An Interview with James T. Connelly, C.S.C., author of “The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross”

James T. Connelly, C.S.C., Congregational archivist for the Congregation of Holy Cross, is the author of The University of Portland: A Century of Teaching, Faith, and Service and Basile Moreau and the Congregation of Holy Cross, and editor of many more books, including The Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac by Edward Sorin, C.S.C. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). He recently answered our interview questions about his newest book, The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross (December 2020).

Rev. James Connelly, C.S.C.
(Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of
Notre Dame)

As the long-serving archivist for the Indiana Province of Holy Cross, and an extensively published American Church historian, when did you first get the idea to write this book? Why did you feel compelled to take on this colossal project?

I was asked to research and write this book in 1982 by the then superior general of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Fr. Thomas Barrosse. He told me that it would only be a matter of synthesizing some books and articles already in print. I took him at his word, but when I began my research in various archives, I realized that it would not be that simple. Fr. Barrosse wanted me to include the Holy Cross sisters as well, since they had originally been part of the congregation, but I soon realized that that would be too big a project for me, so I wrote the sisters’ story only from 1841 to 1856 when they were separated from the priests and brothers and I included a chapter explaining how the sisters became separated into three autonomous congregations.

You have lived and served with Holy Cross communities in North America, Europe, and Africa. How did you research this book?

When I agreed to research and write this book, I made the mistake of not asking for a sabbatical of two or three years and a budget to cover travel and other expenses connected with the project. Consequently, I had to sandwich my work on the book into summers and other moments of free time from my other jobs. As the congregational archivist, I had occasion to visit the Holy Cross archives in France, Canada, and Chile and thus got a perspective on how the congregation had developed in those countries. I served for two and one-half years in Uganda and was able to consult the superior’s files there, such as they were, for information on Holy Cross in East Africa. I was never able to get to Ghana, Bangladesh, or India. I made the acquaintance of several people who were interested in the history of the congregation, had belonged for many years, and wanted to tell their story. I especially remember a Marianite sister in Le Mans who had been born in Australia and was imprisoned during World War II as a British citizen in a concentration camp in France by the Germans. Another sister told of hiding Jewish children behind mattresses in a store room in the convent when the Gestapo showed up. In Montreal, an ordination classmate undertook to drive me around the area to show me the various sites where Holy Cross had worked. Experiences such as these gave me a richer understanding of what the congregation had done over the years.

What can today’s readers learn from this first complete history of the Congregation of the Holy Cross?

One thing that readers can learn from my history of Holy Cross is that the main story has moved from Europe to North America and then again is moving from North America to Asia and Africa. This has been happening in the church at large. Change is inevitable and need not be resisted as alarming. The story of Holy Cross also offers an  in-depth look at how European religious communities were recruited to work in North America and ended up flourishing there in a different culture.

The Congregation of the Holy Cross continues to emphasize education in its mission. Has this focus changed over the centuries? What are some noteworthy episodes that demonstrate the successes of their educational ministry? 

I think that I have made it clear that education has continued to be part of the congregation’s focus over the years, especially in mission territories. In short order schools have been opened in each country where Holy Cross arrived to work: the U.S., Canada, Bangladesh, India, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Haiti, Ghana, and Uganda.  In the U.S., Holy Cross has been responsible for the founding, direction, or staffing of five institutions of higher learning in addition to twenty-six high schools. In Bangladesh the congregation has recently opened Notre Dame University Bangladesh which has now had four graduation classes. These schools were originally intended to offer education to the Catholic community, but because of a growing reputation for quality they attracted many non-Catholic students. This has been especially true in Bangladesh where the majority of students are from Muslim families.

The Congregation of the Holy Cross founded the University of Notre Dame. Did you discover any new data or research about the early days of the university?

Father Sorin attempted to take over St. Mary’s College in Marion County, Kentucky, which had been founded by the Jesuits who had left and moved to New York to found what became Fordham University. When Holy Cross arrived, the college had more students than did Notre Dame. Sorin’s relations with Bishop de la Hailandiere of Vincennes, Indiana, had become so strained at one point that he considered pulling Holy Cross out of Notre Dame and moving to Kentucky. Hailandiere resigned in 1847  and went back to France and Sorin put aside thoughts of moving away from Notre Dame. I am a native Kentuckian and I visited St. Mary’s College in the 1950s when it was still in operation as a seminary. Without Holy Cross involvement it existed for almost another century.

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

I set out to focus on the various ministries of the community but as I got deeper into the project I could not resist recounting some details of the stories of many of those individuals who figured prominently in my story, e.g. Dujarié, Sorin, Angela Gillespie, Mary of the Seven Dolors, Valentine Czyzewski, Gilbert Français, Patrick Peyton, to mention a few.  I think this has made the book more interesting and the story more humane.

Anyone who would like to learn more about the origins of the University of Notre Dame will be interested in The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Who else would you like to read the book? 

I would especially like the young people in formation as well as the priests and brothers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s to read it. I believe that it is important to know that the congregation’s history has not been without controversies and conflicts that divided the community at times. For the future, I believe that it is worth knowing that some seemingly risky ventures undertaken at the behest of church authorities, e.g. going to the U.S., Canada, Haiti, etc., have turned out to be blessings in the long run although there were struggles involved for many years. 

What projects are you thinking about next?

When my book is published in December, I will be 83 years old. While I may try an essay or two in the future, I think it might be presumptuous of me to start another book.


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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