University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame

by Arthur J. Stace
Donahoe's Magazine, January 1885

ON the northern verge of Indiana, within five miles of the Michigan line, and just on the edge of that narrow watershed which slopes towards the Great Lakes, is situated an institution of learning, which is year by year becoming better known, not only throughout the states called distinctively "Western," but also in the cultured East and chivalrous South, and in the adjacent lands of Mexico and Canada; young men from all quarters thronging hither for instruction. This is the University of Notre Dame.

Three successive edifices have already borne this title. The first, small but picturesque, was thought to be unsound in its foundations, and when a greater influx of students came, instead of receiving additions, was pulled down to make room for a larger building. After the work of destruction had been effected, it was discovered, when too late, that the maligned foundations had been perfectly reliable. The second college was a roomy, square-built, factory-like structure, with a Mansard roof, and it took fire one warm day in April, during the prevalence of a south-west gale, here the most violent of all the sons of AEolus, coldest of all in winter, hottest of all in summer, and a dry, healthy wind at every season. Urged by the gale, a column of flame and smoke rose in the air to the height of a thousand feet, where it formed a complete arch, bending over with its freight of light combustibles, and set fire to a forest a mile distant on the north-east, which continued to burn for several days after. Not only the main building was destroyed on this occasion, but also the infirmary, the Music Hall, and several minor structures to the leeward.

A calamity such as this, only partially covered by insurance, would have dismayed hearts less stout than those at Notre Dame, into which it rather seemed to infuse a new life. The venerable founder of the institution, Edward Sorin, whose years might have fitly invited him to that repose which a life of energy and usefulness had earned, sprang at once into renewed vigor, and surprised his friends by his activity and self-devotion. The work of rebuilding was at once begun. The disaster only served to show how widespread throughout America was the veneration in which this young Alma Mater was already held. Substantial sympathy was expressed in the most effective shape, and friendship appeared in unexpected forms and localities. A plan furnished by Edbrooke was selected from among thirty others, and the present structure arose rapidly from the ashes. By September, enough of it was completed to accommodate satisfactorily the returning throng of students, whose increased numbers showed a generous confidence in Notre Dame, in her hour of adversity.

The present edifice is in the Neo-Gothic style, and consists of a centre with two ample wings, the centre being crowned with a dome, and having a front extension, giving the plan the general figure of the letter T, which is the shape taken by the halls, forming the avenues of internal communication through the various stories of the building, except that where the stem of the T joins the cross-bar, there is an open rotunda extending through all the stories, with galleries at each, up to the dome itself. On entering the main doors, the visitor finds himself surrounded by frescos illustrating the life of Columbus, the work of Luigi Gregori, an Italian artist, who has been occupied for many years past in decorating the interiors of various buildings here. In the vestibule the life-size, full length figures of Columbus and Queen Isabella, from authentic portraits, appears on the right and left, -- a fitting introduction to the grand historic series which is to follow, and which begins in the hall itself, with Columbus begging his bread at the door of the monastery, whose truly noble inmates first recognized his worth, and brought his project before the notice of the queen. Opposite we see the departure of the caravels on their adventurous journey, with Columbus kneeling to receive the blessing of the friendly monk to whom he owed so much. Next to this is, perhaps, the most striking picture of the series, though one of the smallest, representing the mutiny at sea, in which the crew are threatening the life of the great discoverer. The violence of the mutineers is made to contrast admirably with the calm confidence of Columbus. Opposite land has been discovered, and the ringleaders of the mob are on their knees suing for pardon. Next a broad space is devoted to the scene at the landing, where the hero is planting the cross on the shore, surrounded by enthusiastic comrades and awe-stricken Indians. On the other side of the hall, is the largest picture of all, showing Columbus, on his triumphant return, presenting the aborigines and productions of the new world to Ferdinand and Isabella, enthroned under a canopy erected in the open air, and surrounded by numerous court officials, and an apparently unlimited throng of spectators. After this transitory scene of splendor we see another proof of fortune's inconstancy: Columbus in chains, the victim of successful treachery, while two Indians, amazed at the perfidy of the white man, appear to be his only friends. Last scene of all, we have his death, receiving the blessings of religion, his chains hanging by his bedside above the chart of his discoveries. With these last two paintings on either hand, we find ourselves at the rotunda; on whose pavement of tiles we may stand and gaze upwards two hundred feet into the concavity of the dome, soon to be decorated with appropriate designs by the same talented artist.

