University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter II
Beginnings, 1843-1845


By 1844, the structure of Notre Dame du Lac was established. A college, a Brothers' novitiate, a Manual Labor School, and some wide-flung missions were under Father Sorin's care. His aspirations and the exigencies of life in America had caused him to take a far greater gamble than he had contemplated on his departure from France. He had built a college in the wilderness; now he must make it a success. In the next years he found how difficult this task would be.

One of the first difficulties which he faced concerned the enrollment of students. There was not yet a railroad in South Bend, and the area of the Great Lakes states was just beginning to feel the effects of emigration from the East. Nevertheless there were advantages to the college's location. When Notre Dame was founded, there were only nine other Catholic colleges functioning in the United States -- in actuality, too many colleges when compared with the relatively small number of Catholics in America, few of whom could have afforded the tuition for their sons or daughters, but not many colleges when one took into account the great distances of America and the difficulties of travel. The only Catholic school in any proximity to Notre Dame du Lac was the College of St. Gabriel in Vincennes, which closed in 1846 and which lay over two hundred miles away.{1} For that matter, there was no college of any sort, private or state, in the immediate vicinity of the Lakes for many years.{2} Notre Dame had made its entrance into an area into which hundreds of thousands of immigrant Catholics would soon be streaming. For some time Notre Dame was the only Catholic college of any consequence within access of such cities as Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, and, particularly, the rapidly growing city of Chicago, just one hundred miles away from Notre Dame du Lac.

Students who were not Catholics were accepted from the first, although they were not required to learn the catechism, to study religion, or to take an active part in the Catholic ritual. They did attend Mass and church services, and they were expected to participate in the prayers before classes.

Another year began and the number of students increased. The second year of operation began in september, 1844, with twenty-five students on hand; before the following September, forty students had attended the college, some very briefly.{5} There was an attempt made to set up some sort of an organized curriculum, most probably one loosely based on the curricula of other American colleges.{6} This program remained in effect until a plan of studies was adopted in 1848 which was based on the curriculum of St. Louis University, a modification of the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits.{7}

Under the system adopted in 1844, the course of studies at the college was to be divided into "5 classes . . . for the primary instruction, & 5 classes for those who learn the Latin language."{8} The "classes for the primary instruction" were known as the "English Course."{9} They began with the fifth class, which was simply a common school: reading, writing, and arithmetic, and they continued up to the first class, which was to include algebra, trigonometry, logic, physical chemistry, rhetoric, oratorical composition, and mensuration and drafting. This curriculum heavily emphasized practical subjects; in essence, it was a sort of technical course, beginning with the most elementary work and carrying through to more complicated courses in the last year. It was an education designed for an unlettered or rudely lettered immigrant boy or pioneer's son who wished to make his mark in the world of business, but who was willing to forego most of the liberal aspects of his education. It included no classics and very little philosophy. Religion was to be taught to each Catholic student, but it was extra-curricular.{10} In this initial attempt to establish a course of studies, Father Sorin broke away from the traditional curriculum and tried to find one which would meet both the demands of the American students from the pioneer Midwest and the uneven abilities of his faculty. Only the first three classes (the Fifth, Fourth, and Third) were to be taught in 1844-45, with three of the Brothers as their teachers.{11} More than half of the students present in September, 1844, were in these classes,{12} and most of these were young boys, probably under twelve years of age.{13}

No outline of a curriculum was given for the Latin Course, perhaps because one had not yet been developed. The program which was prepared for the distribution of academic awards in the early summer of 1845 indicated that the Latin Course was then divided into two divisions, with Latin and Greek taught in both.{14} It is not likely that there were many students in this curriculum (which was similar to the traditional preparatory and collegiate course of studies), but there were a few. Moses Letourneau was joined by his brother, Louis, who was also a gifted student, and Moses, Louis, and one or two others pursued this separate Latin Course.{15} In November, 1844, the Third and Fourth classes of the English Course were combined into one class, but the best students of the Third class were sent off to join the "latinists."{16} In this year and in the immediately succeeding years, the quality of work and of scholarship must have been poor in both courses. There were no entrance requirements; students were simply placed wherever they seemed to fit. Students arrived and departed at odd times of the year, and so did their professors. Books were hard to obtain, especially for the classical course; some of them were in French and impossible to read for several of the students.{17}

