skill and dexterity with which he manipulated public opinion in his career in America, who would call him a confidence man indeed. His religious faith was a strong and a simple one, characterized by an almost childlike devotion to the Virgin Mary, coupled with a fervent ambition to become a man of action in the Church, a force which would accomplish much good for his Faith.

Many of these traits had not yet revealed themselves, but would be seen as his work unfolded in America. Also, the future would uncover certain traits which would not be so praiseworthy, but which would, nevertheless, be characteristic of a man of his strong personality, such traits as an impulsiveness which sometimes approached foolhardiness, or a deep stubbornness which would make him implacable in his opposition when his emotions were aroused. It might also be said that Sorin lacked a certain intellectual depth, that he was frequently satisfied with superficial success. This, however, was not of necessity a defect; rather, it was an essential part of his character and ultimately of the success of his work. The Reverend Sorin was not a reflective intellectual, a 'classical' scholar, but a man whose mind moved inevitably toward action, toward useful motion. His task was to build and to impart success to his creation; if such work was deficient in intellectual depth, Sorin was fortunate to have associates who were soon able to supply most of the deficit.

In 1841, Sorin was a young man eager to get on with his life's work and sure that Providence had singled him out for some special purpose.{11} His background was a normal one. Born in 1814 into an old and respected French farming family in the village of La Roche in the province of La Mayenne, he was ordained a priest in 1838, but was unsatisfied in parish work and soon joined the newly-forming Auxiliary Priests of Father Moreau.{12} His educational background is interesting and significant. After a schooling in basic subjects in his childhood, when he was somewhere between ten and twelve years of age he began the study of Latin under a tutor. After two or three years of private study, he went to the College of Laval, conducted by the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. After one year, having decided to become a priest, he was sent to a preparatory seminary at the College of Précigné, where he completed his studies in the humanities. He then went on to the Major Seminary at LeMans in order to finish his theological training and await ordination. It should be noted that, throughout his schooling, Sorin was recognized as a student of outstanding ability.{13} However, although Précigné was a college as well as a seminary, Sorin's education was basically of a seminary type. This influence of the French seminary and the French college would later be made most obvious at Notre Dame in America.

Father Sorin's six companions, chosen from the Brothers of St. Joseph, were young men of diverse educational and social backgrounds; yet each proved to have particular value in the new world in which the group found themselves. True to the monastic ideal of self-sufficiency, three of these Brothers were intended to teach in the schools which they would found in the Diocese of Vincennes, while the other three Brothers were skilled craftsmen who would help to render the American foundations as solid and self-contained as possible. The foremost of all the Brothers was Brother Vincent, born Jean Pieau in 1797, an experienced teacher and the oldest and most mature member of the little community, a man whose work and character would figure heavily in the future of Notre Dame. Also teachers were the two youngest members of the group, Brother Gatian, born Urbain Jean Monsimer in 1827, a "wonderfully fitted and eccentric genius," as one of his former students would call him many years later, adding that the venerable missionary priest,, Father Stephen Badin, once said of Gatian, "Il a de l'esprit comme quatre,"{14} and Brother Anselm, born Pierre Caillot in 1826, who was destined to die in America before his work was hardly begun.{15} Another who soon gave his life was Brother Joachim, who was born Guillaume Andre in 1808. The community tailor, Joachim was the first of the group to die in America.{16} Brother Lawrence was a farmer; he had been born Jean Menage in 1816, a man who was to labor long and fruitfully at Notre Dame, eventually holding the position of Steward to the University. He was uneducated and unpolished, but, as Sorin himself said, he possessed an uncommon mind."{17} Brother Mary, born Rene Patois in 1820, was the carpenter, a man of some importance on any project which involved building. Brother Mary's name was chanced to Francis Xavier; one imagines that he had been subject to much teasing from the rough indiana workmen. All of these Brothers were professed members of the Brothers of St. Joseph, with the exception of the two young boys, Anselm and Gatian, who were still novices. None of them were college or even seminary trained, so the impetus and the direction in the future college-building would lie clearly with Father Sorin.{18}

