University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter V
Americanization, 1850-1852

In 1850, the United States began a half-century of growth which would be noted not only for the agony of a civil war, but also for the abrupt rise of industry at the hands of a group of individualistic business entrepreneurs who vigorously exploited the opportunities offered by a raw and growing America. Father Sorin, an early contemporary of these men, had so far proven himself capable of matching wit and strength with the frontier-pioneer environment, aiding his Institution to ride the crest of opportunity with a minimum of setbacks. In the 1850's, this trend toward the identification of Notre Dame du Lac and her Founder with the Young America was intensified.

Inherent in this intensification was a flaw, a weakness of Father Sorin which he needed always to restrain, an ambition which caused him to rely too much on his own judgments, to leap before he looked. Often Notre Dame had been threatened and would be threatened by disasters which had been and would be averted by Sorin's quick action, but, conversely, Notre Dame was also sometimes threatened by Sorin's impulsiveness, by his tendency to over-commit himself, his men, his institutions, and his resources to a project too hastily conceived. In a new land, in an exploding environment, Sorin found fuel for his ambition and precedents for his growing conviction that there anything was possible. But he was being forced in these years, as he would be in the remaining years before the advent of the Civil War, to learn restraint, a humbling and often frustrating application of the shackles of discipline to curb his ambition. He had strained his resources to their limits and then beyond in order to bring his college and its attendent institutions into existence. Now he must work to preserve them and to nurture their growth, to fill in the structure of the college which he had created, to give flesh to the curriculum and life to its teaching. In the course of his work, Sorin would always be concerned too much with form, too little with substance. Herein would like the reasons for the success of his undertaking as well as for some of its failures.

Restraint was a virtue in which Sorin had to school himself; the coming years would provide him with many more opportunities to increase his respect for the man who acted with wise reflection. Nevertheless, unwise and unnecessary restraint could strangle the college and the other institutions of Notre Dame du Lac, restricting their growth so that the wave of expansion in the American West would sweep them aside. The 1850's had brought rapid growth to the Midwestern states, and Sorin planned to expand with them. The Compromise of 1850 had removed, temporarily, it proved, the spectre of civil war, and the flood of immigrants continued in increasing proportions as the tide of western settlement crossed the Mississippi. Northern Indiana, short years before a part of the frontier, was now a prosperous farming area with a growing population and expanding towns. The county in which Notre Dame was seated, St. Joseph County, held some 6400 inhabitants in 1840 and now had grown to almost 11,000. By 1860, the county population would rise to nearly 18,500, and it would rank twentieth of the ninety-two counties in Indiana.{1} South Bend, the county seat, was beginning to surpass the neighboring towns and was on its way to becoming a flourishing city, half farm town and half industrial; throughout the late nineteenth century new factories opened in South Bend. Already the Studebaker wagons, manufactured in South Bend, were becoming a familiar sight on the Western frontier.

The economic growth of the local area was assured in the 1850's by the announcement that a new railroad (later a part of the New York Central system) would pass through South Bend and Mishawaka.{2} The Michigan Central Railroad, built in the 1840's, already tied the town of Niles to the outer world. Notre Dame du Lac, situated half-way between the two lines (which were approximately ten miles apart at that point) could plan to profit from the presence of both railroads, not only because the presence of these railroad lines would provide an ease of access to the college for the convenience of students, parents, and Notre Dame personnel, but also because the railroads would serve to further open the St. Joseph Valley to settlement, benefiting the community and the college alike. Many of the new settlers would be Catholic immigrants from Europe.{3}

The Irish and German immigrants, however, brought new problems with them, for, as they swept across America, they engendered strong undercurrents of nativism and anti-Catholicism. Sorin, in the face of the growing Know-Nothing movement, increasingly emphasized the American characteristics of his institution. On January 4, 1850, Sorin had been made a citizen of the United States.{4} In that same year, he attempted to make use of his citizenship; he petitioned the Federal Government for the appointment of himself as Postmaster of Notre Dame du Lac, where he requested that a post offIce be opened. His proposal was refused.{5} However, the records of the United States Post Office indicate that on January 6, 1851, a post office was established at Notre Dame and Edward Sorin was named as first postmaster. Sorin credits the success of this second application to the intercession of Henry Clay, but he does not explain how this was brought to the attention of the great Congressman.{7}