The faculty was composed of a few Brothers, usually self-trained, as was Brother Gatian; one priest, Father Cointet, who received some help from Father Sorin when that man was not busy with a hundred other things; and a few seminarians, most of whom seem to drift onto the records of the Council of Professors and then disappear. The only notable exception to the impermanence of seminarians was Mr. Gouesse, who was not ordained until June of 1847,{18} and who, in the meantime, played an active part in the academic life of the college. Other new seminarians were pressed into service as teachers soon after their arrival at Notre Dame, and, of course, their services as teachers were terminated at whatever time they chose to leave the seminary, even if it were the middle of the term.{19} Little is known concerning the academic backgrounds of the seminarians, but it is doubtful that any of them had had any amount of college training. Moses Letourneau, one of the most successful seminarian-teachers, had come to Notre Dame in order to begin his higher education, but, in a year's time, found himself a teacher in the colleges. There were no lay teachers in these early years; there was no money to be spared for salaries.

By all accounts it must have been a bewildering experiment, this blind building of a college curriculum and fumbling beginnings of a college community. There was a desperate lack of knowledge of the actual conditions and customs which prevailed in American colleges, so that the smallest points were the subject of debate: "April 4, 1843. F. Cointet proposed that all the Boarders (Note: not the apprentices) would be called Mr. but some opposition being made by F. Superior & Bro. Francis de Sales, it was resolved that no decisive steps should be taken before having obtained some information on this head from other colleges & Universities."{20} The Council concerned itself with endless details, from major changes in the curriculum to bed-wetting among the younger boarders.{21} The sessions were quite open and free discussion was permitted; perhaps the discussion was too free, for much time was wasted on insignificant details. In these early years, Father Sorin was much more amiable and patient than in his middle age, and he was more interested in harmony and compromise, whether it be in forgiving a breach of discipline on the part of some unruly student or soothing the outrage of some weary member of the faculty. Much of the outrage of the faculty, it must be admitted, continued to flow from the former practice: the forgiving of unruly students.

The predicament of Sorin in regard to discipline is well illustrated by an incident which appears in the records of the Council of Professors for 1844 and 1845. A young half-breed Indian, Louis Lafontaine, the son of the Miami chief, came to Notre Dame in June, 1844.{22} He was placed in the Fourth class of the English Course, where, according to Father Cointet, he soon became a center of considerable disturbance.{23} He does not seem to have been a malicious boy, simply very spoiled, with little interest in school; most Indian boys were allowed a great deal of freedom by their parents.{24} Brother Gatian, who had the task of teaching the youngster and whose notions of discipline were far removed from those of the Indian, soon brought the matter up in the Council of Professors, of which he was the Secretary. He wrote in the minutes (which were signed by Sorin):

December 7, 1844: Bro. Gatian said that he could do nothing with Mr. Lafontaine, that impunity had spoiled him & that he should be either exemplarily punished by F. Cointet or the Superior, or dismissed without delay -- that if decisive measures were not immediately taken, all order would soon be subverted in the University & the other pupils irretrievably perverted. -- The Gentlemen of the Council, however, would not meddle with such matters, & their honorable President (Father Cointet) referred the whole affair to the decision of the Rev. mild-measure-taking-Superior.{25}

