University of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame du Lac:
Foundations, 1842-1857.


John Theodore Wack




I. Foundation, 1840-1843

  1. The history of the State of Indiana, as well as that of the area of the Mississippi Valley, is intimately connected with France and with Frenchmen.

  2. Two years was little time for the building of a college in even the most settled area; Sorin had agreed to fashion his college in the wilderness . . .

  3. Although impatient to commence his work, Father Sorin was held in check by the long, cold winter.

II. Beginnings, 1843-1845

  1. It was indeed a French school which was opened for the first full academic year in 1843-1844.

  2. By 1844, the structure of Notre Dame du Lac was established.

III. Tremors, 1845-1848

  1. If the circulars sent out as advertisements for Notre Dame du Lac sounded a bit grandiose . . .

  2. Father Sorin returned to Notre Dame du Lac in an unhappy mood.

  3. The widespread illness which had attacked almost all members of the institution had caused many boys to return to their homes with tales of the epidemic or with graphic evidence of the disease in their own bodies.

IV. Interlude, 1848-1850

  1. Near the end of the summer of 1848, two Sisters came to Notre Dame from Canada, announcing the imminent arrival at the college of Father Victor Drouelle, the official representative of Father Moreau.

  2. The new curriculum was introduced in September to the largest group of students to attend Notre Dame up to this time.

V. Americanization, 1850-1852

VI. A Crisis of Identity, 1852-1855

  1. After some years of tranquility, Notre Dame du Lac was wracked by successive stresses of such severity that twice it seemed as if the institutions there would crumble and collapse.

  2. The summer was spent peacefully . . .

  3. 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.

VII. A Crisis Resolved, 1855-1857

  1. 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.

  2. The old quarrel between the mission at New Orleans and Notre Dame du Lac broke out once more.



  1. The Date of the Foundation of Notre Dame du Lac
  2. A Description of Notre Dame du Lac in the 1850's
  3. The Financial Condition of Notre Dame du Lac



The University of Notre Dame du Lac (the present University of Notre Dame) suffered from most of the problems which brought failure to eighty percent of the American colleges founded before the Civil War. Yet the University managed to survive this ordeal of birth and to enter the period of the Civil War as a viable organism, capable of growing to reach some of the lofty aims with which its founder had endowed it.

Notre Dame was founded in November, 1842, by the Reverend Frederick Sorin, a young French priest who had come to America to work in the Diocese of Vincennes, which then encompassed the state of Indiana. Sorin was a member of a newly-formed religious order, which, when officially recognized by Rome in 1857, would be known as the Congregation of Holy Cross. The Congregation, centered in LeMans, France, under the direction of Father Basil Moreau, included priests and lay-brothers as well as an auxiliary order of Sisters. Members from all three of these groups served at Notre Dame.

Over five hundred acres of land, centered by two small lakes, was given to Sorin as a site for the college by the Bishop of Vincennes. The land was situated in northern Indiana, near the town of South Bend. Despite the primitive conditions, a college building was erected and some students (few of them of college calibre) attended. Sorin viewed the college, which was chartered in 1844 as a university with full power to confer degrees, as the future center of a nationaL system of Catholic education in the United States.

The embryo college faced a number of vital problems in the next fifteen years. Fire several times threatened to destroy it and illnesses sometimes reached epidemic proportions, especially in 1854 when many of the religious community died in an epidemic of typhoid fever. The finances of the college were often at a crisis; however the sale or mortgage of donated land averted disasters; in addition, aid came from France, especially from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons. Faculty members were difficult to come by and indifferent in ability. Seminarians and college students taught the preparatory and business course which attracted most of the students; there were few students who were enrolled in the collegiate program. In 1849, a new classical curriculum was introduced, but it was only incompletely implemented.

Difficulties between Sorin and the Bishop of Vincennes marred the first years of growth, as also did internal tensions in the Congregation. These tensions grew more binding, heightened by the lack of communication between the French Motherhouse and Notre Dame, as well as by the actions which Sorin took to secure his new foundation. Chief among these actions was Sorin's Americanization of the college and its attendant institutions. Faced by the suspicions of a Protestant America and realizing the futility of operating a French institution in a new land, Sorin adapted both himself and his foundation to the environment of the post-Jacksonian West, operating with verve on the very edges of bankruptcy and successfully riding the crest of the wave of settlement in the Old Northwest. Through Sorin's unorthodox methods, the college survived, but the American situation puzzled his French colleagues. The controversy reached a critical stage in 1853, but Sorin averted a split by submitting to his Superior-General, Father Moreau.

A visit by Moreau to Notre Dame du Lac in 1857 found the college securely established. Sorin had wrought his university from the Indiana wilderness; it was now strong enough, under his guidance, to withstand the coming blow of the Civil War.

(c) Copyright 1967 by JOHN THEODORE WACK. Used here by permission of the copyright holder. All rights reserved.

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