University of Notre Dame

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

Chapter VII
A Crisis Resolved, 1855-1857


Those who came to view the commencement exercises at Notre Dame du Lac in the summer of 1855 could have found little evidence of the travail which the college had undergone in that past year. The row of neat white crosses in the community cemetery bore mute testimony to the events of that deadly autumn, but few among the throng of visitors would have wandered far from the festivities of the day. Mrs. Phelan was there, bringing Sorin the good news of her husband's gift. Bishop Young of the Diocese of Erie was there to preside over the distribution of awards and premiums to the scholars of all the classes,{1} and one of the Senior college students, Eugene O'Callaghan, who received his Bachelor's degree, delivered a graduation address, all in Latin, one of those fine speeches which only a very few could understand, but at which all of the parents and guests could marvel.{2}

There were other, more comprehensible, marvels. The new wings to the college building had been completed, and the school could now accommodate up to 250 boarding students.{3} A visitor could also stroll around the two lakes to the site above the St. Joseph River where St. Mary's Academy was taking shape, and there one could see the newly cleared lands, rough buildings, and nearly completed chapel, on what, three months before had been farm land and virgin woods. And there was exhilarating talk of marvels yet to come: Sorin now envisioned the future establishment of colleges of law and of medicine,{4} although this dream would come only partly true with the establishment of the Law School after the Civil War.

The irrepressible optimism of Sorin was asoar that summer. The black days of the epidemic were gone hopefully to return no more from the dried-out marshes between the lakes.{5} The struggle to acquire Rush's land had not only been successful, but here, providentially, in the person of Mrs. Phelan, was news that a means had been found to pay the debt for the new land and to finance the rebuilding of St. Mary's on the new site. To add to the marvel, the ecstatic Sorin, on his return from the Phelan's home, carried the news that Notre Dame's good fortune had been more than doubled by the generosity of Phelan. With such fuel for his already glowing confidence, there could be no containing Sorin.

All spent the summer in eager and purposeful activity. Work was continued at St. Mary's and at Notre Dame, readying the two institutions for the new semester. Sorin traveled about, seeking to secure loans on the Phelan lands; loans which were to be used to pay off the creditors to whom Phelan owed money.{6} In the midst of this, Maurice de St. Palais, Bishop of Vincennes, arrived on a long visit. He passed a pleasant month on the campus, and any inconvenience which his long stay occasioned was more than compensated for by his kind words at parting, when he indicated his pleasure with the college --welcome words to Sorin whose relationships with his bishops had been none too stable. One sharp, sour note interrupted the summer's harmony. A sudden summer rain storm swept the fields of ripe but unharvested wheat, destroying nearly the whole crop. This meant that in the following winter the college would need to purchase nearly $2000 worth of flour.{7}

The fall term opened auspiciously. First of all, there was no illness, no sign of either typhoid or cholera. Second, there was a distinct increase in enrollment, with the student body rising in numbers to 128 during the course of the year.{8} The roles of the St. Aloysius Society, reorganized in September of 1855, indicate that this increase was among the younger students rather than the young men in the collegiate program, for there were only thirty-one members of the Society (whose membership was restricted to "Senior" or collegiate students) in 1855 as compared to thirty-three in 1853 when the student body had totaled less than one hundred.{9} Most of the student body continued to be drawn from the Midwestern states; only twenty students had their homes outside this area.{10} Most noticeable, if one compares the list of students in this year with lists of previous years, are the Irish names -- Daniel Foley, John McEvoy, John Lonergan, Pat Kelly, Owen Gallagher, Patrick O'Daugherty -- the Irish invasion had begun in earnest. For every young Frenchman or German, there were ten "Irishers."{11}

The same can be said of the newest recruits for the priests' novitiate; among the eleven seminarians there that year were eight with Irish names, five of whom would figure prominently in the future history of Notre Dame du Lac: William Corby, the Dillon brothers, Patrick and James, and two young men who would leave the seminary but who would remain at Notre Dame as lay teachers, William Ivers and Joseph Lyons. Among the non-Irish seminarians was a young man of French-settler descent, Thomas Vagnier, who would become Notre Dame's first scientist-priest.{12}