At that time, of course, no college was contemplated. The mission was to found a new motherhouse in America, which would take the form of a novitiate for the Brothers of St. Joseph who hopefully would receive new recruits in America and would supply at least the Diocese of Vincennes with teachers for the elementary schools; perhaps there would be a need for the Brothers in some other diocese, but these men were destined for Vincennes.{19} When the seven men set out from Notre Dame de Ste. Croix, it was with some trepidation and with great fortitude, for they thought to find the United States to be "a land of savages" and they fully expected to suffer great sacrifices as missionaries.{20} Through donations, Sorin had received 3,620 francs (roughly $675) from Moreau. Although hardly a princely sum, this was all that could be raised, and it was only intended to pay their passage to Vincennes and to meet their immediate expenses there.{21} Passage was booked on the American packet Iowa; to save expense, Sorin and the Brothers traveled in steerage with other immigrants of limited means. The packet docked in New York City on September 13, 1841. On the dock the group met with an instance of charity which would have met the appreciation of any immigrant group. Alone, bewildered by the new city and unable to understand the language, the Frenchmen were met by Samuel Byerley, a merchant of New York. Byerley was to prove a loyal friend to the future Notre Dame.{22} He had been requested to meet the party by Bishop de la Hailandiere, and the New Yorker generously gave them the use of his home as well as his assistance in their preparations for the journey to Vincennes. In addition, he gave Sorin a personal gift of nearly ten dollars, the first American donation to the new mission.{23}

19 Edward Sorin, C.S.C., "Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac," MS in PAHC, p. 2. This excellent translation of Sorin's original manuscript ("Chroniques de Notre Dame du Lac"), which is also in PAHC, is by the Reverend John Toohey, C.S.C., and it is certainly the most important single document in the history of Notre Dame. Sorin kept the chronicles on an annual basis, sending a copy of the history of the previous year back to France. Hereafter cited "Chronicles"

On September 17, the seven Frenchmen left New York for Albany via the Hudson River on the first leg of the all-water route to the West favored by the multitude of immigrants and native Americans who were seeking new lands in the states created from the old Northwest Territory. In Albany they began the second part of the journey, taking passage for Buffalo on a horse-drawn barge on the Erie Canal. Sorin, accompanied by Brother Vincent, could not resist the temptation to take a side trip to view the great falls at Niagra, rejoining the rest of the party in Buffalo.{24} A steamboat took them across Lake Erie to Toledo, where they hired carriages to reach the Miami Canal, which had not yet been completed to Toledo. At the end of the Miami, they struck across Indiana by way of Fort Wayne and Logansport, taking a land route which had been rudely marked out through the forests, a route which proved to be not only arduous, but dangerous, for they were threatened with robbery by their guides. They arrived in Vincennes on October 10, a Sunday, in time to celebrate Mass with the delighted Bishop.{25}

The most immediate problem was to find permanent quarters for their community, for the Bishop had made no specific plans for their disposition. This was quickly settled. De la Hailandiere offered Sorin a farm as a site for the novitiate; this was some thirty miles from Vincennes, near Washington, Indiana, in Daviess County. The young priest accepted and moved his men out to take possession of the farm, called St. Peters. Its poverty was evident. Although the farm was about one hundred and sixty acres in size, less than half had been cleared of trees. Located on the property was a wooden chapel dedicated to St. Peter; two rooms had been attached to this rude church. Completing the settlement were two other small buildings, both made of logs. One was intended for a school, the other for a kitchen. All of the buildings were relatively old and delapidated. Nevertheless, Sorin and the Brothers were undismayed, and their enthusiasm was rewarded with help from a new source. Father Delaune, a young priest of the diocese, proved to be of great aid to the new colony, giving advice and encouragement to Sorin. Later he would be of even greater assistance.{26}

A young German immigrant, Charles Rother, met the party at St. Peters where he had been teaching school while waiting to join the new community of Brothers. By the end of 1841, Rother and eight other young men had entered the new novitiate at St. Peters, and these were joined by three more men in 1842.{27} Plans were made to begin a school for young men, and, within a few weeks of their arrival, the Brothers were conducting such a school at St. Peters.

Unfortunately, the advances which were made were somewhat offset by chronic problems which ate away at the security of the new community. The farming methods of France proved to be unfit for America, causing Sorin to conclude, "Here time is everything, land is nothing; in Europe it is just the contrary."{29} Moreover, an already small crop of wheat was almost totally ruined by a severe hailstorm in the summer of 1842.{30}

