University of Notre Dame

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


By 1857, fifteen years from its unnoticed birth in the snow-blanketed forest in 1842, the University of Notre Dame du Lac had achieved the stability which characterized a successful and vital institution. By that year, the college had passed through the uncertainty of its cradle years and had become a permanent landmark in the Indiana countryside. This is not to say that all trials were at an end, that the college was now so secure that there was small probability that the day would come when it would be forced to close its doors. One glimpse into the future would dispel this notion, for hardly was Moreau's ship over the horizon when the last months of 1857 brought an unparalleled financial panic to the United States, ignited not only by the fluctuations in the economic condition of the country, but also by the approach of the spectre of civil war. Notre Dame du Lac would be driven to frantic ends to survive this panic, and survival in this test would merely keep the weakened college alive to undergo the tribulations which accompanied the Civil War.

These two great obstacles stood in the immediate path of Notre Dame du Lac, and its success in passing over them would leave it so self-contained and confident that there would be little need to fear failure in future crises. Not even the Great Fire of 1879, which would burn the college to its foundations, would be enough to cause its permanent collapse. The battle for survival which the college would wage during the Civil War years presents an intriguing study, with the college seen responding to the pragmatic reins of Father Sorin. His clever employment of the means at his hands would enable the institution to ride the crest of the situation, drawing power from the crisis itself and actually growing in size and competence as the war years passed, while other colleges, more cautious or doctrinaire in their approaches, were swept aside.

But the history of the war years is a subject for a separate study. Here we have been examining only the beginnings of the college, those days where, as we have seen, each year brought the winds of crisis to trouble the uncertain infancy of the college. Concern in these years was not with the refinements of education, but with the raw drama of growth and survival. These were ego-centered years, when the college and the other institutions at Notre Dame du Lac so filled the hearts and minds of those who were involved in their building that little else came to matter to them. It was inevitable that this would be so. The task which was attempted in these fifteen years was a gamble so uncertain that it demanded single-minded attention, and Sorin -- master-gambler, master-entrepreneur -- drew on his every skill and, even then, needed more than a little luck.

This leaves us with a question: why did Notre Dame du Lac survive these years when most other college foundations failed? As we have seen, the reasons for this fortunate survival were numerous. The presence of Sorin as Founder of the college was undeniably the major buttress which held the institution from collapse, but there were a host of other men who also stood in support: Cointet, Granger, Vincent, Gatian, Girac, Shawe -- there is no need to name them all again, these human bricks with which the foundation was laid. One, however, deserves special mention. From France there came a men, money, guidance, and, most of all, patience from the liberal hand of Moreau, who was often disturbed and troubled by the reports of his spiritual son in America, but who never relinquished his search for understanding between the two Notre Dames.

More than most embryo colleges in America, Notre Dame du Lac found willing friends and servants, but men's whole lives of service were not endowment enough. Raw as America was, a college could not be created out of the wilderness by sheer dint of men's effort. Few nineteenth century American colleges were the recipients of the philanthrophy which Notre Dame received -- from Moreau, Delaune, de la Hailandiere, Byerley, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons, Badin, Foley, Letourneau, and Phelan, to mention only the major donors.

And there were, of course, the accidents of time and geography which helped Notre Dame du Lac to flourish while other colleges became orphanages and girls' reformatories and midwestern breweries. Negative accidents: the fire that did not succeed in overwhelming the college, the lightning bolt that did not strike; and positive ones: the railroads which were constructed so convenient to the college, the influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe. Perhaps most important of all accidentals to the college was its general position in time and place -- born into a countryside potentially rich in agriculture and in industry but as yet undeveloped, a boom about to rise and carry with it those who had stomach for the acceleration.

One was there who had such courage. Without Sorin (or another quite like him), the other factors in the success of Notre Dame du Lac would have come to naught. He inspired the devotion of those who labored at Notre Dame; he attracted the donations which sustained the college; he staved off the outside pressures to allow his institution time to grow. Seen at a glance, or from a narrow or clouded window on history, he appears to have been flawed as a man and as a priest: a reckless adventurer, a willful tyrant, an insubordinate religious, a brash conniver. But seen full on, he presents a figure of force and power which overwhelms these spurious vignettes. True, at times he was reckless, willful, insubordinate, and brash -- and more than these, but these only serve to etch out his humanity, to add those wrinkles and lines to his character which seem flaws if one looks at them alone but which, taken as a whole, add dimension to his humanity.

It is true that Sorin showed the instincts of an inveterate gambler, one who knew well the value of a bluff, but, merely because he became so adept at concealment that few, friend or foe, could penetrate his chosen facade, this did not lessen him as a man or a priest -- just as his priestly vocation did not render him super-human. It can be argued that Sorin's unusual skill at public "diplomacy" (a tactful word for the gambler's skill) was at the heart of the success of Notre Dame du Lac, that to pull off so desperate a gamble as was required in the building of this college demanded the skills of a master of the art of the bluff. Making something out of nothing is a skill much sought after in many professions, and the art which makes a great general or a great actor might also be an essential one for the founder of any successful institution which is dependent on public support. There is a time in the birth of every such institution where it is vulnerable to the eyes of the public, and it may be screened from a disasterous fall from public confidence only by the efforts made to prevent the predatory world from recognizing this vulnerability. Sorin's cool head and steady hands provided such direction to Notre Dame du Lac, employing many gambits, taking many risks -- a stirring Fourth of July oration, a patriotic visit to the polls, a prospectors' trip to the gold fields, a costly carillon -- and his unorthodox methods often met with success.

