University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter I
Foundation, 1840-1843


Although impatient to commence his work, Father Sorin was held in check by the long, cold winter. Nevertheless, early in January, 1843, he appealed to the few Catholics of the area to aid him in building a new church, for the old chapel was neither in fit condition for religious services nor large enough for the community and the people who lived in the vicinity, he arranged for the local Catholics to donate some days of labor in raising the church, which was once again to be a simple log affair, forty-six feet by twenty feet. The settlers arrived and felled logs and raised the walls of the church, but they did not go beyond this and it was left to Bonn and his Brothers to roof and complete the structure.{1}

Although the Bishop had desired that the novitiate at St. Peters and the college at Notre Dame du Lac remain separate establishments until the college was completed and secure, Sorin next wrote to Brother Vincent and requested the Brother to join him at the Lakes. Father Chartier had left St. Peters, and the Brothers' novitiate was left without the direction of a priest; Sorin felt that the only solution was the reunification of the group at Notre Dame du Lac.{2} After an arduous journey in the severe cold, Brother Vincent and the remaining members of the Brothers of St. Joseph arrived at the new site late in February, 1843.{3} Their welcome arrival supplied more hands for the work around the settlement, and, in particular, enabled the community to complete the building of the church, which was first used for religious services on March 19, 1843. As it then stood, the church was of two stories; on the first floor was the chapel, a room with so low a ceiling that one could hardly stand erect. The loft or second story was reserved for the Sisters who were to be sent from France by Moreau. Later this arrangement would be reversed: the Sisters would occupy the confined quarters of the downstairs room, while the chapel would be moved to the loft. To this rather primitive log building was added an appendage; at the back of the chapel was attached one of the structures already standing in the clearing, probably the two-story house which had been occupied by the Indian interpreter. Later, the other building was added to this, making, in its final form, a rather ludicrous structure, some ninety feet long and only twenty feet wide.

Once the church was completed, the community spent the spring in clearing land for farming and in preparing for the building of the college. Sixty thousand feet of lumber and two hundred and fifty thousand bricks were procured. The plan for the college building had been brought from Vincennes, the design of a Mr. Marsile, an architect connected with the Diocese of Vincennes. Marsile was also to supervise the construction of the building, which was to be four and one-half stories high and in the shape of a double hammer, i.e., a central building and two wings. Its size was to be one hundred-sixty feet by forty feet.{5} The original schedule called for construction to be started on the college building in the spring of 1843, but the severe winter necessarily brought about a long delay, which was further extended by the failure of Marsile to arrive at the building site at the promised time.{6}

In addition to these delays, there appeared, once again, the problem constant to pioneer education: there was not enough money. The funds with which Sorin had arrived at the Lakes were soon depleted by the living expenses of the small community. The repairs and improvements done to the old buildings and to the land, the erection of the new log church, the purchase of bricks and lumber, all of these took most of the reserve funds held by the Bishop from the Delaune collection and from the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons.{7} In addition, between January and August, 1843, Sorin had received $2706.00 directly from the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons,{8} but this had also proved to be insufficient for the purposes of building the college.

Concerned about the limited state of his finances and the continued absence of the architect-supervisor from Vincennes, Sorin determined to erect a snall building on his own. A stout, enclosed building was needed for a variety of purposes: as a bakery, as a dormitory for the Brothers (who could not face another winter exposed to the winds in the old log chapel), and, most important, as a temporary classroom and dormitory for the college. Even if the architect failed to arrive, some sort of school could be opened in the fall. For these reasons, a multi-purpose building of brick was erected quite near to the log churches, new and old, on the bank of St. Marys Lake. Two stories high when built, it was twice expanded in successive years until it reached four stories in height (counting the basement as the first story, as was the French custom) and was somewhat larger in floor plan. It served as the college building in addition to its other assigned tasks for the scholastic year of 1843-1844.{9}

Aside from his compelling desire to get his college underway, Sorin had another reason for making haste. The second colony of religious destined to serve at Notre Dame had left LeMans on May 27, 1843. This group consisted of two priests, Fathers Francis Cointet and Theophile Marivault; a seminarian, Mr. Gouesse; one Brother, Eloi; and four Sisters, Mary of the Heart of Jesus, Mary of Bethlehem, Mary of Calvary, and Mary of Nazareth. Once in America, the party traveled the waterways to Detroit and then came overland to Notre Dame, where they were warmly greeted on July 31, 1843.{10}

Father Cointet had been injured by a fall in Detroit and had to remain there for some weeks, so Sorin was deprived of the aid of this remarkable young priest for a time.{11} After his recovery and his arrival at the Lakes, Cointet proved to be an invaluable assistant to Sorin. Most immediately, he was able to serve the widespread missions and release Sorin for the task of college-building. In addition, he gave the little community and college the direction of an additional person with advanced academic and religious training, enabling Sorin to surrender some of his too numerous duties to the capable young man. The other priest, Father Marivault, worked with the local Indians while at Notre Dame. In January, 1845, he was sent by Father Sorin to establish a permanent mission among the Potawatomi Indians at their village of Pokagan, about twenty miles northeast of Notre Dame.{12}