The problems concerning the farm at St. Peters might have been solved through the application of American farming methods, but these difficulties were rendered secondary to a more serious problem: the growing controversy between the Bishop and Father Sorin. In its essence, the problem was very simple, a misunderstanding which had arisen from a constant, desperate need for funds by both parties to the dispute and which originated in the vague and ambiguous agreement which had been reached between the Bishop and Father Moreau. Bishop de la Hailandiere had needed religious to serve as educators in his diocese; he had appealed to Moreau for aid and Moreau had generously given it, but the question of who was to pay for the mission to America and who was to support it in Vincennes had never been clearly settled. In the first stages of negotiation, the Bishop indicated that he intended to pay at least the expenses of the voyage and of the initial establishment of the community.{31} Yet, when it came to the practical problems of establishing the novitiate and maintaining its existence, the Bishop proved to be quite reluctant to part with any funds (he was quite willing to give them the land at St. Peters, however), especially without first having full control over the foundation. Sorin, of course, was caught in the middle; under an obedience to his Superior, Father Moreau, he was nevertheless faced with the problem of maintaining good relations with the bishop of his diocese.{32} The Bishop, concerned with a broad problem, was working primarily for his own end, for the good of the Diocese of Vincennes as he saw it; moreover, he was quite without any surplus funds. To De la Hailandiere, the community at St. Peters was a useful tool which he had managed to secure for his diocese. He wanted to employ them as he saw fit and was impatient with their tendencies toward independent action. Sorin was young, optimistic, new to America, and filled with zeal for the success of his mission. Naturally he saw this mission in a light which was somewhat different from that of the Bishop; he saw not the place of the Brothers of St. Joseph in the one diocese, but instead the potentiality of the community as a religious force in all of America.{33} It was not surprising that there was a conflict. Fortunately, its severity was tempered by the superb patience of Moreau, who was an example and a support to both parties in their search for a reasonable compromise.{34}

Relations between Father Sorin and his Bishop had at first shown no Signs of disturbance, although one can only wonder what initial opinion these two dedicated and aggressive men had formed of each other. Soon enough their relations cooled, the usual bone of contention being money. The new community needed funds. It had none except the remains of the money which the group had been given in France, and it was not to be expected that much revenue would come from the school or the farm, at least not in the near future. The trip from France had cost exactly $386.17, leaving only some $185.00 in their treasury, a sum which had soon been depleted.{35} As a consequence, in the fall of 1841, Father Sorin asked the Bishop for the three thousand francs which he thought was owed to the community for the outfitting and passage of the mission.{36} The Bishop answered him coldly, addressing Sorin simply as "Monsieur," in a letter in which he gave a detailed account of all that he had given to the mission. He concluded by indicating that, as long as debts were under discussion, the truth of the matter was that Sorin and his Brothers owed him some six hundred francs.{37} The coolness which resulted from this dispute lasted until after the New Year, following which the Bishop became more conciliatory, but the misunderstanding and mistrust remained.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the more cordial relationship which arrived with the spring of 1842 was the fact that new sources of funds had been discovered. In November of 1841, Bishop de la Hailandiere had permitted Father Delaune to collect donations in Canada for the group at St. Peters. In addition, he was authorized to search for new recruits for the Brothers of St. Joseph. Of the money collected, one quarter was to go in payment for a church which Delaune had built some time earlier in another part of the diocese; the remainder was to go to Father Sorin. Delaune's pleas for contributions were successful; he collected some $3,000 in cash and, in addition, various articles of merchandise.{38} Commencing in November of 1841 and continuing at irregular intervals until January of 1843, the Bishop delivered small sums from this fund (which the Bishop held) to the community, up to a total of $1832.50.{39} Without this income, life at St. Peters would have been much more difficult, if not totally impossible. Without these funds, relations with the Bishop might have strained to the breaking point. The future University of Notre Dame would unwittingly owe much to the generosity of Father Delaune.

Alarmed by Sorin's letters voicing concern over the financial status of the mission in America, and, of course, concerned for the well-being of these men whom he had sent so far from his personal direction, Father Moreau looked for some way to secure further financial aid for St. Peters. All that he could raise in France was sent on to America, but the total was not extensive.{40} A more substantial source of income came to St. Peters through the intercession of both Moreau and the Bishop, as well as letters from Sorin himself, from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons and in Paris. This great society supplied financial and material aid to Catholic missions throughout the world. The new community qualified for such assistance, and they wasted no time in requesting it.{41} The first sum which Sorin received from the Society was rather small, 2,600 francs (about $484); in succeeding years, larger sums were granted, usually totaling over $2,500 a year. The importance of these yearly gifts can not be overemphasised, for they were essential to the very existence of the community in these early years.