The importance of the punishment of young Lafontaine was, of course, exaggerated by Brother Gatian who often tended to see matters of comparatively small import as written rather large. Nevertheless, although such a consistent lack of discipline was potentially of harm to the other students as well as to young Louis, no action of expulsion or severe discipline was taken until March of 1845, when Brother Gatian again wrote: "Mr. Lafontaine is almost irretrievably spoiled; his desires have been too indiscriminately gratified, & if he intend studying any longer; [he] should return without delay to his classes".{26} A short time after this report of his activities, or lack of activity, Lafontaine left the institution, although it is not clear that he was expelled; he returned to Notre Dame briefly as a student in the early 1850's.{27} The reason for Sorin's "mild-measure-taking" is more clearly revealed in this case of Louis Lafontaine than in the cases of other young men about whom the Council complained, and it well illustrates Sorin's dilemma. Chief Lafontaine had loaned the college two thousand dollars "on order" -- i.e. payable on demand. His son was also paying full tuition, apart from the loan.{28} The expulsion of young Lafontaine might have brought about a financial crisis from which Sorin could have extricated Notre Dame only with great difficulty, if at all. Two thousand dollars would have been difficult to repay at that time without a sale of some of the original lands of Notre Dame du Lac. Moreover, even the tuition of the Indian boy (as well as that of many others like him who were the products of the unrestrained frontier) was urgently needed. With the enrollment at considerably less than fifty students, the loss of tuition from just one boy could be a serious matter. The problem, then, was much more difficult than Brother Gatian had seen it to be. The antics of Lafontaine and of a half-dozen other students were a nuisance and even a mild threat to the academic life of the college, but not so much of a threat as to justify severe punishment or even expulsion, for if many students were to leave the college, the whole structure would collapse. The line of action which Sorin chose was a practical one; he would overlook certain chronic, but minor, lapses of discipline while maintaining as tight a system of control as was possible under the circumstances.{29}

The question of good discipline loomed large in the minds of the faculty and proctors.{30} The major concerns of the college were rightfully left in the competent hands of Father Sorin; the minor concerns were endlessly debated in the various councils. Soon, to the proctors and teachers, the minor concerns became major, for the dark threats which hung over the college -- fire, chronic illness, insufficient enrollment, financial collapse, and so on -- were beyond their scope, and the solutions to the more particular difficulties of the college -- student rowdiness, poor teaching, weak curriculum, and so forth -- were sought as panaceas to solve all college problems, and too often the faculty seized upon the promotion of good discipline as the key to all of their problems. To the Council of Professors (excepting their President), involved with student life on a daily level, the college could not succeed without a massive and immediate application of good order to the students' lives.{31} To Father Sorin, concerned primarily with this ever-pressing struggle to maintain the existence of the institution which he had founded, discipline was indeed necessary, but it was a two-edged sword, and the faculty and proctors must discipline themselves to turn back the onslaught of the students by some other means than outright warfare -- at least for the time being.

The essential thing, as Sorin saw it, was the success of Notre Dame du Lac and its firm establishment in this rough western world. Refinements and improvements could come in the future; what was needed now was a stable environment in which the embryo college could grow. Sorin's desire to hold his creation in existence, to give it life and substance, gave rise to a certain tactlessness, a narrowing of outlook, and a self-centeredness which brought about difficulties not only with his faculty, but also with the Bishop of Vincennes and the Motherhouse in France. In the long run, his methods proved to be eminently successful; yet there is something to be said for Brother Gatian and the Council; the price of success might well have been academic incompetence and a mediocrity so debasing that failure would have been merely put off, and the school would have eventually lost the credence of its public as the surrounding communities became more academically sophisticated.

Despite the disciplinary lapses, the academic year of 1844-45 grew to be a successful one. There was a new college building, a new curriculum, and several new students. The haphazard methods of the prior year were coated now with a veneer of experience, albeit a thin one. There had been some disasters to record, but none of major proportions. Early in 1845, small stoves were installed in the rooms of the college building, for the furnace heated little except itself. Soon after, a fire broke out as a result of "the impudence of a boy meddling with one of those stoves, " but the disaster was averted by quick action .{32} There was also some illness, but no one died that year of fever.{33} The area around the Lakes had been found to be to some degree vulnerable to disease and even to epidemic. In 1848, Sorin wrote: "During six years it would perhaps be difficult to find a single day on which there was no one sick."{34} While they were not troubled with severe outbreaKs of disease until after a few years, when larger numbers of persons were present at the college, the situation was severe enough in 1844-45 to warrant the building of an infirmary, two stories in height, with four rooms on the ground floor and four upstairs. Part of this building was used for lodgings. The building was begun in the fall of 1844 and was completed in 1845.{35}