On the right-hand side, on entering the hall through which we have passed, is the suite of apartments occupied by President Walsh. In his reception-room are to be found several gems of art, among others, a crucifixion, undoubtedly the work of Vandyck, and a genuine Titian, the subject being the daughter of Herodias, with the head of John the Baptist. On the left-hand side of the hall, is the public parlor, often literally crowded, spacious as it is, with visitors, on exhibition nights and during commencement week. This room is decorated with portraits, chiefly those of former presidents of the University. Opposite to the end of the hall, across the rotunda, is the students' office, where they procure their stationery and books, and may communicate by telephone or telegraph with distant friends. During business hours, this room is seldom without its throng. From the rotunda to the east and west extend the halls to the study-rooms, with recitationrooms on either side, airy and spacious, well lighted, and warmed, as are all the buildings, by steam-heating apparatus. In the story above are more recitation-rooms, private rooms occupied by teachers and others, two large dormitories over the study-rooms, and two finely decorated apartments in which the Colombian and Cecilian Societies respectively hold their meetings. The Columbian room is painted in fresco with full-length portraits of the benefactors of the University, a category which includes characters as incongruous as those of Henry Clay and the late Emperor of the French, making a picturesque ensemble; on this floor there is also a museum of Indian relics and other curiosities. In the third story, the greater part of the front extension is occupied by a spacious hall, devoted to the purpose of a college library. Here, besides the usual formidable array of classics and works of reference, may be found some curious old volumes dated from the century in which printing was invented, illuminated with initial of letters painted by hand after the printing was finished. Quaint modern reproductions of mediaeval work will also interest the asthete. On this floor and the next above are also numerous private rooms and dormitories, a distinguishing feature of the upper floor being the school of drawing; for the art of drawing makes a prominent figure in the curriculum of the scientific course. We may now ascend to the roof, if you have any desire to obtain an extensive view. If your nerves are steady, we may even scale the dome itself, and the prospect is worth the climb. Northward lie the green hills of Michigan, with the St. Joseph River winding in a deep valley among them. The position of the city of Niles may be made out by the white houses of its suburbs gleaming through the surrounding shade trees. The greater part of the town lies hid in the valley of the river. Eastward stretch extensive woods, above which the smoke of the foundries of Elkhart may be seen rising. Southward, the view is more limited, a high range of bluffs beyond the river cutting it off, and causing the river itself to make that remarkable deflection from which South Bend takes its name. The tips of the spires of Mishawaka may be discovered, by one who knows just where to look for them, rising above the woods a little east of south. On the bluffs above is a station erected by the Lake Coast Survey. West of south lies South Bend, mapped out beneath the eye of the spectator, and still further west stretch the Kankakee marshes, for so many years the paradise of the fowler. But the prairie chickens and ducks, that used to abound there, have been thinned out by the ruthlessness of hunters, and the process of drainage and fencing has robbed the region of its original charm. Northeast, the eye roves over the rolls of Portage Prairie -- the old "portage" of the Pottawotamie Indians, over which, by conveying their canoes from the waters of the St. Joseph to those of the Kankakee, they connected the navigation of the Great Lakes with that of the Mississippi.

From these views of the distant horizon, let us turn our eyes to what is going on more immediately beneath us. On the lake to the north we may witness the boat crews training for the coming regatta. The lake itself is a beautiful blue sheet of water, surrounded by groves, and forms a most attractive feature in the College grounds. There is another lake to the westward, not so large, and surrounded by beds of marl, which make it, perhaps, more interesting to the geologist, though less attractive to the lover of scenery. Southeast, on the broad campus, a game of baseball, if it is a "rec" day, may be in progress, and from your elevated position you may command a view of all the details of that attractive pass-time. To the south, an avenue of maples shades the thoroughfare to South Bend, two miles distant; and Notre Dame Post Office is visible on the skirts of a pine grove. South-west are the Manual Labor Schools, conducted by the same religious community which directs the exercises of the College itself. Here are tailor shops, shoemaker shops, carpenter and blacksmith shops, and an extensive farm with its well-appointed barns and stables. Still nearer to the south-west we see the church, and this is worthy of inspection from within. In the west, a mile away, on the rural banks of the river, is St. Mary's Academy, an institution for the education of young ladies, which the tourist will find well deserving of a separate visit.

