University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter VI
A Crisis of Identity, 1852-1855


Two of the young men who went to Rome, Gillespie and Letourneau, had the good fortune to leave Notre Dame du Lac before the onslaught of a natural disaster which nearly decimated the college. The new scourge was an epidemic which, in a few weeks, brought nearly one in five of the religious at the college to their deathbeds.{1}

It began in the late summer of 1854, at the time of the retreats which were held for the various groups of religious at Notre Dame du Lac. Father Cointet was then sadly putting his things together and waiting for the arrival of two French Brothers who were to accompany him to New Orleans.{2} He was not yet in good health, but the Superior-General had been forced to appoint him, as the only available man, to be the new Superior at New Orleans. Another priest, a Frenchman, had been sent there in replacement of Father Gouesse, but he had not been successful and had had to be replaced.{3} Cointet would already have been on his way South had the two Brothers, who had left France early in June, not become hopelessly confused by their first contact with America; they failed to arrive at Notre Dame du Lac until September 10.{4} By that time the epidemic had struck.

The prelude to the tragedy came in a series of unrelated deaths in July and early August. One of the postulants for the Sisters died unexpectedly on July 17, taken suddenly ill with some unknown disease;{5} the next night a young apprentice boy died in his sleep apparently after choking on an apple.{6} In early August, one of the Brothers drowned while swimming in St. Joseph's Lake.{7} None of these were victims of the approaching epidemic, but their deaths were a grim forecast of what was to come.

Fevers, often in epidemic proportions, were then common phenomena, terrors which usually stalked the months of summer and fall. In the previous summer, several religious had died at the Orphan's Asylum in New Orleans of yellow fever, which had raged through the city.{8} Cholera epidemics -- the dreaded plague -- were also found in the United States as they were elsewhere in the world, and the obituary records of Notre Dame du Lac have several entries concerning religious or students who fell victim to this most dread disease; two students had died of cholera the previous year while home on vacation.{9} Another frequent-but-unwelcome visitor to the campus was tuberculosis, which, under the title "consumption," claimed a number of lives at Notre Dame over the years. However the disease which struck so savagely at Notre Dame late that summer was typhus (or typhoid fever as it was often called); like cholera, typhus was a disease common to areas where the water supply had become contaminated, especially contaminated by human wastes and sewage.{10}

Sometime in August, after the close of the priests' retreat, the disease appeared, arriving first, with a fatal suddenness, among the Sisters in Bertrand. Two professed Sisters died about August 25, followed soon after by the death of two novices and a postulant.{11} The disease was carried to Notre Dame where it found ideal breeding ground and spread to contaminate the whole community of priests and Brothers, as well as the few sisters who worked at the college; almost all of the religious fell ill eventually. The first to die at the Lakes was a young priest, Father John Curley, who died on September 7. Curley was a young American from Kentucky who just one year before had been ordained a priest and had been professed at Notre Dame du Lac as a member of the Priests of Holy Cross.{12}

After a week's lull, while many lay sick in bed with the first effects of the disease, the fever began to take a heavier toll. On September 16, a Brother died, then, on the 17th, a young student, and on the 19th of September, Father Cointet, already in ill health, succumbed to the disease.{13} The death of Cointet was a shock of great magnitude to Sorin, who described him as "for eleven years the best and most beloved member of the Community, . . . "{14} Sorin had lost his right hand and his closest supporter. Notre Dame du Lac had lost the man who, next to her Founder (and, indirectly, next to Father Moreau) was most responsible for her successful growth. Granger wrote of him in epitath: "Excellent Professor, zealous missionary, exemplary religious. He did in ten years the work of ten good men."{15}

But the death count did not end with Cointet. When it came time for the students to return to the campus, the illnesses increased; nearly all there were still ill or else were undergoing the long period of recovery from the effects of the fever. Only a few were able to labor, although weakly, to ready the college building for classes, for the normal summer repairs had not been completed before the illness struck, and the college building had been in use as a hospital.{16} There were more deaths in this period, particularly among the Brothers. Some were sent to Bertrand to escape the epidemic (it is to be assumed that it had quickly run its course there, perhaps an indication that the source of the disease had been at Notre Dame), but the group of Brothers who went there were already contaminated With the fever, and two of them died soon after they arrived.{17}

