University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter IV
Interlude, 1848-1850


The new curriculum was introduced in September to the largest group of students to attend Notre Dame up to this time. There were nearly a third more students that fall than had been present the year before; some sixty-eight had arrived by the end of October of 1849.{1} Of most significance, this increase was not so much the result of the registration of new students, but the return of 'old' students; over fifty of those who arrived that fall had previously been at Notre Dame. This was almost three times the number of old students who had returned in the fall of 1848, when only eighteen former students had returned.{2} Needless to say, such an increase was gratifying to those at Notre Dame, for it promised a continuity and a stability of enrollment, and it forecast the day when the majority of students could be expected to remain in the school for at least two years. No school could long survive which lost nearly half of its student body from year to year as Notre Dame had been doing. It can be assumed that the promised curriculum change had something to do with the high rate of reenrollment.

The faculty which was to impart the new curriculum was no better fitted than that of previous years, but, judging from the obvious satisfaction which Sorin expressed in his writings that year, it was at least adequate to the job at hand.{3} All seem to have been in good health which is a wonder since this was the year of a great cholera epidemic which ravaged much of the United States.{4}

In this rather promising manner the year was begun. The fall passed smoothly, with little incident. In November, a celebration was held to commemorate the consecration of the new church by Bishop de St. Palais who had arrived at Notre Dame on a visit. This Bishop was joined for the occasion by Bishop VandeVelde of Chicago who had come down to the campus.{5} Father Michael Shawe returned from Detroit to preach one of his eloquent sermons, and, a few days after the consecration of the church, two seminarians, Richard Shortis and Christian Schilling, were raised to the subdeaconate by Bishop de St. Palais. These two young men were the first of the American seminarians at Notre Dame to reach this stage.{6}

The peace of the fall, however, was abruptly halted just one week after the consecration of the church. The night of November 18 a fire of unknown origin broke out in the workshops of the Manual Labor School. The efforts of everyone on the campus were called upon to fight the fire, but it had quickly reached an uncontrollable fury and soon burned its way along the length of the two story, one hundred and thirty foot range of wooden shops and living quarters, devouring all in its path. The orphans and apprentices were burned out, losing their beds and their clothes; the various shops and all of their contents were ruined, including much of the linen and vestments for the chapel which had been in the workroom of the Sister-Sacristan. Along with the Manual Labor School, the college also lost the rooms which housed its kitchen and bakery, together with all stored provisions. The total loss was well over three thousand dollars.{7}

The catastrophe was met by some immediate attempts to remedy the losses. The destruction of the kitchen and bakery demanded the quickest attention; reconstruction was begun at once, but it was halted by the cold weather before the new building could be completed.{8} Of crucial importance was the search for funds to pay for the costs of this construction, for the rebuilding of the Manual Labor School, and for the refurnishing of their contents. About $130 (700 francs) were raised in South Bend for the relief of the orphans by two local women, Mrs. Coquillard and Mrs. Woodworth,{9} but this was only a small portion of the total sum which was needed. Sorin decided to send Brother Stephen on a collection tour among the Catholics of Illinois; the trip was authorized by both Bishop de St. Palais and Bishop VandeVelde, who had been still present at the college at the time of the fire.{10} However, this collection also met with little success, netting only $125.{11}

It was thus decided in December that the Indian missionary, Father Baroux, should be sent back to France to make a collection there.{12} Baroux, who was recovering from an illness, was most reluctant to go, but decided that he must when Sorin told him that if he remained adamant in his refusal, the orphans would of necessity be sent away from Notre Dame, as there was no other priest who could be spared to go back to France, and the Manual Labor School could not remain open unless the funds were secured to pay for the new buildings.{13} Father Baroux was absent until May, 1851, but he raised over $2400 for the restoration of the school. In addition, collections were made by Mr. Woodworth in other American cities, and an appeal for help was answered by the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which sent $1,150. In all, the various collections and donations brought in $3,970, a sum sufficient to rebuild the apprentices' shops and rooms as well as a kitchen and bakery.{14}