Sorin maintained that there was little profit in the position of postmaster, except for some savings in postage and some convenience in mailing at Notre Dame rather than South Bend. The major advantage, he felt, lay elsewhere. The big four-horse stage coaches which now stopped three times a week for mail at Notre Dame, while on a route from Logansport, Indiana, to Niles, Michigan, added to the convenience of travel to the college. In addition, the post office increased the reputation of Notre Dame du Lac by literally putting her name on the map.{9} Sorin at this time also was named the local Supervisor of Public Roads, improving his prestige in the local communities and, of course, insuring that the roads around the college would be well tended and repaired.{10} In these days taxes were due from every man to maintain the public roads; these taxes could be paid in actual work on the roads if one did not have the cash. At Notre Dame, the apprentices were often employed on the public roads around Notre Dame under the supervision of Sorin in order to pay off the taxes owed by the men of the college.{11} Most of the actual work connected with the offices of Postmaster and Supervisor of Public Roads was done by the Brothers, but the offices remained in Sorin's name and under his control.{12} Thus, in less than ten years, the immigrant French missionary had become an American and a public office holder.

In taking advantage of the opportunities at hand, Sorin remained faithful to his character. He became an American, certainly with an enthusiasm for the potential of the country and probably with at least an affectionate toleration for the democratic idiosyncrasies which it persisted in exhibiting. One can hear a very pragmatic note here; like most other immigrants, but like few missionary priests, Sorin could see very practical advantages in citizenship and was not loath to take up the opportunities which citizenship offered. This is shown in his succession to the two public offices which he held, but his program is even more clearly revealed in an incident which occurred in 1850 or shortly thereafter. This incident, which he recorded in his "Chronicles," offers a justification of his Americanization policies; a statement which shows that the advantages to his institution, order, and religion were foremost in his mind as he strove to bring the college into conjunction to the American idiom.

Elections to the Offices of the Country{13}

It has just been stated that the superior of Notre Dame du Lac considered it advantageous to have himself named Postmaster and Supervisor of Public Roads. Here it may not be out of place to remark that it is important for an Institution like Notre Dame du Lac, generally looked upon by Americans with all the prejudice of the public against convents, to come into close contact with neighbors and to take an interest in all that concerns the general good, to show zeal in those matters, and to convince everyone that we are citizens in heart as well as in mind.

This is a new means and often the most effectual of all, to prove one's honesty by keeping exact accounts and by doing justice to all concerned, and thus to secure to the house the confidence of the people, sometimes even to place them under obligations which will make friends of them.

For these reasons F. Sorin lately judged it advisable to present himself with some Brothers at the elections for the offices of the country; he has done it only once, and the results only make him regret that he did not sooner begin to do it. From this time even the most insignificant offices bring him some candidates -- honest men who are always disposed to act fairly toward the Institution, and towards Catholics in general.

Perhaps there is no people more eager for office. Hence it is easy to guess what consideration an Institution will have in their eyes, which can decide two-thirds of all the local elections. The Presbyterians in particular are galled at seeing this power with all its consequences, in the hands of a Catholic priest. In fact, if it is only used prudently, it is a precious boon for the house and for the country because of the good choice that can be made of public officers.

The concern expressed for the good of the public and the suppression of prejudice removes much of the odium from the practice of using the religious personnel of the college to influence local elections, but one can still not applaud with enthusiasm Sorin's tactics or deny the presence of an incipient (albeit microcosmic) political boss behind the clerical collar of the Reverend Edward Sorin. One's imagination has convulsions at the thought of the confusion triggered among the local politicians on the morning that the Notre Dame priest, followed by his black-garbed Brothers, walked up to the polling place and asked for a ballot. It is to be presumed that the politicians, although stunned for a day or two, recovered quickly enough to see the example which Sorin had set before them. There is little wonder that he was made Postmaster of Notre Dame and Supervisor of Public Roads.