Unlike the practice in earlier years, these seminarians did not serve on the faculty, but spent their time in the novitiate and in separate studies (although the next year saw three of them teaching elementary courses or serving as room prefects).{13} There were nine teaching faculty members, two administrators, and two prefects to serve the college in 1855-1856. The nine professors must have been hard pressed, for almost everyone taught two separate disciplines, and some had extra duties as well; as a result, there were more courses offered than in previous years. Two priests, five laymen, and two Brothers made up the teaching faculty, and four of these men served as a faculty for the "Senior Course," the true collegiate course: Fathers Granger and Shortis, and Professors Maxmillian Girac and Patrick Ryan. Granger taught Philosophy; Shortis was Prefect of Studies and also Professor of "Elocution and Belles Lettres;" Girac taught Greek, Latin, and French; and Ryan was listed as teaching Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and Botany.{14} If Ryan did teach these science courses, it would mark the first formal introduction of science to the college. Although scientific courses had been listed as part of the new curriculum in 1849, and the college owned various pieces of laboratory equipment, there had been no scientists to teach such subjects. However, Ryan may not have taught these science courses even in this year, for there were no premiums given in any such classes at the commencement exercises in 1856.{15} It was decided in the fall of 1856 to forego the teaching of chemistry that year (and also of surveying) because there were not enough students who were advanced enough in their education to undertake such courses.{16} This may very well have also been the case in 1856-1857.{17} However, someone must have been teaching some sort of a science curriculum, perhaps in the form of private tutoring, for Thomas Vagnier learned his basic science in these years.

There were enough courses taught that year so that all were busily (and, we trust, fruitfully) occupied -- some, perhaps, more occupied than they desired.

You asked me in your letter what classes I was in; I will tell you to the best of my power by going through one day. First we get up at half past five go to the study room and say our morning prayers and then study till half past seven, breakfast and recreation till eight then to the study room and there the Professors are waiting to call their classes. My first class is called at eight; which is Book Keeping it is taught by an Irish brother named Bro. Bonaventure. It is the first class because there is no other as yet in Book Keeping. My next class is called at nine o'clock which is the Arithmetic first class which is taught by Mr. Moriarity an Irishman, at ten O'clock we have [a] quarter of an hour recreation after that I stay in the study room till eleven but others go [to] their classes at eleven I go to Latin class I do not know what number it is, it is taught by Rev. Father Shortis at twelve dinner, after dinner recreation till half past one then study till two, at two o'clock I go to the second English class taught by Mr. Moriarity and stay till half past three and then study till half past four [then] recreation which lasts till five and then I study till seven, which is suppertime after supper, all go to bed except those who wish to stay up and study till quarter of nine of which I am one, and so you see I cannot study French as you told me to do.{10}

It is to be assumed that the new professor from Ireland, Daniel Moriarity, had successfully completed his teaching of spelling but had not yet come to the lessons on punctuation.

Father Sorin, of course, still served as President of the College, and Neal Gillespie was listed as "Vice-President and Prefect of Discipline," but the young man did not return from Rome until the summer of 1856, so he could not have served in such capacities in 1855-1856.{19} The Annual Catalogues were usually given out in June at the commencement exercises; most probably this was the reason for Gillespie's inclusion in the catalogue for 1856: this was the position he was to hold in the next academic year. The burden of administering the college during 1855-1856 must have been in the hands of Fathers Shortis and Granger, both of whom had numerous other duties.{20} Sorin limited his contact with the college to frequent appearances at Local Council meetings, but he was primarily concerned with the finances of his institutions, particularly with the Phelan donation, for Sorin was eager to make full and quick use of the potentials offered by the Phelan lands and securities. As a result, he was often away from the college, especially in the first semester.