The plans for the new buildings were sent to the Motherhouse for approval in the spring of 1850,{15} and, by the time that Father Baroux had returned, he found the shops almost completed. The Manual Labor School was no longer to be found behind the college building; it was now in front of the college, facing the road which led to South Bend.{16} The new building was erected with the help of the apprentices (who had found temporary quarters elsewhere in the college), and it was not well constructed; in fact, Brother Edward wrote: "it was very poor bilding and we souffer much in it Winter and Summer."{17}

The months which followed the fire were perhaps the most trying which Sorin had so far spent in America. Certainly the smoldering ruins of the the Manual Labor School must have shaken the confidence of even so sure a man as he. The college had balanced on the precarious edge between failure and success for seven years, and it had survived all of the crises which so far had threatened it, primarily as a result of Father Sorin's ebullient sense of confidence and his unfailing willingness to adapt to his new surroundings. Now, faced by the prospect of the ruin of his college and the dissipation of his dreams, beset by debts and expenses which had been mounting before the fire and which were now an almost unbearable load, he determined to press ahead, to rebuild, and to trust in Providence to once again see him through. Perhaps his mood is best expressed by a statement made in the records of the Minor Chapter that spring. Despite the vivid memory of that fiery night in November, the Minor Chapter, meeting under Sorin, voted that "No Lightning rod shall be placed over the college at least for the present by a reason of confidence in God's providence."{18}

It was in the grip of such optimism and faith that Sorin, the inveterate gambler, made one of his most disastarous moves. The mood of young America in 1849 was enthusiastic; her "Manifest Destiny" was on the verge of realization; the Oregon Territory was secured; Mexico had surrendered not only Texas, but the whole Southwest; and a multitude of men, immigrants, Southerners, and Yankees, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, were pouring into the Far West to seek their fortunes. To a great many, white-hot with optimism and fired with the romanticism of the period, the newly discovered California gold fields were a symbol of the easy road to fortune which the West offered. Thousands of them, ignorant of the vast distances to California and heedless of the overwhelming possibilities of failure, left their homes, new and old, and set off to dig their fortunes from the mountains of gold. Sorin was just the sort of new American to whom this attraction was irresistible. The news of the gold rush set his imagination afire; all of the problems of Notre Dame du Lac would see solution if only a way could be found to send a party to claim some share of this fortune. As with the lightning rod, he allowed his faith in the Providence of God and his belief in the incredible fruits which America offered to the bold man to cloud his good common sense. No matter that he had no permission to send such an expedition; in his eagerness to bring off such a coup, Sorin rationalized the situation: this was another of those affairs in which the American religious superior should be free to act, since the reality of the situation would be incomprehensible to someone in France.

Accordingly, in September, 1849, well before the fire which destroyed the shops, the following resolution was passed in the Minor Chapter meeting:

Whereas our debts and, of course, their interests, are constantly increasing, we do not see any ordinary means to be able for a long while to pay so many debts, we have unanimously resolved to make use of a means which thoug[h] it will appear extraordinary and strange to some, is in no ways unjust and unlawful: that is, three Brothers will be sent to California to dig gold, Br. Laurence as Director of the two others, Br. John and Br. Michael. None of them will go, but of his own accord.{19}

Here the matter rested for the next month and a half; no request for permission to make such a venture was made to the Motherhouse, nor were any further plans apparently made at the college. Possibly even Sorin had had some misgivings about the implementation of such a venturesome project, with or without the permission of France. Then came the fire and the increased need for funds. As described above, various attempts were made to raise the money through normal channels, but these at first appeared ineffective. Father Baroux was sent to France and a letter was sent to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons, but the success of these pleas was uncertain. Finally, on January 28, 1850, the Minor Chapter decided that "Br. Lawrence, together with Br. Placidus, Michael and Alexius will start BY LAND FOR Californy as soon as possible."{20} The very nature of the message indicated the romantic enthusiasm with which the journey was viewed.