These potent sources of disaster -- fire and disease -- were not fully realized in 1844-45, and that year, on the whole, passed by with a relative smoothness, punctuated now and then by a faculty dispute over discipline or an expression of despair for the hopelessness of the students ("unhappily some are wonderfully unclean."){36} In the previous year some attempt had been made to encourage competition and to reward the diligent by public recognition of the best students in each class.{37} This system was expanded in 1844-45. Each week or two, in each class of the Latin Course, English Course, and the Manual Labor School, the teacher evaluated and commented on the work of his students. These comments were collected and summarized by Father Cointet in a "Report on Students, 1844-45.{38} Moses Letourneau appeared consistently as the best student of the upper division Latin Course, while his brother Louis did quite well in the second division, but other names also appear with theirs on the list of honors indicating that there were a few more students this year in the Latin Course.{39} The great majority of the students (including alnost all of the disciplinary problems) were in the English Course. There were only three boys who consistently attended the Apprentice school, one of whom seems to have been an Indian.{40}

An event of some significance occurred at the end of the college year. It was determined in a meeting of the Council that the Fourth of July would be an official school holiday. All of the students were at first expected to go to the home of Samuel Byerley for supper and a fireworks display,{41} but it was wisely decided a few days later to hold the celebration at the college and to invite many of the people of the local area to attend. Notre Dame du Lac had been in existence for two and a half years; it was time that the college was formally introduced to its neighbors. The invitations, written to prominent families in the locality, Protestant and Catholic alike, must have caused quite a stir of surprise when they were delivered;{42} judging from the size of the crowd which attended, many must have been curious concerning the doings of the 'papists' out at the Lakes. Father Sorin was quite aware of the subtleties of the situation. He later wrote to Moreau: "You know that July 4 is a day of general rejoicing for the whole of America. In a public institution like ours it would be more than bad policy not to take part in the rejoicing of the country. Consequently we shared in the celebration in a way which could not be missed by anyone."{43} Sorin's adoption of the American holiday foreshadowed his adoption of America itself. This new allegiance had its practical side: he had soon discovered that in so rapidly growing and comparatively unstable a land as the American Midwest, a newcomer must abandon his European preconceptions and traditions or else face failure. Notre Dame, despite its so recent French origins, introduced itself in 1845 as American, which in truth it was rapidly becoming.

The holiday evening of July 14 commenced with an 'open-house' type of examination of the college and the grounds, and the festivities were concluded by a gathering in the "music-hall" of the new college building; the Declaration of Independence was read, a speech given, and a brief play was acted.'{44} The effect was salutary; entertainment was hard to come by in the pioneer sections of the Midwest, and, of course, there is nothing for the dispelling of prejudice comparable to the understanding which comes from a friendly meeting, face-to-face.

Shortly after the 4th of July festival, the first real commencement exercises were held.{45} A rather complicated system of prizes and awards, known as "premiums," were prepared for this ceremony in lieu of graduation honors (for there were no graduates nor would there be any for several years.) This ceremony was taken from the French academic tradition of the distribution des prix, which honored not just the graduates, but all deserving students in the school. There were some thirty students present at the ceremony, and few failed to receive a premium of some sort. Premiums for first and second place were given in each class of the Latin Course, the English Course, and the Manual Labor School, as well as separate premiums in Drawing, Religion, and other extra-curricular courses. An overall "Premium of Honor" was also offered, won this year by Louis Letourneau. Only those totally lacking in ability and in diligence could have gone unrewarded.{47}

The distribution of premiums was held on August 1, 1845, and once again a great crowd of people from the area were in attendence, taking the opportunity to inspect this novel institution which had taken its place in their midst. The guests were particularly attracted by a new acquisition of the college; they were drawn to a room in the college building which now housed a museum, "a splendid collection of beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, antiquities, etc., from the various parts of the globe."{48} The museum, which had been the collection of a Doctor Cavalli of Detroit, had been very recently purchased by Sorin in exchange for some city lots in Detroit which Sorin had owned.{49} It was this exhibit that drew the crowds on commencement day, but there was other entertainment: a play was presented, followed by the ceremony for the distribution of the many awards.{50}