In October, 1855, shortly after the college had begun its new term, an urgent letter came to Sorin from Notre Dame de Ste. Croix. The French community, overextended and facing rising taxes, was near financial ruin and appealed to the American foundations for help.{21} The Canadian establishments, heavily in debt, could send nothing,{22} but Notre Dame du Lac, although also heavily in debt, was able to draw on the Phelan lands. In fact, Sorin had just secured a loan of $10,000, which sum was to be given to Mr. Phelan to pay his creditors.{23} Father Sorin sent nearly $3,000 (15,000 francs) of this money to France, and he also sent an additional sum, nearly $2,000 (10,000 francs) to pay the passage to Notre Dame du Lac of those Sisters for whom no employment could be found. at Notre Dame de Ste. Croix.{24}

It was opportune that Sorin had a sum of money on hand at just that time, but now he needed to make additional arrangements in order to make the payment to Phelan. Rather than once again attempt to secure a loan, Sorin decided to sell some of the land, a practice which his records indicate he was very reluctant to initiate, realizing that land values in America should constantly rise. He journeyed to St. Louis to sell some lots there which were part of the Phelan donation.{25} At the same time, he wrote to secure the title to a valuable lot near the city of Detroit which had recently been given to Notre Dame by the father of Louis Letourneau, who was then still in Rome.{26} This lot was valued at some $6000,{27} so it would seem that the $5000 sent to France was easily restored to the sum which had been borrowed for Phelan's creditors. One must always remember, however, that this was certainly the first period in the history of Notre Dame du Lac where such a transaction could be accomplished. Nor did it indicate that Notre Dame was now affluent. Many debts were still owed by the institution (as Moreau's Visit the next year would reveal), and all of its assets, including the recent donations, were in land and buildings, difficult to convert into cash and more valuable to keep and mortgage, but, if mortgaged, easy to lose if payments were not met. Notre Dame du Lac was truly land rich and money poor. But then so was most of America.

Income from the Phelan lands did provide, for the first time, a little "working capital" for Sorin to invest. Another small farm near Notre Dame was purchased, adding to the central acreage which constituted the basic lands of Notre Dame and St. Mary's.{20} A short time later it was decided to increase the self-subsistence of these institutions by stocking a dairy farm on the former Rush farm at St. Mary's; for this purpose steps were taken to purchase one hundred dairy cattle and a number of chickens.{29} The most ambitious venture which was undertaken was a speculation in real estate development. In the spring of 1849, Sorin had begun to sell house lots along the Bertrand road, breaking up some farm acreage which they owned there.{30} The real estate business must have proven successful, for Sorin and the Local Council now prepared to do the same thing with one of the big fields which lay south of Notre Dame along the road to South Bend.{31}

The development of a village site in this area would not only mean a considerable profit from the lot-by-lot sale of the farm field, but it would also mean the establishment of a community close by the college (presumably a community of Catholic immigrants of the laboring classes, especially the Irish who had come to the area to work on the railroads and canals) which would be a potential source of students, apprentices, and religious. The settlement which soon grew up on these lots (purchased by a down payment of $25 and the rest paid in installments){32} was known as "Sorinsville,"{33} and lay approximately one half mile from the center of the college on the road toward the community of Lowell, which lay across the river from South Bend on the road north from that town to Notre Dame.

In time, the city of South Bend, the county seat, expanded to the northeast, crossing the river and engulfing Lowell, and, eventually, Sorinsville. All that remains today of Father Sorin's little town are a number of tree-lined streets (on many of which are faculty homes and rooming houses for students) with peculiarly "Notre Dame" names: Sorin Street, St. Vincent (for Brother Vincent), Corby (for Father William Corby), Howard (for Professor, and later Judge, Howard), and Angela Boulevard, named in honor of Sister St. Angela, later Mother St. Angela of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Looking back over the year as he prepared to send his "Chronicles" to France, Sorin noted his feeling that 1855-56 had been a truly pivotal year in the history of Notre Dame du Lac -- pivotal because it marked the turn of the college from the black winter nights of early 1855 when the college struggled to throw off the effects of the epidemic to the bright days which came with the spring and summer, ushering in a school year in which nearly all went well: the disease was conquered, St. Mary's established, on new land, and the college, through the generosity of the Phelans, now found itself on a solid financial basis for the first time. "This year," Sorin wrote, "has placed the Institution on a footing almost entirely new . . . "{34} But, unfortunately, time was to reveal that some things had not changed at all.

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