End Notes: Sacerdos Magnus

In the Holy Land one can visit places that figure in the earthly life of Our Lord. In Rome one can visit the tombs of Peter and Paul and see the prison in which they were confined. At places like Notre Dame, at the end of a campus road, one finds the community cemetery and the grave of Father Edward Sorin, founder of the university.

The winter of 1994, when I write, is bitterly cold. The campus lakes are frozen over, the snow is deep, frigid winds sweep across the campus, rattling leafless trees, whistling around buildings, gusting past Sacred Heart basilica, slamming against the log chapel and Old College. It is ideal weather in which to recall the arrival of Father Sorin here in the snowy winter of 1842 with his little band of missionaries and seemingly absurd dream of founding a university.

“However, neither the small amount of their present possessions nor the barrenness of the place nor the thousand difficulties inseparable from such an enterprise in a center almost wholly Protestant could discourage our hardy pioneers. They hardly stopped to consider the idea of modifying the magnificent plan of building which they had brought with them from Saint Peter’s. The college was to be in the shape of a double hammer, 160 feet long, 36 feet wide and four and a half stories high.”

This is from The Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac, the record kept by Father Edward Sorin in the third person during his first twenty-five years here. It was published last year, the sesquicentennial of the university, by James Connelly, CSC It is a remarkable account of those early years. Reading it, one is struck by the rugged faith and supernatural hope of this giant of the Church in the United States.

Sorin himself had a lively sense of his predecessors. He bought the land for Notre Dame from Father Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States, whose missionary work throughout the midwest is a story in itself. And centuries before Badin, there were the first French missionaries to these parts. The intrepid Lasalle came down the Saint Joseph River from Lake Michigan, made a treaty with the Indians, and went overland to the Kankakee. But Sorin came to stay.

How did the Fathers and Sisters and Brothers of Holy Cross manage to go on despite fires, epidemics, unexpected deaths, defections, financial worries and the usual community quarrels and misunderstandings? The most moving chapter in the chronicle tells how Father Sorin, ready to separate the American community from the French motherhouse, convinced that he was in the right, suddenly changed his mind.

“Up to this time, Father Sorin had been sincere and honest in his opposition. He had wished to save the Association in the United States. But when he saw the direction that things were going to take, he yielded . . . He asked himself, whilst reciting his beads, if now that Sainte-Croix knew everything, it would not be more religious to surrender at discretion and to leave to God the consequences of a step he could no longer defer. . . . Doubtless, He that changes the hearts of men of His own accord disposed that of the Father in question.”

How his submission must have cost this proud and independent spirit. But it is a moment in the chronicle when a heroic figure becomes a saintly one. He was certain he was in the right, yet if he had followed his own lights, it is conceivable that the fledgling community, abandoned by Providence, would have withered and died. This took place in 1853. Sorin’s vow of obedience, his devotion to Mary, the submission of his will to God’s—in these far more than in his heroic efforts one finds the foundation on which Notre Dame was raised.

Current talk about the nature of the university and its future direction sometimes seems to take place in a historical vacuum, without reference to those who went before us. But it is their work we carry on, after all, and how can we do this if we are ignorant of them?

Perhaps there is an analogous national blindness. How many in the Southwest find in names like Corpus Christi, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, reminders of nameless Spanish missionaries? The coast of California reads like the calendar of the saints, a reminder of the missions around which the cities formed. Florida and Louisiana are unintelligible without the memory of the priests who labored there. It was the Yankee Francis Parkman who first wrote a large part of this history, the northern part. Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America, Lasalle and the Discovery of the Great West—in these magnificent volumes, despite his prejudices, Parkman tells the story of men who without their faith would have been only heroes. He was a bit of a hero himself. My university, Laval, thought of offering him an honorary degree but his anticlericalism was too much to overcome. Perhaps it is his prejudice that makes Parkman an even more convincing chronicler.

Parkman was a contemporary of Father Sorin, but when he refers to the place on the St. Joseph river which is the “site of the present village of South Bend,” he makes no mention of the “university” just north of that village, slightly more modest than the Harvard to whose board of overseers Parkman was elected in 1868. But the real difference is that places like Notre Dame were founded by saintly priests. Places all over this country. It is a difference we would do well to remember.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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