No nineteenth century American politician, particularly at this time of the Know-Nothing movement, would have been surprised at the tactic of grouping members of a minority as a voting block in order to seat friendly office holders and to secure favorable legislation or curb unfavorable practices. The novelty in Sorin's case lies in the fact that it was the action of a Roman Catholic priest, recently a missionary from France, and that this action had possible undemocratic overtones, for the Brothers, bound by religious discipline, were probably instructed as to the candidates for whom they should cast their ballots. If this had been Sorin's intention, to wield a block of votes blindly obedient to the will of their religious superior -- and possibly this was his intent -- then Sorin was very wrong; he can not stretch his ends to cover his means. However, this action, although initiated by Sorin, might well have been a relatively free expression of the true desires of the members of the community at Notre Dame du Lac. A call for religious obedience would have been hardly necessary; all that Sorin need to have done would have been to point out to them the candidates who were either friendly to the Catholic religion and to Notre Dare du Lac or who could be expected at least to be open-minded. It may be assured that all of the religious at Notre Dame would freely and willingly have followed the lead of Sorin, just as under similar circumstances minority groups have always followed the advice of their leaders. The question of the participation of a priest or minister in political affairs has been contested often in the United States; it would appear that most feel such participation is, at least, not in good taste. A cleric should not use his pulpit or teaching authority to bring influence upon an election, except, of course, where a moral problem is directly involved. But here the issues, at least in Catholic eyes, were clearly moral choices, for the Know-Nothing movement was highly prejudicial to their religion and, if they were recent immigrants, to their very presence in America.

It was precisely Sorin's intention to prevent local anti-Catholic groups from using elective political offices as a weapon against the Catholic portion of the populace and, in particular, against the people and institutions at Notre Dame du Lac. This was revealed in an interview which Sorin held with a guest a few years later. The visitor wrote:

(Sorin) even told me, with a curiously quiet consciousness of power in his tone and manner, how he had put down some bigotry in the neighborhood, which had at one time threatened them, by exercising the political influence given him by the votes of his community. "It is not necessary for us to vote," said he, "we have not that trouble; but the fact that we can do so whenever we choose, and defeat either party, is quite enough to make both treat us with a respectful consideration."{14}

This action taken by Sorin was an example of an expedient which many minority groups used in America (for good and evil purposes), and it was an action typical of Sorin, to seize upon the very tools which were being used against his fellow immigrants and his church, to defiantly display his own Americanization at the local polls and thereby to "convince everyone that we are citizens in heart as well as in name," while at the same time reminding the politicians that he could and would play their own game and play it well. As the local community grew in the total numbers of voters, he would lose the voting control, but it was to be expected that many of the newcomers would be immigrant Catholics and that the nativistic elements would continue to be held in check. If Sorin hoped to continue to use the Brothers as a rigid block of votes submissive to his orders, he was to be disappointed in the not far distant future, for, during the period of the Civil War, the majority of the Brothers voted quite the opposite from the specific instruction which he had given them.{15} Thus they too became as American as the college.

The freedom and democracy of America required some acclimatization on the part of the French priests (those yet in France included); even Sorin, as rapidly as he may have adopted certain American methods, tended to employ them in his own way: he used American means to reach French Catholic ends. He wrote at this time, "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. Pupils were hard to come by; the enrollment in that eighth year of 1850-1351 may have been less than that of the year before; certainly it had not increased. This phenomenon, Sorin felt, occurred as a result of the loss of public confidence in the college. Concern with affairs outside of the college had again that year occasioned his frequent absence from the college; the public image of the school suffered when Sorin was not there to set things right.{17}

