Being Catholic, Being American, Volume 1

The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934

Robert E. Burns

The Mary and Tim Gray Series for the Study of Catholic Higher Education

The University of Notre Dame, as the pre-eminent American Catholic University, often serves as a mirror of the travails and triumphs of the American Catholic community. Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842–1934 by Robert E. Burns is an archive-based account of the developmental years of the University of Notre Dame. During these years, university leaders strove to find the additional resources needed to transform their successful Catholic boarding school, then attended primarily by the sons of middle-class Irish- and German-Americans, into an ethnically diverse modern American Catholic university with traditions of both academic excellence and intercollegiate football greatness.

Being Catholic in America during these years was not for the faint of heart. Anti-Catholicism, driven by a revived nationally organized Ku Klux Klan, intensified throughout the country, especially in Indiana. Burns recounts the encounter between Klansmen and Notre Dame students in 1924 known as the “Battle of South Bend.” He examines the impact that clash had upon the performance of Knute Rockne’s legendary football team, led by the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. He penetrates the mythology surrounding Rockne’s football enterprise and describes the impact the glorious 1924 season had on American Catholic self-esteem at a time when Klan-inspired anti-Catholic bigotry was common.

Though corruption and scandal destroyed Klan political power in Indiana, anti-Catholicism remained strong. Dismayed by the anti-Catholic character of the presidential election of 1928, overwhelmed by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and shocked by the death of Rockne in 1931, Notre Dame was well aware that an important era of expansion and glory had ended. The leaders of the university firmly believed, however, that Notre Dame was a special place, and with God’s help and continuing support from loyal and generous alumni, the university’s future would be brighter and grander than its past.

Being Catholic, Being American is for historians, teachers, students, alumni, sports enthusiasts, and all those touched by the story of the University of Notre Dame.

Robert E. Burns came to the University of Notre Dame in 1957 without previous exposure to Catholic education or commitment to it. He remained at the University for 39 years, serving as a teacher, working historian, and administrator of the College of Arts and Letters.


“This is a wonderful biography of a pre-eminent American Catholic institution. Thoughtful, nuanced, and also candid, with a new and fresh historical insight on almost every page, this beautifully written volume will certainly become required reading for the American Catholic community, and most especially for the Irish American part of that community.” -Emmet Larkin, Professor of History, The University of Chicago

”. . . Burns details the obstacles frustrating Notre Dame’s search for academic excellence in its first 102 years of existence. [He] makes it quite clear that Notre Dame’s problems were shared by most Catholic institutions of higher learning, and mirrored those of the church and its members outside the groves of academia. His interesting, diligently researched, affectionate, yet objective book is a significant contribution to both American Catholic and educational history.” —Lawrence J. McCaffrey, Professor Emeritus of History, Loyola University of Chicago

“_Being Catholic, Being American_ provides a history of Notre Dame’s search for academic achievement from 1842–1934, and will interest not only those involved with the school, but those who want to build a general collection of Catholic history. From the institution’s establishment to its foundations in religion and its struggles with lay faculty and idealism, this provides an excellent survey of Notre Dame’s place in Catholic American history.” — The Midwest Book Review

“Burns, a teacher and administrator at Notre Dame for four decades, has written an entertaining, useful history of the university from its founding in 1842 through 1934. This book is an important contribution to the history of one of America’s most important Catholic universities, a story that often mirrors the history of American Catholics in the 19th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal

“Burns . . . has written an informative, entertaining, and useful history of the University of Notre Dame from its founding in 1842 through the end of Holy Cross Father Charles O’Donnell’s second term as University President in 1934. This book traces Notre Dame’s growing pains along its rise to becoming the pre-eminent American Catholic university that oftentimes reflect the problems of American Catholicism in general during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This book represents an important contribution not only to the history of one of America’s most important Catholic universities . . . but also of the historical context of American Catholicism in the 19th and 20th centuries when American Catholics began to make great strides in being accepted as mainstream in American life and culture. Highly recommended.” — Catholic Library World

“[Being Catholic, Being American] is an impressive first volume on a remarkable institution.” — The Heythrop Journal