It was hoped that the disease would disappear with the coming of cooler weather, as is usually the case with summer epidemics. Sorin felt that if it was learned how the disease was raging virtually unchecked at Notre Dame, the college would be emptied within twenty-four hours from the time the students arrived back. It was therefore decided to keep the epidemic a secret from the students (and, one assumes, from the town). Incredible as it may seem, this was done, and trust was placed in Providence to preserve the students from harm.{18} As was the custom, the students were confined to the main college building and to the recreation grounds, and somehow the absences of certain ones among the religious were accounted for and explanations were given for the pinched and pale faces of those who did come to teach and supervise the students. The sorrow and agony of the religious at the college had to be saved for the night, when solemn and secret funeral processions made their way by moonlight to the community cemetery. It was the great fortune of the college that few of the students (some seventy had come to the college to begin the semester) contracted the disease, and only one student died of the disease after the semester opened.{19} Had more of the students died or had news of the epidemic reached the parents, there would certainly (and justifiably) have been an angry reaction on the part of the public.

The disease continued to appear at Notre Dame until November, striking with less and less frequency as the cold weather arrived.{20} There had been over twenty deaths at Notre Dame du Lac and at Bertrand since the month of July, all but three of them from the fever.{21} However the effects of the disease plagued the faculty and staff of the college all through the winter and far into 1855. The deaths had left the college seriously understaffed, and the physical infirmities which resulted from the disease (which had struck all but two of the religious at the college) were such that "the survivors looked more like skeletons or walking corpses than living men."{22} Nothing was accomplished without great effort; only the bare minimum required to keep the college in existence was attempted. There could be no extras. Fortunately, despite the two new wings, the student body did not grow radically in size; a total of 111 students enrolled throughout that year so that, what with the usual number of departures for various reasons, less than a hundred were at the college at any one time.{23} Yet even this was a higher enrollment than that of previous years. It is indicative of the state of near total collapse at the college that the Local Council, the major administrative body, did not meet from June 12, 1854, to the spring of 1855.{24}

A long and depressing winter followed the terror of the fall, but despite their tribulations, all survived it. There was, naturally, talk of the unhealthy location of Notre Dame. Despite its beauty, the site had proven to be a center for virulent diseases; from the earliest years, the college and its community had suffered from almost annual attacks of cholera and malaria.{25} Now typhoid had struck the same area.

Besides the dread of a recurrence of the fever, there were other factors which helped to create the gloom of that winter. The credit of the college was again wearing thin, much was owed (especially for the building program), prices were high everywhere in the country, businesses were failing, and many parents were laggard in paying tuition bills.{26} And there were more subtle dangers -- Sorin noted that this year was the height of the Know-Nothing movement in the area, and he sensed that Notre Dame was especially hated by this faction since the college was the only stronghold of Catholicism in otherwise Protestant northern Indiana and southern Michigan.{27} Public opinion, so Sorin knew full well, could be swayed against Notre Dame by the smallest unhappy incident which could be exploited by the enemies of the college. In general, conditions were so grim that dark winter that Sorin expressed surprise that there were no desertions; all, including the students, remained at the college.{28}

Most immediately there was a need for a solution to the threat of epidemic; unless this were found, the college would be forced eventually to close. As a matter of fact, some members of the community felt that the college should be then abandoned; there was no remedy, they said, to counter the susceptibility of the campus to disease. Most members of the little community, however, were sure that there was nothing mysterious about the matter; something, they felt, was causing the frequent attacks of disease. Some of the opinions offered were rather unusual; one group felt that the epidemics were somehow caused by a peculiar type of fish which inhabited the little lakes and which the local Indians feared.{29} Others felt that there was some sort of disease-breeding substance in the well water, but most maintained then, as they had in the past, that the origin of their troubles lay in the marsh which was created around the lakes by the spring rains and which lay stagnant throughout the summer.{30} They were correct in their judgment, but they did not know why: that the marsh and its waters were ideal breeding places not only for germs, but also for flies and mosquitoes which could carry the germs, and, most important, the flooded area could easily become contaminated, especially in years of heavy rains, by contact with the sewage of the college, thereby providing a perfect source for cholera and typhoid fever.

This marsh was not a newly discovered problem; they had been attempting to deal with it for over five years.{31} Only a year before they had been forced, because of excessive flooding, to build a plank road over the marsh so that the priests and seminarians might reach their new novitiate with dry feet.{32} The solution to their problem was relatively simple, but, like so many simple solutions, beyond their reach. Mr. Rush, the owner of the mill-dam which kept the excess lake waters from flowing freely into the St. Joseph River, had remained adamant in his refusal to take down his dam and allow the waters to drain freely. That winter they went to Mr. Rush again, but they found that the only way he would allow the dam to be broken was by the sale of his land, a large farm on which the dam was located, and he demanded an unusually large sum for this land $9000, and, worst news of all, $3000 of this sum was to be paid immediately in cash. There was no such sum at Notre Dame du Lac, nor were there prospects of raising such a sum.{33}

Thus matters rested, but, in March, the disease returned. On March 15, a young seminarian from Belgium, Louis Devos, died of the fever, despite the ministrations of a Dr. McKinnis, who had joined the staff of the college after the epidemic had passed in the fall.{34} A short time later a second death occurred; Brother John of the Cross died on March 30.{35} The result was a situation fraught with terror, for it appeared that the epidemic might return for its unclaimed victims and sweep the college away.