Notre Dame du Lac without Sorin in unimaginable. Whatever the college was in 1857, Sorin, for better or for worse, was its guiding force; his character was stamped into its essence.

But then the next question is an obvious one: what, indeed, had Notre Dama du Lac become? Sorin had imagined it as the center of a network of Catholic education; in 1857 it was not quite that, and it was becoming apparent that it never could be such a keystone, although the Brothers and Sisters had left the boundaries of the Diocese of Vincennes and were operating schools in several states, schools from which students would be encouraged to come to Notre Dama du Lac to complete their educations. Nevertheless, Sorin's optimism had overreached reality -- there were too many Catholics in America and too few members of Holy Cross to hope that the parochial system of the country would ever center around this one institution.

Yet something substantial had been established: a successful college -- somewhat uncertain in reputation, to be sure, but a college roughly comparable in size and quality with the other church related colleges of the Midwest. The faculty which it boasted was haphazardly collected and rudimentarily educated in the arts which they taught, a faculty blessed more by willingness than ability, for not one teacher over these fifteen years can be pointed to as a scholar of any considerable merit or even as a man of deep learning. Many of them had had no formal college education of their own; several could not speak English when they took up their professional duties. The student body was an odd mixture of boys and young man of various ages and levels of competence and training, so that the college much more resembled a boy's boarding academy than a seat of higher learning. The faculty was harried and harassed by the students; uneasy in their own disciplines and dedicated (usually) to religious rather than academic goals, the faculty responded to the students by pleading for a system of discipline which would be designed to above all preserve order and to promote learning only in a climate of enforced contemplation -- and the faculty eventually got what they wanted.

Nor were the course-offerings exceptional. Most of the curriculum centered around the preparatory level and even here the emphasis was not so much on preparation for college as preparation for a business life: a majority of the students, whether in the Junior (Preparatory) Department or in the Senior (Collegiate) Department, were students of the "English Course" -- the non-classical curriculum designed for those young men who wished to make their way into the middle class by the traditional route of business rather than the more arduous road of the learned professions. This innovation of Sorin's was a most interesting and significant one, a decidedly pragmatic response by the French priest to the climate of America and to the condition of the American social and cultural environment and the sort of educational methods which he would employ to seek the success of the college.

The classical curriculum received attention enough in the catalogues, but it was the English Course which attracted the students, few of whom had the inclination, training, or parental guidance to pursue a true collegiate plan of studies. The same can be said of the science curriculum -- often mentioned, but rarely, if ever, implemented as a field of study in these fifteen years. Therefore when one examines the educational pattern at Notre Dame du Lac in these years, it is unavoidable that one must recognize that the college at Notre Dame du Lac was quite inappropriately called a university and that it was a college only in a limited, secondary sense, for its curriculum, faculty, and students were for the most part non-collegiate. One cannot claim that Notre Dama du Lac was a success because of its academic excellence.

Religion, while not a formal part of the curriculum, held a major position in the educational system. Perhaps its greatest effect was not felt in the curriculum (although it is difficult to assess how deeply the Catholic faith was introduced into the classroom in the teaching of the secular curriculum -- one suspects that it played a prominent part) but in the disciplinary system, which was one designed to mold the habits and strengthen the will of potentially wayward young Christians. The Catholic influence can be seen in the lives of the five young man who were graduated from the college in this period -- Gillespie, Shortis, Kilroy, Glennan, and O'Callaghan all became priests. Yet in this first fifteen years it was probable that the religious zeal of the college faculty was held substantially in check, for several Protestants attended the college and, in this period of the Know-Nothings, the college could ill-afford a scandal which might have resulted from over-enthusiastic religious requirements.{1}

There is a final question yet to be answered: was it all worthwhile? -- had the task which Sorin had set for himself been a productive and useful one? The answer is not as absurdly obvious as it might seem. True, success in itself was an accomplishment -- but was mere success enough? Here on the banks of a pair of small lakes in the Indiana forest had risen an institution, nobly conceived and grandly titled. Here, in 1857, was a collection of buildings, a community of faculty, students, and workers, a makeshift and patchwork curriculum, which had arrived at this point in time essentially through the efforts of a brash, stubborn, impulsive, and often brilliant young priest -- Edward Sorin, a composite of strong temperament, naive optimism, and singleminded conviction. This institution -- a college in a forest, land rich and money poor, a carillon of bells ringing over an empty money box, on paper an intellectual citadel but in truth more than a little academically knock-kneed -- was a font of contradictions. But in our disappointment over what Notre Dama du Lac was not, we must remember what it was: a properly chartered, substantially constructed, modestly successful seat of learning -- inadequately endowed in faculty, students, and funds, but at least minimally endowed in all of these, not bankrupt, not intellectually destitute, not unattended, not without hope. It was alive, it was growing, and it was under the sort of direction which promised it continued success even if it was to be a success in which academic excellence would take a temporary second place -- or even a third place.

In short, Sorin's college had a potential which had been denied to most others. It had survived its years of foundation where a majority of the other college-foundations had failed, and it would survive the burden of Civil War where many more colleges, seemingly as successful as Notre Dama, would also disappear. What it would do with its foundation, how it would painfully metamorphose into a true university, was for the future to unfold -- but a solid foundation had been laid.

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