Reflections from the Dome

Campus view, ca. 1856

Campus view, ca. 1856


This month's Reflections From the Dome is an excerpt from the November 1935 edition of The Notre Dame Alumnus magazine on Notre Dame's history entitled, "Glimpses of an Early Notre Dame."

Looking upon the accomplishments of the past we are inclined to give a blind worship to our ancestors as supermen, and to sit idly in wasteful yearnings for the olden times. Such worship of the past does not render true homage to those who have gone before us. They should be honored because they were human and yet seemed to do things that we men of today find so difficult. If we go back more carefully into the past we can find the human side of those who lived before us with failings, and trials, and manful successes. Knowing these men as real human beings we are more readily brought to imitate their good things, as something we can do too, and to avoid their failures as the failures to which we as human beings are most apt. Notre Dame's history offers us good evidence of the inspirational value of the intimate history of good men. The late Knute Rockne once said that the greatest inspiration to fight that he could give his athletes would be the early history of Notre Dame replete as it is with heroic suffering, calamities and spiritual victories.

Notre Dame commemorates this year the centenary of the end of the first period in her educational history; because in July 1835 Father Badin and his companions, two Sisters of Charity from Nazareth, Kentucky, abandoned their orphan asylum at Notre Dame. This, the first orphan asylum in Indiana, had been conducted for about a year on the site of the present Log Chapel overlooking St. Mary's lake. Its founder, Father Stephen Theodore Badin, anticipated some of Notre Dame's fighting spirit. He was already 65 years old, yet thought nothing of travelling through the western wilderness of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, year in and year out, and without any of the modern conveniences of travel to take care of his spiritual children.

Father Badin has been described by one who saw him in later years, as a small, thin man about the size of the late Father Hudson. He had dark grey hair, not white, and had sharp penetrating eyes. His figure is described as "symmetrical." In July, 1835 after leaving Notre Dame Father Badin turned the land over to Bishop Simon Brute of Vincennes, who made the first episcopal visitation of Notre Dame a few weeks after Father Badin's departure. Bishop Brute wrote of that visit :

"On Thursday we arrived at South Bend, a little town beautifully situated on the high banks of the St. Joseph River. It is growing rapidly owing to its many advantages. Crossing the river we visited "S. Mary of the Lake,' the mission house of the Excellent Mr. Badin who has lately removed to Cincinnati. He had a school there kept by two sisters who have also gone away leaving the place vacant. The 625 acres of land attached to it, and the small lake named St. Mary's, make it a most desirable spot, and one soon I hope to be occupied by some prosperous institution. Rev. Mr. Badin has transferred it to the Bishop on the condition of his assuming the debts, a trifling consideration compared with the importance of the place."

Bishop Brute thought of asking the Jesuit Fathers or the Vincentians to take over the school. The Congregation of Holy Cross had not yet come into existence, Holy Cross was to arrive at Notre Dame seven years later in the person of the young Father Edward Sorin, then just 28 years old.

"Father Sorin found at Notre Dame in Nov. 1842," according to the late Professor Edwards, "an old log cabin 24' x 40'. The ground floor served as a room for the priest who occasionally visited the mission after the departure of Father Petit in 1838 and the story above for a chapel for the Catholics of South Bend and the neighborhood. To this little cabin had been added some years before a little frame building of two stories somewhat more habitable than the first, in which resided a half-breed with his family who when necessary acted as interpreter between the priest and the indians. Add to this a house 6' x 8' and you have all the buildings then in existence near the lake." The central part of the first college building later completed in the shape of a double hammer was not finished until 1844, and the wings were not added until 1854.

An intimate account of the early days in the little community has been given us by Father Alexis Granger one of the first priests at Notre Dame: "Our tastes were simple like our means. A new vestment a little somewhat better than the rest called the attention of all and was the theme of conversation for some time. As early as 1845, I think, the good Sisters presented to Rev. E. Sorin, then Superior, a set of new copes made by themselves. They were not rich, indeed, the material being mere cotton, and yet they found a place of honor in the hall decorated for the St. Edward's day celebration. They were considered a great ornament, and won the general admiration. Our students then seemed to share the feelings of the community. They shared our simple joys, they were, as it were, members of the same family. It is true, at that time we were isolated from the world, and hidden as it were in our forests. No railroad then around us. Scarcely a decent public road. We were shut against the outside world. We formed a world by ourselves.