There are no exact enrollment statistics for the next four years; whatever useful figures to be found must be gleaned from the college catalogues or from casual mention in other sources. It would appear, however, that the decrease of students in 1850-1851 which Sorin mentioned was not at all severe and that most probably the total number of students (i.e. the number who had registered in the course of the academic year) remained at somewhere around seventy students.{18} These statistics should not have been excessively alarming to those at Notre Dame du Lac. The Census of 1850 had shown that there were some 239 colleges or universities in the United States and almost 28,000 students, thus averaging about 117 students per college. In Indiana there were 11 colleges and a little more than 1,000 students, an average of less than 100 students per college.{19}

In the coming years, the railroads would be of further help in attracting students from other areas. Enrollment was then, however, confined primarily to the local area; almost all of the students were from Indiana and Michigan with but a few coming from Ohio and Illinois. Yet there were one or two boys who traveled to Notre Dame du Lac from distant states -- from New York, Massachusetts, and four young men from the city of New Orleans.{20}

Tuition costs remained stable at the college; board and tuition was still $100 per year in the early 1850's.{21} This amount admitted a student only to the English Course; studies in the classics cost an additional $20. There were other special charges for music, drawing, French, and so forth. Also there were differences in tuition rates for boarders and for day students (although there were few of the latter at the college). Consequently the total fee paid by each individual student varied considerably, and the tuition was often neither promptly paid nor necessarily paid in cash. The college ledger lists many strange exchanges of goods and services for tuition; for example, one student sold a buggy to the school for $75, another traded a span of horses for $100, a third paid part of his bill in leatherwork, and another paid his way by shoemaking and departed from the college $8.58 ahead.{22} The student who paid his bills in cash, promptly and at the full rate, was the exception rather than the rule. Naturally this haphazard system added to the problems of book-keeping and finance at the college.

Despite the failure of the school to increase noticeably in enrollment in these years, Sorin felt that the opening of the 1850's discovered Notre Dame du Lac to be a solid college, showing consistent improvement, especially in academic matters.{23} Significantly he did not assign the reasons for this gain to a better curriculum or a more competent faculty, but he instead claimed that "strict discipline" had been the primary cause; the most important thing taught to the young men of Notre Dame, he insisted, was good order and self-discipline.{24} This discipline was not only expected of the students but also of their professors. He noted, "two professors of superior talents and abilities, have been removed, in less than 12 months, for a want of thorough devotedness to the interests of their respective pupils; . . ."{25}

In some ways this attitude toward discipline signaled a somewhat new approach, at least on the part of Father Sorin, to a continuing problem at Notre Dame du Lac. As had been noted, the early attitude of the faculty (via Brother Gatian) had been to call for a rigorous system of discipline on the model of the French seminary; this method had proved impracticable in America, and Sorin had refused to completely enforce so severe a system, despite the protests of his faculty. Now with the school under the new curriculum and the whole college organized on a more liberal basis in accord with the American mood, Sorin found it necessary to apply the brakes a bit, and he began to reinforce the disciplinary system, although still keeping the system aligned with the American character rather than that of France -- physical punishment, for example, was officially frowned upon. In early 1852, the professors were twice warned that they were forbidden to whip their pupils,{26} indicating that at least some of the hard-pressed faculty preferred the French system.

The disciplinary system had as its ultimate goal, beyond the simple maintenance of order, the advancement of religious education at the college. Assuredly Notre Dame's educational policies were rooted in the Catholic faith, and the Catholic student was still required to attend religious services daily and to receive instruction in religion on each Sunday afternoon. The general attitude of the college (and of most religious educational institutions, Protestant and Catholic) can be seen in a frank letter written by Neal Gillespie in 1858 to his mother; this was sometime after he had become a priest at Notre Dame. Gillespie had heard of a school which hoped to give a religious education but which wished this education to be non-sectarian. He wrote:

. . . the great difficulty I see is to reform the boys -- how can they reform them without moral instruction? How can they give moral instruction without the youngsters having a belief in something supernatural -- how can a belief in something supernatural be gained by them without sectarian . . . instruction?{27}