But it is the intellectual aspect, rather than the material, -- the mental landscape, so to speak, -- which will interest the visitor to the College as a College. And here he will find classic taste and scientific research -- not the mere memorizing of the contents of learned times, but an active participation in the pursuits and aims of true study. The production of the plays of Sophocles, with all their appropriate accessories on the stage, by the Greek students of this University; and still more the intelligent interest, which large audiences have unmistakably manifested in the representation, sufficiently attest the proficiency attained here in a living language, which, however its claims to notice may have been lately questioned by the superficial and soulless utilitarian, is not only among the most perfect and beautiful that the world has ever known, but is especially dear to Christians, as being the language of the gospel. Moreover, the fact of Greek being a living language is vividly presented to the mind of the student by the exchange of the productions of the "Ave Maria" press with those of Modern Greece, which arrive by every mail from the Orient. It is needless to speak of the perfection attained in the Latin language in an institution conducted by Fathers of the Catholic Church, among whom that classic tongue has never been allowed to die. The poetry in hexameter and the difficult Horatian measures which from time to time appears in the periodicals here published, bears witness that Notre Dame forms no exception to the rule in this respect. Of the periodicals alluded to, the Ave Maria is the most extensively circulated Catholic religious paper in the United States. It has been now established for nearly a quarter of a century, and shows no signs of a "decline and fall" On the contrary, each year finds it still more widely disseminated, so that it reaches many thousands of hearths and homes, where its pages are the delight of the family circle, and the antidote to the pernicious literature with which our land is rife. The Notre Dame Scholastic, issued from the same printing house, takes a high rank among college papers, as contemporaries acknowledge, and enables the youth destined for the vocation of the journalist, -- an occupation whose standing in the social sphere is daily receiving a higher recognition, -- to fit himself for the exercise of his chosen profession.

Other volumes, from time to time, emanate from the same source: the Antigone of Sophocles, in Greek and English, has here been published. The "Household Library of Catholic Poets," "Life of Joseph Haydn," "Crowned with Stars," and other works, have found their circle of readers. The dramas suitable for performance in schools and colleges are of merit practically recognized by their frequent representation in the institutions for which they have been designed; and their number is daily increasing.

Nor is science neglected. The flora and fauna of the fertile St. Joseph valley give increasing occupation to the naturalist, the fruits of whose labors are preserved in the herbarium and museum. The geology of the Great Lake Basin, and the multifarious mineral specimens to be found in the neighborhood, open other interesting fields of science, which have been duly tilled, and the philosophical apparatus appears to have gathered no rust or dust from neglect. The courses of Law and Civil Engineering are in active operation, and that of medicine might be equally flourishing, were it not that the invincible repugnance, which a dissectingroom excites in the minds of those who have no vocation to the healing art, has hitherto militated against its establishment at Notre Dame. A preparatory course, in which human and comparative anatomy are taught by the aid of carefully prepared skeletons, has long been conducted under the care of an eminent and experienced practitioner. A commercial school here has always borne a good reputation among business men, so that its graduates find no difficulty in obtaining employment, which is probably the best test of worth.

The Catholic religion is professed by the teachers and officers of the establishment, but non-Catholics have always availed themselves, in large numbers, of the educational advantage here offered. The Blessed Mother, who gives her name to the University, smiles a welcome to all from her exalted position on the dome, and although no undue efforts are made to proselytize, yet the truths of the most ancient form of Christianity sink deep into many an ingenuous heart. The sense of honor is seduously cultivated by the officers of the institution, as a ground of moral restraint and self-command on which all may meet on a common footing. The venerable founder of the house, himself a model of the punctilious courtesy which characterized the ancien régime has always deemed it his duty to cultivate the manners, no less than the morals, of those to whom he stands in loco parentis; and although he has long ago resigned the presidency into younger hands, his gentle influence is still felt, refining and elevating wherever it extends; his presence inspires an affectionate reverence, and the memory of his teachings will long survive his earthly career. Hence the absence of rudeness has always been a marked feature at Notre Dame. The disgraceful practice of "hazing" is absolutely unknown. The newcomer finds himelf surrounded at once by kindly faces and hearts, disposed to believe everything good of him, unless his own deeds force them reluctantly into the opposite conviction. The students are divided into departments, not according to the course of study each pursues, but according to the more natural distinction of age, each department having its own campus and gymnasium, its own study halls, recreation rooms and dormitories. In the recitation-rooms, however, distinctions of age are levelled, and merit alone gives the pupil his standing. The practice of going to and from recitations and other College exercises in silence and ranks, has always prevailed, and contributes much to the reign of order. In the classical and scientific courses, the highest proficiency is required to obtain the academic degrees; the mere fact of a student having attended class regularly, does not entitle him to a diploma; the examination to be passed is something more than a mere formality, and the unpleasant process, known to college men as "plucking," takes place quite often enough to inspire a salutary awe. The removal of distracting influences, has also been found to have most beneficial results in promoting attention to solid work.