The expedition, which set out in March, 1850, with a capital of some $1450 in goods and cash, was known as the "St. Joseph Company," a fitting name for a band of Brothers of St. Joseph coming from their home near the banks of the St. Joseph River.{21} The group was led by a local layman, George B. Woodworth, a friend and benefactor of Notre Dame, who would serve as captain. He freely donated two horses and a wagon to Notre Dame so that the whole expedition could be said to have been sent out at the expense of and under the jurisdiction of the community at Notre Dame du Lac.{22} One of the French Brothers, Lawrence (Jean Menage), was to serve as Lieutenant. Others in the expedition were Brother Justin (Lewis Gautier), Brother Placidus (Urbain Allair), Brother Stephen (Michael Dowling), and a student, Gregory J. Campeau. The secretary of the group, who seems to have decided to come at the last minute, was none other than Brother Gatian (Urbain Monsimer).{23}

The Brothers were to give their shares of any profits to the religious community at Notre Dame, and Gregory Campeau and Michael Dowling (who was giving up the name Brother Stephen and leaving the community) were to give one half of their profits, if any, to Father Sorin. Only Mr. Woodworth was under no obligation for his share.{24} The articles which they signed are of interest; they agreed to remain together for two years following their departure from Notre Dame, to keep the daily regulations of the Brothers of St. Joseph, to be governed by their Captain and Lieutenant (but these two were to attempt to make their decisions with the aid of a democratic vote), and, finally, any member who died on the way would have one half of his share of the profits go to his heirs.{25}

Father Moreau did not hear of the expedition until later in the year, and he had not given his approval to it.{26} Success would have provided an atmosphere of jubilation in which Sorin's breach of discipline might have gone virtually unnoticed, but the expedition was doomed to complete failure. Brother Placidus died in California,{27} and only two Brothers, Lawrence and Justin, eventually returned to Notre Dame du Lac.{28} The formidable young Gatian disappeared from the history of the college, as did Brother Stephen and Gregory Campeau. In a rather weak attempt at justification, Sorin wrote that he had hoped to use this unusual means to repay the various debts of the institution, and he felt that the public would not be scandalized by the expedition, realizing that the fire had driven him to unprecedented methods. In addition, he added, Brother Stephen had decided, prior to the departure of the company, to leave the Brothers of St. Joseph and to marry and settle down with his wife in the vicinity. This, Sorin felt, although not illicit, would cause great scandal which could be prevented by offering Brother Stephen the chance to make his fortune in California.{29}

No matter what his reasons, Sorin had not followed the directives of Father Moreau, and, once again, his enthusiasm had brought him into conflict with his religious superior. This time, moreover, there were few mitigating circumstances; the expedition, by any stretch of the imagination (even the imagination of a new American), was a risky venture, and the results were in proof of this: Brother Placidus was dead, no gold was found, Brother Gatian was gone, and, in final irony, Father Baroux and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith provided the money to rebuild the Manual Labor School, thus neatly undercutting the argument that the California expedition had been essential. From the point of view of Sorin's religious superior in France, his conduct was most difficult to forgive, coming as it did after repeated warnings and admonitions. From the point of view of Father Sorin, however, his motives were at least understandable. In the past, he had been correct several times in making judgments of particular situations which had arisen in the United States; moreover, he had been able to grasp the essence of these situations in a manner impossible for one living in France. This time he acted once again believing that his understanding of the circumstances was sharper and clearer than the view from Notre Dame de Ste. Croix. He could give no argument that he had had no time to waste in seeking permission; almost six months passed between the resolution in September, 1849, and the departure of the company. It is most probable that Sorin acted without permission quite deliberately, hoping to present Moreau with the astounding news of the discovery of a cache of gold. But this time America disappointed him.

Characteristically, Moreau did not take action against Sorin, but the incident served to tighten once more the bonds of suspicion in France, preparing the way for a serious crisis which was to follow in a few years. Sorin had acted imprudently, and his chickens would come home to roost.