The task of the religious college, then, was to "reform" the student, to mold him into a good Christian, and discipline was an essential tool in this work. Religious education at Notre Dame du Lac was compulsory for all Catholic students,{28} and religious services were compulsory for all students. Sorin wrote:

To those who do not belong to the Catholic faith, we promised not to interfere with their religious tenets, merely requiring them to assist at the religious services with decorum; and now, after an experience of six years, we fearlessly appeal to the many non-Catholic gentlemen who have left our ranks, for a contradiction to the false rumors which have been or may be hereafter circulated about the Institution.{29}

The requirement that Protestant boys attend Catholic services should not have been a shock to the sensibilities of the communities around Notre Dame. This was a common requirement at all sectarian colleges, and, in fact, Notre Dame's requirement was milder than that of many other nearby colleges. Wabash College, for example, required of all students morning and evening prayers each day, and on Sundays all were to be present at a biblical recitation in the morning and a religious sermon in the evening. Hanover College required even more of its students: a catechism lesson each Sunday, attendance at a public sermon on that same day, common morning and evening prayers each day, and daily recitations from the Bible. In addition, each Hanover student was to attend some church service on Sunday morning either in the college chapel or at some nearby church. Asbury (later Depauw) College had similar requirements. Even Indiana University, although a state school, was virtually under Presbyterian control and all students had to attend daily morning prayers in the college chapel, and, after 1860, the students also attended a compulsory religious sermon on Sunday afternoon.{30}

The encouragement of a sound religious life through the judicious use of discipline was apparently as uppermost in the minds of the faculty and administrators of the college at Notre Dame du Lac in these years as it had been in prior years, but it would be difficult to prove this by examining the records of the college -- in fact, it would be difficult, at times, to prove anything by the records except that the college continued in existence. Contemporary documents are very sparse for this period, especially for the year 1851-1852. After the annual commencement ceremony in June, 1851 (there were no graduates that year), very little can be learned of the life of the college for a period of over a year. No catalogue or commencement program was printed for 1851-1852, or if such things were printed, copies have not survived. There are few letters or other records extant which describe the period. The minutes of the Minor Chapter survive, but these normally voluble notes are strangely silent concerning the affairs of the college, and they indicate that few decisions were made concerning the college that year.

A search of the records soon produces a reason for the lack of energy at the college; the institution was once again adrift, deprived of the leadership of its Founder. Sorin, concerned this year as the year before with a disagreement between members of his religious community both in America and in France, left Notre Dame du Lac for Notre Dame de Ste. Croix at the beginning of December 1851, and he did not return until the late spring or early summer of 1852{31} As had been the case on those occasions before this when Sorin was forced to leave the college for long journeys, the absence of Sorin meant that little would be accomplished at Notre Dame until he returned to once again preside there.

Sorin was not one who could work well in team with others; like many Americans of the nineteenth century, he was highly individualistic, and he took most matters into his own vigorous hands as he molded the shape of Notre Dame du Lac. It was only natural that those who led in his absence would strive primarily to preserve the status quo and that they would he fearful and uncertain when faced with major decisions, unwilling to act in a manner of which Sorin might later disapprove. This attitude may have been the result of poor leadership on the part of Sorin, following the theory that a good leader trains good lieutenants with whom he shares responsibility and decisions. But who at Notre Dame du Lac in 1851 were the lieutenants? Father Granger, although a wonderfully religious man, was not the personality to deal with the rough individualism and materialism of the American Midwest, and Father Cointet, who of all there might have been the best choice for emergency leadership, had been chosen for just this reason to take over a new foundation in New Orleans, and Brother Vincent had been sent with him.{32} The other priests who were at Notre Dame du Lac were untested; many were not yet members of the Priests of Holy Cross. It is not difficult, then, to understand why little was accomplished this year; as a matter of fact, it is to the credit of little Father Granger that he managed to maintain the institutions in as sound a condition as they had been before the departure of Sorin.