Unexpectedly, after the funeral of Brother John, Mr. Rush came to call at Notre Dame and, perhaps appalled that his stubbornness might have brought on these deaths (one wonders if he knew of the deaths of the previous fall) or simply frightened by the spectre of typhoid so close to his own farm and home, he offered more reasonable terms. A price of $6000 was set for all of his land, including the farm, mill, and dam; this price was payable by $1000 down, with the remainder due in regular installments over the next four years.{36} On this basis, contracts were drawn, titles cleared, and mortgages were prepared. After four days of preparations, the final papers were signed. Then, for some unknown reason, Rush changed his mind (Sorin felt that he planned to do this from the beginning), and he failed to appear at the meeting at which the title was to be exchanged for the money and notes. When they searched for him, they found he had hurriedly left South Bend and traveled the few miles north to his farm, apparently abandoning the project of selling the land. All were left stunned by his action; even the people of South Bend were shocked at Rush's conduct.{37}

Sorin returned to Notre Dame filled with anger and dismay; all might be lost because of the stubbornness of this man. The next morning, on Holy Thursday, Sam rose early and, in his anger, did a most incredible thing. He sent five or six strong men, probably all of them Brothers, to the farm of Mr. Rush with orders to tear the dam down, which they did with a will, right under Rush's own eyes and despite his protests.{38} Sorin offered little excuse for the act, his concern for the health of those at the college plus his efforts to deal fairly with Rush were known facts. He did comment: "There are occasions when, by adopting vigorous measures, the enemy is surprised and frightened and we thus elude his snares."{39}

Certainly surprised and quite possibly frightened, Mr. Rush changed his position and completed the sale. Fortunately it was early in the spring and the annual flooding of the marsh had not yet taken place; the level of the lake was quickly lowered and the marsh was drained, allowing the land to dry in the spring and summer sun. The marshes proved to have been the source of contamination in one way or another, for after they were drained all problems with cholera, malaria, and typhoid fever disappeared. The site of Notre Dame du Lac became a healthy one, justifying the beauty of its lakes and woods.{40}

The purchase of the Rush farm brought other advantages to the institutions at Notre Dame, for it gave them a virtual monopoly on the manufacture of lime in the local area plus the possibility of using the stream as a source of power for a mill of their own. In addition, there was the farm itself, 185 acres of good land, a beautiful site on a curve of the St. Joseph River, moreover, the land was contiguous to the lands of Notre Dame.{41} A use for this land immediately suggested itself to Sorin. The Sisters of Holy Cross were established in three separate areas; Bertrand, Notre Dame, and a small convent in Mishawaka (where the community was not very welcome; Sorin said of that town: "It is one of the towns of the North that was best preserved the spirit of bigotry and hatred of every-thing Catholic."). It occurred to Sorin to consolidate these houses, to give the Sisters a separate and independent foundation on this newly acquired land, and to create there a twin sister to Notre Dame du Lac. Thus the Sisters, boarders, and even buildings were removed from their former sites to this new location. St. Mary's Academy, one day to become St. Mary's College, was moved lock, stock, barrel and students to its new site on the river where, if one looked to the east, one could see the buildings of Notre Dame du Lac about a mile away, across the lakes. On April 24, 1855, Sorin came over to the new institution to bless the cornerstone of the new chapel which was being raised there.{43}

The move would bring future savings, but at the time it cost a sum of approximately $3,000 (plus the cost of the land) to move the communities and their buildings, to prepare and improve the site, and to build those new buildings which would be needed.{44} Thus money was desperately needed. Most fortunately, relief came to Notre Dame du Lac in the form of two gifts, neither of them large by modern standards, but sufficient then to save the college and the other institutions from financial collapse.