While the expedition for California was being outfitted, while the burned buildings were being razed and the ground cleared for the new shops, life at the college went on much as it had before the fire. The excitement of the times did have some effect: John Lafontaine was charged for "Damages bursting Cannon in Febry. $34.50."{30} How the cannon came to be the property of Notre Dame du Lac and how Lafontaine came to cause it to burst remain minor mysteries. Perhaps the young Indian had attempted to fire a salvo as a salute for (one hopes not "at" -- thus accounting for the disappearance of Brother Gatian, the nemesis of the Lafontaines) the California party. Despite such pranks, the discipline at the college seems to have been unusually severe and student life there that year became more regimentated; for example, the catalogue for 1850 announced that on the first Tuesday of every month an academic exhibition would be held, at which awards would be made and scholarship displayed (this done to increase the competitive spirit of the students), and, on the following day, "the students whose conduct has been blameless during the previous month are allowed to visit their parents or friends, if so desired by the latter."{31} Presumably this was the only time they were allowed to freely leave the campus.

The major intellectual excitement on the campus during this event-filled academic year concerned the establishment of the first permanent academic society. On January 2, 1850, several students formed "the Debating Society of Notre Dame du Lac," which title was soon changed to the "St. Aloysius Literary Society."{32} The purpose of the Society was partly intellectual and partly social. Not only did it provide a forum for the debate of topics of current interest, but it also gave at least some of the students of the Senior Department a distinction apart from the younger students and even apart from those Senior students who were not invited to membership, thus providing the collegiate students a separate identity. In its initial conception, the St. Aloysius Society was not unlike other such academic societies which were coming into vogue in the universities and colleges of America at this time, especially the "Greek" societies.{33} The aridity of academic life must have been nearly insufferable for those young men of high talent who found their progress in a college shackled by the intellectual immaturities of their less talented and less interested classmates and by the inability of some of their instructors, a few of whom were little more learned than the average student whom they taught. These student-organized extracurricular societies were of considerable importance in the self-education of the pre-Civil War college student, giving him an outlet for interests which might otherwise have been choked by a weakened curriculum and by inferior teaching.{34}

In 1850 there was one other society already in existence at Notre Dame, the Archconfraternity of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart of Mary, but this was a religious society rather than an academic one, and it was under the careful sponsorship of the administration and faculty and was open to the whole school.{35} The St. Aloysius Society was wholly student organized and, at first, was under the exclusive jurisdiction of its student members. After nearly a year of its existence, Father Sorin informed the Society that he wished to give them some professor as 'director'. In a series of resolutions passed on November 17, 1850, the officers of the Society, led by their angry president, Neal Gillespie, who had also been prominent in the formation of the Society, agreed that they would disband the little group if there was to be such formal supervision of their activities. But their resolutions were of no avail; Father Sorin swept them away contemptuously, and very soon Professor Mahoney, a new faculty member, was declared an honorary member of the Society. At this point, Gillespie and another officer resigned.{36} Despite this abrupt surrender of the organization to the administration of the college (but then who would have withstood Sorin's inperious will?), the Society continued in active existence. In succeeding years, it had a separate room in the college for a meeting and social room where the members were allowed to keep a small library (the first students' library at the college) and receive a number of periodicals and newspapers, including two daily papers from Chicago.{37}

In the spring of 1850, the college, like the St. Aloysius Society, grew with the awkward spurt of youth. As Sorin himself admitted, it was the college's best year (although he later was to say this of several other years), in spite of the fire and the California fiasco -- only, of course, no one at Notre Dame yet knew that the expedition had proved to be a failure and the all hoped to soon see the debts of the college scoured away by western gold dust.{38} Fittingly, the year ended with a proper commencement ceremony with, for the first time, an invited commencement speaker, the Honorable David L. Gregg, a public figure from Illinois.{39} The speech was delivered on Commencement Day, June 30, 1850, before the assembled St. Aloysius Literary Society.{40} Gregg was then awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws; nor was this the only honorary degree given that day, for a Mr. Gardner Jones, a journalist and a new member of the Notre Dame faculty, was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. There were, however, no graduates in the regular course of studies. After the ceremony, the officers of the St. Aloysius Society wrote to Gregg and asked him for a copy of his speech in order that it might be published; he complied and Sorin had it printed and distributed.{42}

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