But now let us descend from the roof of the College, and view the interior of the church, as already suggested. Exteriorly, at least in its present state, the building is not specially attractive; within, however, it is a gem. We enter the front porch beneath the massive tower, containing a fine chime of twenty-three bells, the largest of which weighing seven tons and measuring seven feet, holds a distinguished place among the bells of the United States. Stained glass admits all the light that enters the sacred edifice, gorgeous dyes of crimson, scarlet, blue and amber, revealing the figures of those apostles, martyrs, and virgins, whom Christianity reverences as its heroes. One large window displays the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles in the form of fiery tongues. The figures are mediaeval, such as we expect in stained glass, but without that restraint of artistic freedom which the mediaeval style in feeble hands imposes. Scarcely dimmed by the glare of the bright colors in the windows, are the frescos and other paintings which cover the walls of the interior -- representing four years work, of the same talented artist, who is now painting the interior of the College; for the Church happily escaped the great conflagration of 1879. These paintings represent the pathetic and inspiring scenes attending the birth and passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Here we see the "Blessed among Women" receiving the angelic message; -- there she greets her cousin Elizabeth; -- anon the cave of Bethlehem with the adoring shepherds is opened to our view -- farther on, the Three Wise Men of the East present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; -- and again the Holy Family fly into Egypt from the wrath of Herod, the series coming to a conclusion with that memorable scene in the Temple, when the Child was found among the Doctors of the Law, hearing them and asking them questions.

The scenes of the Passion are detailed even more minutely. First, we see Pilate washing his hands, having impiously pronounced the condemnation; then the cross is laid upon the shoulders of the Victim, and the occasion, upon which He is said to have fallen beneath its weight furnish three other subjects. His meeting with His Blessed Mother is tne most affecting of the series. She comes attended by Mary Magdalen and the Beloved Disciple John, and even the brutal soldiers make way for her approach, as with blanched face and bloodless lips she imprints the last kiss on the Divine Features. In another painting Simon of Cyrene is compelled to share the burden, and in yet another the women of Jerusalem offer their unavailing tears. The driving of the nails is depicted in colors that appall, although we cannot but feel how much more terrible was the real scene. The death on the cross, the descent therefrom, and the entombment, close the series, and in these subjects Gregori has had to emulate the greatest masters of the art. By the contemplation of paintings such as these the gospel truths are brought home to the humblest intelligence, and impress the hardest heart, where written page or spoken homily would fail.

To discant upon the other ornaments of the church -- the costly altar, bedecked and surrounded with offerings of the richest and rarest, the painted ceiling whence angels smile amid the stars of a serene sky, the mouldings and pillars, the tones of the mighty organ, would exceed the limits assigned to this sketch. Suffice it to say that Notre Dame is one of the few places in the United States where the majestic ceremonial of the Catholic Church, interesting from its historic associations even to those whose devotion is not thereby attracted, can be completely performed in all its splendor. Those who have witnessed the procession of Corpus Christi, as it winds around the lake, with all the rich colors doubled by reflection in the placid waters, with the song of birds mingling with the melody of hymns, will bear us out in this assertion.

Building is still in progress, and the number of students attending seems to keep pace with the increase of accommodations. An edifice, now nearly finished to the south of the music hall, will be devoted specially to the use of the scientific department. The laboratory, now in a temporary building, will here be the principal feature. Museums of mineralogy and natural history will occupy other galleries, and a large hall will be devoted to lectures, -- not only the special lectures of the scientific course, but popular lectures on science, such as the commercial students may attend with advantage.

The description of the various buildings to be found here, devoted to special objects, would fatigue the reader, though of interest to the observer. A visit to the institution, will develop matters for thought, upon which we have not even touched, and the visitor may be sure of a warm welcome from the good Fathers who direct the establishment and whose hospitality has become proverbial. During the summer vacation, especially, many resort hither to enjoy the pure air, limped spring water, and the rural scenery. It is accessible by three railways, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, the Chicago and Grand Trunk, and the Michigan Central. The best time to see the place in all its beauty, is in the spring or early summer. At the Commencement Exercises in June there is always a large crowd of visitors; but we would advise each of our readers, as have an eye for the picturesque, to choose a time when there is less to distract the mind from the contemplation of nature, say at that brief but blissful season characterized by the flowering of the lilac; when the cooing of the wild dove is heard at the dawn of day, and the plaintive note of the whip-poor-will at its decline, ere yet the song birds have lapsed into their summer silence. Then is the time to see Notre Dame in perfection.

To See Ourselves