When Father Sorin had been called to France a few years previous, Notre Dame du Lac was a tiny embryo of an institution still uncertain of the permanence of its life. In 1851, Notre Dame had grown to its adolescence; it gave every appearance of possessing the ability and the will to survive. As a result, Sorin took the precaution of making out a will before leaving for France. This document indicated that the possessions of the institution were quite extensive, with a healthy endowment in land, most of it coming to the college in the form of gifts. Sorin not only held Notre Dame du Lac on 525 acres and St. Mary's Academy in Bertrand on 77 acres, but he also held an additional 200 acres in St. Joseph County, 160 acres in the state of Michigan, plus town or village lots in South Bend, Mishawaka, Bertrand, Niles, Laporte, Indianapolis, and Detroit.{33} On the land of the college, a large farm had been cleared and valuable structures had been raised: the new college building, the new church, the small brick first college building (now the Sisters' convent), a new infirmary building, another structure, formerly the infirmary, now the Brothers' residence, the log chapel (which burned in 1855),{34} the Brothers' novitiate and chapel which stood on the land between the two lakes, and the new shops and quarters for the Manual Labor School, then being built in the front of the college. In addition there were a number of other structures: sheds, barns, stables, and two cottages.{35}

These buildings and lands which made up Notre Dame du Lac had come into being as the result of the work of but a few incredible years. Nevertheless, their appearance of solid prosperity was deceiving. The buildings were of little use without occupants -- students, priests, Brothers, and Sisters. The land, which was to become very valuable in future years, was then wisely being held as an investment; in a land-rich, sparsely settled country such as the western United States, land values were low. Some odd pieces of land could be sold to meet pressing debts,{36} but the land would be of much greater worth if it were held as an endowment. The land could thus be listed as a valuable asset to the institution, but it was an asset which was difficult to convert into cash, and precipitous sales would also mean the loss of its future value. The land (except where farmed) provided no cash income to the college except in those cases where tenants could be found to work a few acres.{37}

If the whole complex of dreams which supported the University of Notre Dame du Lac was to be brought into substantial existence, steady sources of income had to be discovered. Tuition money was of great importance, as were donations of land or money, and of greatest importance were vocations, for those who came to enter the religious life gave donations of a whole life of labor. It required an agile and adroit man, a man of optimism and yet of common sense, to open these sources of income and to keep them open in the face of natural disasters, national catastrophe, wholesale competition, and bitter prejudice. There should be no question: Father Sorin was the essential ingredient in Notre Dame du Lac. Without his yeast, there would have been no growth. Until some other person as capable as he could come forth, Father Sorin was necessary to the existence of the institution which he had founded.

This circumstance was demonstrated after Sorin had been in France for some weeks; he received letters urging him to return to Notre Dame. Granger, it would seem, was being overwhelmed by the complexities of his temporary position and was unwilling to act without Sorin's approval. Sorin hurried home to find that the troubles were not as serious as he had anticipated; in fact, the number of students had remained roughly the same as the year before, and there were several new postulants for each of the religious novitiates.{38} Relieved that the situation was not critical, Sorin called together the Minor Chapter and they prepared plans to begin the building of a priests' novitiate that summer; the new structure was to be placed out on the second low hill which lay between the two lakes, beyond the hill on which the Brothers' novitiate had been built. The priests' novitiate was to be a soundly constructed building with fourteen private rooms for the novices.{39}

Shortly after Sorin's return from LeMans, the academic year came to an end. There was another graduation ceremony this year. On June 30, 1852, Patrick Glennan and Edmund B. Kilroy received their bachelor's degrees.{40} Glennan had been a student at Notre Dame du Lac for four years, from June, 1848, to this June of his graduation.{41} After commencement, he entered a seminary, ending his life as a diocesan priest in the state of New York.{42} The other young man, Edmund Kilroy, had been at Notre Dame since 1845,{43} and, following his graduation, he entered the new priests' novitiate at the college along with Neal Gillespie. These two young men, Glennan and Kilroy, were the third and fourth graduates of Notre Dame du Lac, and it is noteworthy that all four of them became priests later in life, three of them Priests of Holy Cross.

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