An Interview with Thomas E. Blantz, C.S.C., author of “The University of Notre Dame: A History”

Rev. Thomas Blantz, C.S.C.
Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame Press is proud to publish Father Thomas Blantz’s monumental history The University of Notre Dame (August 2020), which chronicles 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 northern Indiana to the acclaimed undergraduate and research institution it became by the early twenty-first century. Blantz, who received both his undergraduate degree in philosophy and his M.A. in history from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, served as rector of Zahm Hall for three years, university archivist for nine years, chair of the Department of History for six, and vice president for Student Affairs from 1970 to 1972. He taught at Notre Dame for 46 years, received several teaching awards, and published two biographies. We thank Father Blantz for writing the most complete and up-to-date history of the university available and appreciate his taking the time to answer these questions about the book and his process as a writer and a historian.

When did you first get the idea to write ​The University of Notre Dame: A History​? Why did you feel compelled to write it?

​As I approached my eightieth birthday, I realized it was time to retire from teaching, after forty-six years, but I still wanted to remain intellectually alive, and decided to try to learn more about the history of Notre Dame.​ ​I had been University archivist for about ten years in the 1970’s, and had also offered an undergraduate research seminar on the history of Notre Dame, and so I was not unfamiliar with its history.

Certainly these are unprecedented times at the University of Notre Dame. What can current students, alumni, faculty, and staff find in your book that resonates with the campus during the Coronavirus pandemic? 

​The University has weathered various crises quite successfully in the past. There were three serious fires, especially the fire of 1879 which destroyed the Main Building with all its classrooms, dining rooms, dormitories, faculty residences, students’ clothes, the library, furniture, and so on. Another crisis was the cholera epidemic of 1854-1855 in which approximately one-fifth of the faculty and staff died.​ ​In the epidemic of 1918-1919, approximately two hundred students caught influenza, and nine died.

​How did you ​conduct the ​research this ​immense ​work? 

​I did most of the research in the Notre Dame archives and the archives of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers, but also some in the Holy Cross Sisters’ archives​ ​at Saint Mary’s and in the National Archives in Washington​, DC​.

What did you learn while writing it?

I had not realized how many Catholic colleges founded in the 19th century were eventually unable to survive;​ ​I was reminded how essential the dedicated work of the Holy Cross Brothers and Sisters was to Notre Dame’s early success;​ ​I learned how the profits from Knute Rockne’s football victories in the 1920’s helped construct impressive new buildings in the 1930’s, including Alumni and Dillon Halls, and the (south) dining hall;  and how important the contributions of Presidents Father Thomas Walsh (1881-1893) and Father John J. Cavanaugh (1946-1952) were to Notre Dame’s growth and development.

​In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

When I began, I actually did not know if the research would result in a book, a series of articles, or be just a hobby, and thus I had no long-range vision. But the book did turn out longer than I intended.

​Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

​The biggest early influences in my life as a historian were Father Thomas McAvoy here at Notre Dame and Professor William Leuchtenburg at Columbia University.​ ​Father McAvoy was the University archivist before me, he introduced me to American Cathiolic Church history, and he was my academic mentor.​ ​Professor Leuchtenburg was my major professor in graduate studies at Columbia, an outstanding research scholar, a brilliant lecturer, and he taught me much about writing also.

​Who would you like to read The University of Notre Dame​: A History and why? 

I think Notre Dame alumni/ae will be interested in learning more about their alma mater, the scholarly community will be interested in learning how this particular academic institution grew and developed, and the general public could be interested in learning about a university that is so often in the public media.

What book ​or project ​are you working on next?

​I have not thought that out fully.​ ​At  my age, I am not sure how feasible research in crowded libraries and archives will be, but I do have an idea or two.​ ​In the meantime, I am just trying to catch up on some long overdue reading.


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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