"But these happy days had also their sorrows. The loss of (a) dear Brother which happened then was deeply felt by all, as also the defection of some candidates and even novices on whom we had relied perhaps too much. A greater grief is not felt in a family at the death or departure of a beloved son. But this was the beginning of sorrow. The
repetition of these sad events made us less sensible at their occurrence, though never indifferent. We saw, we understood that the work we were engaged in was the work of God and that we were mere instruments in His Hands. But the future appeared sometimes very gloomy. Small resources, no great prospect of success, everything at times conspired as it were against our efforts."

Other accounts tell us that at one time it was necessary to unhitch the horses from the plow and to sell them to keep creditors from taking possession of the land. And at about the same time the small community was struck by a plague of cholera. Within the years 1853 and 1854 nearly 20 members of this small community and several students succumbed to this then dreadful disease, including the beloved Father Francis Cointet at one time vice president of the college and the most famous of the early Holy Cross missionaries. So great was the terror in the small school that the dead were buried at night lest the other students abandon the institution. But the Lord seemed to bless the institution after this trial and within ten years it was found necessary to build a new and larger college which was dedicated in 1866. That building stood until the great fire of 1879, and was replaced then by the present administration building.

It is impossible to tell the whole history of Notre Dame in such a short time as we have this evening. But let us look behind the scenes at the early life of Notre Dame. In the Register of the Council of Professors for 1846 we find several things of interest. The faculty of the school can best be understood from the line-up for the quarterly examinations for the last day of April, 1846. The Register for April 15th of that year says: "The examiners were appointed as follows: Brother Bernard for Reading, Mr. Dooner for Grammar and Poetry, Brother Gatian for History and Geography, Mr. O'Leary for Arithmetic, Reverend Father Badin, Father Granger and Mr. Shaw for Latin, Mr. Goesse for Greek, Brother Gatian for French, Mr. O'Leary for Bookkeeping, Father Cointet for Religion."

The following decisions of the council, while a bit amusing today, give us added knowledge of the colony at Notre Dame. On the same day we find the following decisions : "18th. Brother Gatian complained of Messrs Jas. Whelan & N. Dagenet's fraudulent methods of taking privileges & his (Brother Gatian's) Superiors' neglect in allowing such frauds to remain unpunished & asked whether he should punish for the fast faults they had committed. The Council answered in the negative.

''19th. Brother Gatian asked how long Mrs. C. would be allowed to dictate Rule to Notre Dame du Lac University, whereupon the Council answered that Mr. A. should be treated as any other boy & that he should not be allowed to see his mother except for good conduct."

In the meeting of the Council of May 19th, 1846 were made, among other rules, the following :

"4th. Mr. Campau shall be told not to whip the boys at the music class."

"10. Father Granger will be requested not to let parents see their children before they have been reviewed by the Prefect of Discipline in order to see whether they are clean."

"14th. The apprentices will wear frocks and not coats."

For June 3rd, 1846 we find the following decisions of the Council:

"1. For the future "the pupils shall take baths twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday. They will get up at five o'clock & then go to the study-room for their morning prayers; & after that they shall take their baths in two companies. They shall not assist at Mass on those days." In the Meeting of October 1, 1846 is an interesting resolution that probably had much to do with the plan of studies at Notre Dame.

"28th (Plan of Studies) Whereas our plan cannot be followed to advantage in America, as it is directly opposed to American views, Mr . Shaw, shall be requested to write to Georgetown, St. Louis & St. Mary's, Emmetsburg, to have their plans of Studies that we may compare them with ours & form a plan for ourselves."

On Oct. 7th, 1846 we find the following decisions of the Council. "1. Mr. G. Campau shall not learn Greek but History. 2. The preparatory course shall learn Geography, if books can be found."

Perhaps no better report on early Notre Dame can be had than the letters of the early students of Notre Dame, and among these none was better qualified than the young Neal Gillespie, later Father Gillespie, editor of the Ave Maria, and the brother of Sister M. Angela of St. Mary's. Writing to his sister on September 2, 1849 and stating that school had begun the day before, Saturday, September 1, he added:

"I will study this year Greek, Latin, French, Algebra, Geometry, philosophy and chemistry ." He promised a longer letter when he could write about his trip to Niles and about the old settler near the school and added a postscript "I am getting out at the elbows and knees." Young Neal had his troubles as will be seen from a letter written Dec. 14, 1850. "After Mass on Wednesday I heard to my great astonishment that I had insulted publicly, insulted Father Superior, all the fathers and professors, Mr. Girac, all the boys, those of the band especially, even the Brothers and seminarians, and upon having naturally as a matter of course lost my temper. Now could you guess, could you form the slightest idea of the manner in which I committed this heinous offense? I will not leave you to conjecture but as I said before will lay the whole matter before you. I, by not squawking my clarinet, caused the squawking of several to stop, besides that, I prevented all those mentioned above from hearing the squawking of a fiddles and the bull-frog notes of sundry brass instruments. Goodness! how often I am mistaken - I thought I had rendered a service to the ears, nerves and piety of those whom, I found out afterwards, I had so scandalously offended by doing what I thought would be a service. Now that is the amount of the affair - because I did not play, the others could not, and of course, they were insulted according to the theory of the affair, but not one among the players felt himself insulted, unless, that most irreproachable and easily to be insulted Monsieur Girac felt offended because he had no opportunity to show his skill on the fiddle - or another worthy might have felt himself slighted because he was stopped from making most villainous bass notes on his Orphyclyde

"Now you see that the insult was allegedly on highly metaphysical grounds, for none could actually be insulted at a person because he saved their ears from hearing bad music, and their piety from being distracted by the same. But now let me tell you the reason I did not play and why I caused all this rumpus. At the beginning of the Mass we played one time - it sounded miserably as the church was cold and the instruments and players also. At the end of the piece Mr. Girac - just and impartial Monsieur - who leads the band came to where I was and pointed with his fiddle stick to my piece - and said nothing to anybody - which meant the same thing as if he had said to all that I was the whole cause - but others make worse mistakes than I did. They should then bear part of the blame. He blamed me at the time, none but me after the Mass admitted that others had made mistakes. Had he done so in church I would have continued to play, although the music was no music at all."

On Feb. 27, 1851 Neal gives his account of the first George Washington Birthday celebration.

"Although we live up in this out of the way place, we heard, some weeks ago that there once lived a great man in the U. States, and that his birthday was the 22nd of Feb. & as we heard that everybody else celebrated the day, we resolved to do the same. So Mr. Girac with his family prepared some songs, and got their instruments in order. The French class hunted up Moliere and took hold of part of one of his comedies. The English classes prepared a few speeches, and the St. Aloysius Society appointed some of its members to 'explode,' and en masse take a hold on the parts of King Henry IV, which could be played without female characters. On the 22nd people began coming from S. Bend, Mishawaka and Niles and by the time we began, the large study room was crowded. About 5 o'clock all the people went away, very well satisfied, I believe; although they did not hear a word of Latin or Greek, in any of the speeches, and although these speeches were made by stupid college chaps, and not by some of the big politicians who sometimes hold forth here."


The first college building. Erected in the spring of 1843 and still in existence in the original location.


A letter of November 5, 1850 is very interesting because it gives a hand drawn plan of the university grounds of that day with explanations. According to that plan, the college buildings stood approximately where the present main building stands, and the old church on the site of the present one. The building was three stories high and the ground floor included; 1st the study room, secondly, a corridor leading from the entrance to the stairs at the rear, thirdly a museum, fourthly an office or reception room, and, fifthly a room for the secretary's office. In front of the building was a large yard enclosed with a picket fence and dotted with locust and sycamore trees. Behind the college building was the kitchen, the apprentices' yard and beyond that the stables and workhouse. The infirmary was to the rear and between the church and the college building. Where Sorin and Walsh halls now stand were the orchards, and where Washington and Science Halls stand were gardens with peach trees around the walks. The sisters' house was the present Mission House.

In another letter to his sister, young Gillespie gives advice to a friend of the family who wanted to come to the manual training school, famous among the works of the early University:
"The principal thing at the manual labor school is to make good workmen, good Catholic workmen, and to give them, of course, a good common education. If John, then, wishes to learn a trade and to live by it afterwards, the manual labor school will be precisely the place for him. He can take his choice of a trade - the trades now taught are the carpenter, shoemaking, tailor, blacksmithing, baker and tanner. He can apply himself to it as a means to gain a livelihood - and at the same time he will be taught his duties as a Catholic and receive an education suitable for his occupation. But if he wishes to have the trade merely as a secondary object and education as the primary - that is if he wishes to work in order to educate himself - the College would be a much better place."

There are countless stories that could be told of the life in that little world called Notre Dame, in those early days. The good manual training school, now but a tradition which the university of today has forgotten, was once a very great source of public good. Its members not only learned trades, but often acquired ideals which led them out of the trades to success in business and professional lines. The valiant effort of the professors of Notre Dame to impart Latin, Greek, philosophy and music to the young American met with varied success. But in one thing were these pioneers successful and that was in building up the spirit of Notre Dame which has always boasted in its most loved song that it will win over odds great and small.


Back to Irish Reveries