The Sisters, of course, were very welcome. They assumed the domestic tasks of the institution, washing, cooking, cleaning, nursing, and so forth, thereby not only rendering life in the primitive settlement more endurable, but also enabling the Brothers to get on with the labor of preparing the college for occupancy and clearing land and raising crops. In their close and stuffy quarters below the chapel, these courageous women had to cope with rats, bedbugs, and lice, as well as the aching loneliness of the stranger in an alien land. Somehow they managed to survive.{13}

Late in the summer, on August 24, the architect finally appeared at the settlement, accompanied by two of his workmen. Father Sorin had given up the ideal of beginning the main college building that summer, but the arrival of Marsile caused him to change his mind. Still desperately short of funds, Sorin sought for a source from which he might obtain enough financial backing to at least begin construction, hoping that once the building was under way, sufficient money could be found to complete it. Once again a friend was found in Samuel Byerley, who had recently moved from New York to South Bend where he operated a general store. Byerley loaned Sorin five hundred dollars and offered him credit at the store up to the sum of two thousand dollars. In addition, Father Marivault gave Sorin a draft on the Marivault family in France for some six thousand francs (about $1,100). Four days after the arrival of the architect, the cornerstone of the building was laid. Seizing every opportunity, Sorin raised an additional one thousand francs by subscription taken among the people present at the ceremony.

Perhaps the young priest should have restrained his eagerness to bring the college to fruition; he had no money, winter was drawing near, and he already had several projects underway. Moreover, he had a building which would serve as a temporary classroom. His action appears to have been a foolhardy one; he must have given anxious moments to the Bishop and to Moreau, if they knew of the circumstances of his decision. Certainly the prompt decision to build with the architect finally at hand, expresses the exuberance and confidence of the young Sorin. His was a character which fairly bristled with electric enthusiasm, with a belief that projects must go forward or they will inevitably slide backward, that dreams must rise quickly or they will lie sluggard and never rise. In short, his was the character of the pioneer entrepreneur, the builders who risked all to turn almost every dream-wish into a reality. An historian of American education wrote concerning these college founders and their peculiarly optimistic characters:

College building in the nineteenth century was undertaken in the same spirit as canal-building, cotton-ginning, farming, and goldmining. In none of these activities did completely rational procedures prevail. All were touched by the American faith in tomorrow, in the unquestionable capacity of Americans to achieve a better world. In the founding of colleges, reason could not combat the romantic belief in endless progress.{15}

Perhaps the college building at Notre Dame should have been postponed until funds had been gathered and time had been taken to more completely study and analyze the problems which faced them. But, most likely, sufficient funds would have been slow to accumulate, and the depths of the problems would never have been plumbed. Sorin was bold, perhaps, and unquestionably venturesome -- but not foolhardy.

Even the weather cooperated with Sorin's gamble. The mild and clear skies of autumn continued into the winter, quite unlike the severe cold of the previous year. Before the first snow fell, the walls were raised and the building was partially under roof. The remainder of the work, particularly the inside plastering and preparation of the rooms, was left to be finished in the spring. By June, 1844, the main college building was complete. This first main building did not include the two wings which had been planned; these were left to be added in later years.{16}

Once the college building was under construction in the fall of 1843, Sorin could justly say that he had already fulfilled his obligation to open a college within two years of his arrival at Notre Dame du Lac. The small brick building was sufficient for a few students for the first year, and the main college building would be ready for the second year. Only two things remained to be accomplished before it could be affirmed that a true college existed and operated on the site. First, students had to be found who were capable of pursuing a college curriculum. This was a most difficult task; it is hard to find among the students in the 1840's who attended Notre Dame a dozen who could be classified as college students. The remainder were of all varieties, most of them preparatory students. However, until there were sufficient students to warrant the title (and the faculty to teach them), Notre Dame could hardly be called a college, despite its claims to the title.

The second accomplishment which remained to be met before true college status could be achieved was the recognition of the college by the legislature of the State of Indiana and the granting of a charter to the school to confer degrees. This was accomplished with surprising ease. In fact, through great fortune, this strange academic institution received a most unusual distinction which must have caused even the unrestrained Sorin to have marveled at the audacity of the American system of government. Mr. John B. Defrees, a member of the Indiana State Legislature from South Bend, secured, by an act of the Legislature of January 15, 1844, a charter for the school, not simply as a college, which it was attempting to become, but as a full university, with the powers to grant all degrees, a lofty eminence of name whose attainment must have seemed almost beyond the limits of possibility to anyone aware of conditions at Notre Dame du Lac.{17} How typically American it must have appeared to an educated European to find this collection of log-huts and a small brick building, set in the midst of a forest, inadequately staffed and poorly attended, titled with the grandeur of the 'University of Notre Dame du Lac.'{18}

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