An Excerpt from “The University of Notre Dame: A History” by Thomas E. Blantz C.S.C.

Thomas Blantz’s monumental The University of Notre Dame: A History tells the story of the renowned Catholic university’s growth and development from a primitive grade school and high school founded in 1842 by the Congregation of Holy Cross in the wilds of northern Indiana to the acclaimed undergraduate and research institution it became by the early twenty-first century. Blantz captures the strong connections that exist between Notre Dame’s founding and early life and today’s university. Simultaneously detailed and documented yet lively and interesting, The University of Notre Dame: A History is the most complete and up-to-date history of the university available.

From Chapter 1: Background in France, 1789-1841

Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., an immigrant from France and, with seven companion Brothers, founder of the University of Notre Dame in 1842, confided to his religious colleagues years later: “I bless God that I was not baptized under a French saint’s name. What makes my English St. Edward’s Feast so pleasant to us all is the total absence of every vestige of nationality.”  His comment was sincere—and accurate. From the first day he stepped ashore, he wanted to be an American, not an émigré Frenchman, and he remained an American the rest of his life. He wrote in his Chronicles that, on arriving, “one of his first acts on this soil so much desired was to fall prostrate and embrace it as a sign of adoption.” He opened Notre Dame’s first end-of-year celebration of 1845—not a graduation since no one had yet qualified to graduate—with a formal reading of the Declaration of Independence. He became an American citizen in 1850 and was soon appointed local postmaster and superintendent of the roads, both government positions. One of the early buildings he constructed he named, not for a Catholic saint, but in honor of the first American president, Washington Hall. During the tragic Civil War of the 1860’s, he permitted seven priests and approximately eighty sisters to volunteer as chaplains and nurses, although their absences caused serious hardships at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, and other Holy Cross ministries. He was sufficiently respected in the American Church to be invited to the Provincial Council of Cincinnati in 1882 and the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, and Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul paid high tribute to him on the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination:

“I will be permitted, before I conclude, to note in Father Sorin’s life a characteristic that proves his high-mindedness and contributed in no small degree to his success. It is his sincere and thorough Americanism. From the moment he landed on our shores he ceased to be a foreigner. At once he was an American, heart and soul, as one to the manor born. The Republic of the United States never protected a more loyal and devoted citizen. He understood and appreciated our liberal institutions; there was in his heart no lingering fondness for old regimes, or worn-out legalisms…. Father Sorin, I thank you for your American patriotism, your love of American institutions.” 

Proudly and thoroughly American though he was, he had still been shaped and influenced in his early years by his native France. French politics, culture, and society had been turned upside down in the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and the French Church had been so devastated that for decades after it was challenged to find means to resurrect and revitalize long neglected or damaged local parish churches and long abandoned parochial schools. Two French priests of the early 19th century devoted their lives to the reopening of the closed schools and churches, and together they founded a new religious community with this in mind. Father Sorin and other young men joined that community and eventually sailed west as missionaries to the United States. Thus it is not inaccurate to say that without the French Revolution of the 1790’s, there would be no University of Notre Dame in the 1840’s. The history of Notre Dame then must begin with a study of the generation before Father Sorin and the founding Brothers, the generation of Father Jacques Dujarie and Father Basil Anthony Moreau who founded that religious congregation, and the French Revolution which caused those schools and churches to close. 

The causes of that Revolution were multiple, and the abuses giving rise to it had been festering for years. The poor had long been discontented. Unfavorable weather conditions had made for sluggish harvests, and widespread hunger and malnutrition had resulted. The urban poor often could not afford even necessary firewood. The government insisted that it could do little since it was already deeply in debt, chiefly as a result of its recent wars with England, including the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and the War of American Independence (1775-1783). Soldiers felt they were underpaid, and the emerging free market economy cut into the profits of local merchants. The philosophy of the Enlightenment awakened in many the desire for wider representative and popular government, and the King himself seemed isolated and remote from his subjects.


This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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