The first winter in America must have been a difficult one for the small group, who faced the cold in rude buildings and crowded quarters, living under the most stringent economies in an air of uncertainty and confusion. Yet spring brought renewed optimism, an end to quarreling (albeit temporary), and, to Sorin, a new ambition, the building of a college. His original task had been to establish a novitiate for the training of Brothers for the diocesan schools. Why then did he desire to build a college? Nowhere does Sorin explicitly state his reasons for this, perhaps because he felt that his motives were so obvious. In his "Chronicles," he simply said that "the question arose of building a college, and all appeared delighted with the idea and ready to help in carrying it out . . . ."{43} A college was not needed in the area, for there was one scarcely thirty miles away in Vincennes, the College of St. Gabriel, operated by the Eudist Fathers. A diocese in so primitive and destitute a condition could hardly support one college, much less two so close together, and Sorin was certainly not unaware of this. One must conclude that like so many other enthusiastic founders of colleges (and, in fact, of many enterprises) in these years, Sorin envisioned his college as having a special purpose, a uniqueness which would make its existence essential and workable. The Brothers had come to America with the one purpose of serving the diocese as a teaching force, but it must not have been long before it was apparent to Sorin that the teachers themselves needed teaching, particularly the new recruits who were found among the immigrants. Thus the Brothers' novitiate must also be a college, and, in Sorin's soaring ambitions for the future of the teaching Brothers in America, such a college should, for reasons of economy, be under the direction of the religious community, should be, as it were, the keystone to the whole structure of the community of Notre Dame de Ste. Croix which had been transplanted to America. Nor did he envision this college as primarily an institution devoted to the teaching of religious; such a college should pay for its own support by the tuition of young men who would come there for an education. He saw the college, one must conclude, as the center of Catholic education in the whole area (and, perhaps in his dreams, for the whole nation), radiating its learning through the teaching Brothers to schools in all parts of the Diocese of Vincennes, and, after a while, to other dioceses as well. In its turn, the college would receive scholars and tuition from the young men, products of the Brothers' schools, who would complete their academic careers at the college. Such a centralized national network of education was somewhat similar in form to systems in Europe, particularly the national educational system of France. If the dreams of Father Sorin were not yet this grandiose in the summer of 1842, certainly they bore the germ of such a plan, for in the winter of 1843-1844 he wrote to several of the American bishops optimistically announcing the successful establishment of the "University of Notre Dame du Lac" (which he had by then begun to build) and tactfully submitting certain questions to them, including one which wondered whether the establishment of Notre Dame and the teaching Brothers in Vincennes Diocese could not be repeated on a national level with the whole of the system centering around his new college of Notre Dame.{46}

With the formulation of the idea of establishing a college at St. Peters, its immediate existence seemed essential to Sorin. Without consulting the Bishop, he began, in the spring of 1842, to collect the materials with which to build a new school house which would be his college.{47} Perhaps he intended to present the Bishop with a fait accompli; perhaps he was unsure himself of the direction the building would take: an elementary school and a Brothers' novitiate could easily become a college and a novitiate with a change in enrollment, as long as the building erected could be used for either purpose, and the collection of Delaune had given him a few surplus funds to invest in a building. Sorin constructed the building throughout the summer, even borrowing $400 from the Bank of Vincennes,{48} but, when in the fall of 1842 he approached the Bishop to ask that the new school be opened as a college, his hopes were quickly dashed. The Bishop wrote to him:

With regard to your much desired College, I have but to say that the more I reflect on it, the more I conclude not to give any approbation to the purpose. I have read again some letters of Rev. Mr. Louis.{49} [H]is expectations which I did not contradict are I should not permit any establishment as that alluded to -- for me I never expected from you but Brothers for schools to be establised in the various congregations of the Diocese.

This should have collapsed all plans for a college, but the concluding words of the Bishop's letter left a faint hope: "I have no opposition to your having a college some where [sic] else; I put but a condition, viz. that the erection of that college should not prevent you from sending Brothers where they will be wanted and supported properly in the manner which will be hereafter agreed."{50}

It must have been that Bishop de la Hailandiere perceived the depth of Father Sorin's determination; perhaps he also had been attracted by the young priest's earnest talk of his projected college and his dreams for the future. Certainly the Bishop did not desire to lose the young priest and the Brothers, and his recent difficulties with the new community at St. Peters, plus his knowledge of Sorin's ambition and energy, must have made him fearful that Sorin, convinced in his disappointment of the lack of understanding of the Bishop, would break away from the diocese and go elsewhere to build a college. Unable to exercise complete control over the group at St. Peters, who were, of course, under obedience to Father Moreau as their religious Superior (in particular, the Bishop could not force them to remain in his diocese), it is quite possible that de la Hailandiere wisely chose to give Sorin his head in order to see what this ambitious young man could accomplish on his own. If Sorin succeeded, then the Diocese of Vincennes, as well as the Church in America, might reap unexpected benefits; if he failed, as well he might, he would return to the Bishop a more submissive and chastened priest.

Near the end of October, on Sorin's next visit to the Bishop's residence in Vincennes, de la Hailandiere offered the priest certain lands at the furthermost limits of the diocese in the virtually unsettled area of northern Indiana, Just a few miles from the southern boundary of the state of Michigan. After some deliberation, Father Sorin accepted the challenge. Promising to continue the Brothers' novitiate at the new site, he undertook to build and open a college in two years' time (for such were the terms of the agreement), a college to be reared in the forest, on land which only four years prior to this had been the center of an Indian mission.{51}

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