The previous spring, late in May, 1854, after his return from France and before the coming of the epidemic, Sorin had received a letter from a Reverend Philip Foley, who stated that he proposed to give the college a sum sufficient to educate two boys for a period of twenty years, the scholarship to be given for "the education of poor boys who show any signs of vocation for the ministry.{45} The Local Council declared that at least $3000 would be needed for such a scholarship and a contract was drawn up accordingly, with the sum to be payable to Notre Dame du Lac over the next year and a half. For this sum, the two students were to receive room, board, and tuition in any branch of the college suitable for their age and level of education, and they also were to be provided with all clothing (but this was not to exceed. $20 a year in value), as well as free board and lodging during vacations, if the student should so desire.{46} This was the first scholarship endowment given to the college, and, if the college's terms seem to have been exceptionally generous, it is only an indication of the pressing need which Sorin had for $3000.

Father Foley was a parish priest from Toledo, Ohio; soon after this he transferred to the Diocese of Cincinnati, where he became pastor of St. Thomas Church in Cincinnati.{47} Two of his nephews, Dennis and Jeremiah Foley, were then attending Notre Dame and Foley came to know of the college through his interest in his nephews.{48} The final settlement of the Foley donation came to nearly $4000, for, after having been unable for some time to pay the sum he had promised, in the late spring of 1855 Foley gave Sorin the deeds to land in Toledo worth about $4000. These deeds were not only meant to cover the $3000 which he had promised for the scholarships, but also to pay some tuition and board debts which his nephews had contracted, as well as some of the tuition of other students whom Foley was interested in helping.{49}

The gift of these endowed scholarships was followed by another act of philanthrophy. At the commencement exercises of 1855, Sorin learned that a Mr. William Phelan proposed to donate most of his property to the college, part as a free gift and part as endowed scholarships.{50} The ties of Phelan with Notre Dame du Lac were strong ones. Phelan had married a widow, Mrs. Mary Gillespie, a woman of great character and good sense. Mrs. Gillespie was from one of the most prominent families in Ohio, the Ewings;{51} Mr. Phelan was an Ohio farmer of considerable means. The couple lived a comfortable, middle-class life in Lancaster, Ohio, from which town Mrs. Phelan's son by her first marriage, Neal Gillespie, came to Notre Dame as a student and remained there to become a Priest of Holy Cross. Later, Neal's sister, Eliza, joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross (then the Sisters of the Seven Dolours) at St. Mary's in Bertrand, taking the name of Sister Mary of St. Angela. At the time of this incident, Neal was in Rome, and Mrs. Phelan had come to Notre Dame to visit her daughter at St. Mary's. She gave Father Sorin a letter from her husband which disclosed his plans to give his farm to the community at Notre Dame du Lac as soon as the transfer could be carried out; the farm was valued then at $30,000.{52}

Sorin, accompanied by Mrs. Phelan and Sister St. Angela, hurried to Lancaster where the priest spent eight days closeted with Mr. Phelan. When Sorin returned to Notre Dame it was with even greater fortune than he had anticipated, for Phelan had proposed (and Sorin had quickly agreed) to give up almost all of his property, including the farm as well, to the "Congregation of Holy Cross established at Notre Dame, Ind."{53} The property was valued at $89,650, but some $22,500 was due in mortgages on the property, for which Sorin assumed responsibility for payment. $72,483 of the total was in property (town lots, farm land, farm implements, etc.), $42,367 in various notes, bonds, and mortgages held by Mr. Phelan, and the rest had been invested in stocks.{54} In return for this gift, a considerable fortune in those days, Sorin was to pay Mr. and Mrs. Phelan an annuity of $3000 so long as either of them should live, and, also during their lifetime, the college was to provide board and tuition for two students each year, one to be enrolled at St. Mary's and one at Notre Dame du Lac.{55}

The importance of this gift should be apparent. Coming as it did just two years before the Panic of 1857, it enabled the college to settle on much firmer financial ground than the quaking bog on which it had been uneasily resting. It also was most opportune in a psychological sense, providing a splendid boost to morale of those at the college, all of whom were wearied from the long struggle with the epidemic and its after-effects. Now it seemed as if the troubles of Notre Dame du Lac had rushed away with the receding lake water; a new, substantial, dynamic Notre Dame would emerge from the flood waters of discord and disease. True, the gift did not prove to be as great as had been hoped, and the sum which was realized (although still substantial) was quickly exhausted, but the money was well-spent in securing the foundation of St. Mary's and in assuring the continued development of Notre Dame du Lac.{56} The land was of special value as an asset on which to secure loans, in this way it could be made immediately useful without necessitating the sale of the property, which surely would grow in value. It is most probable that the college would not have survived the Panic of 1857 without the Phelan donation.{57}

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