The purchase of the museum collection from Doctor Cavalli provides an early insight into a practice of Father Sorin which would prove paramount to the success of Notre Dame du Lac. Sorin briefly outlined this policy when he wrote some six years later, " . . . to preserve its existence in this country, a college needs to keep the attention of the public fixed upon its work in order to secure pupils. "{51} It was this conviction which Sorin was now learning to employ. The 4th of July celebration publicly reassured the people of Notre Dame's loyalty and patriotism and also gave the Protestants of the area a chance to look around the campus and to calm their suspicions (it should be remembered that just a year before, in July, 1844 a Protestant mob was barely restrained from attacking St. Louis University).{52} The commencement celebration provided the local population with another chance to view the institution, but, in addition, the purchase and exhibition of the museum collection was a stroke of true genius, for it not only hinted to the observers (many of them parents of the students) of the wonderful physical and historical mysteries which could be unveiled by the college, but, along with the new college buildings, it smacked of wealth and affluence, of a permanent success. This, as the future will unfold, will be a favorite practice of Father Sorin: when the treasury has nearly been depleted and the creditors are growing a bit anxious, he casually will provide magnificence -- a marvelous museum, a melodious carillion, a golden dome -- to dazzle the sharpest eye and to lull the most suspicious ear. This legerdemain of Sorin was of utmost importance to the college in the earliest years; so many other college ventures had failed, and creditors were dubious of the value of waking loans to a new college, and the parents of potential students were unconvinced of the wisdom of sending their sons to a new college which gave the appearance of teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. In some ways, had he been not a priest but an ordinary French immigrant, young Edward Sorin might have made a fancy living dealing cards on a Mississippi riverboat.

1845, to be sure, was a period of empty pockets at Notre Dame, thus the buying of the museum seemed foolhardy to some. The meagre accounts show very little income in 1844-45; but a little money from the boarders' tuition, a few gifts, some rents, and more loans. The donations of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith were the most helpful; in fact, along with the funds sent by Father Moreau, they constituted almost all of the real income for 1844-45. This Society sent $160 in July, 1844, about $460 on May 1, 1845, and $1345 in September, 1845. In this same period of time, Father Moreau was called upon for nearly $1400.{53} But this was not enough. Debts were owed to Byerley, Coquillard, and to the builders. The loan from Chief Lafontaine had long since been put to use; now additional sums were borrowed from various banks, about five hundred dollars in the summer and fall of 1844 and some six hundred in December of that year.{54}

At this moment, timely help arrived. At the celebrations held that summer was the Reverend Stephen Theodore Badin, the old missionary whose original donation of the land known as Ste. Marie des Lacs to the Diocese of Vincennes had provided Sorin with his opportunity to build the college. These two strong-willed men had not met prior to this occasion, although they had corresponded with considerable display of friendship.{55} Unexpectedly, Badin arrived at Notre Dame du Lac in July, 1844, in time to view the public display of the college both at the July 4 festivities and at the August 1 commencement. He was pleased with what he saw, especially the plans for the orphans in the Manual Labor School, for an orphanage at Ste. Marie des Lacs had been a project near to his heart. To Sorin's delight, he offered a further gift to Notre Dame du Lac; to help with the expenses of the orphans, he suggested that Sorin take and sell two valuable lots which Badin owned in Louisville, Kentucky -- he estimated their value to be between twelve and fifteen thousand dollars, and, in addition, he would buy for Notre Dame some two hundred acres of land which lay between Notre Dame and the St. Joseph River. In return for this welcome gift, Badin asked for an annual allowance of four hundred dollars a year.{56} Father Stephen Badin was an old man; he had turned seventy-seven that July, and he looked to Notre Dame du Lac for a resting place in his old age. He remained at the college that summer and into the next spring, preaching interminable sermons in the heat of August and the cold of December and teaching catechism twice a week to the students.{57}

In the meantime, Father Sorin looked for a buyer for the lots. They would go a long way to settle all debts and to provide a little reserve; in particular, it would straighten out the financial confusion between Notre Dame du Lac and Notre Dame de Ste. Croix, a confusion which was beginning to cause uneasiness to those back in France.{58} The Motherhouse there, itself in precarious financial condition found Notre Dame du Lac in constant need of money and unable to repay her loans, and yet word reached France of the many projects which Sorin was undertaking. They feared that his impetuosity might lead the whole foundation into disaster.

With the great fortune of the Badin donation, the scholastic year of 1844-45 ended on a hopeful note; a successful year had been completed with more students and a new curriculum, all housed in the new building. Relations with the local communities had been established which promised to put an end to the earlier rumblings of prejudice. Finally, with the donation of Badin, it appeared that the most pressing financial problems had been eliminated. But success was not to be that easily achieved: the next year would see much of the work undone.

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