Stories in Light: The Nave – The Heart of the Church

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame contains one of the largest collections of late nineteenth-century French stained glass outside of France. Stories in Light by Cecilia Davis Cunningham and Nancy Cavadini describes the windows according to their location in the building, from the narthex at the entrance to the Lady Chapel behind the altar. More than 100,000 visitors tour the basilica each year to admire its architecture. Today, the Notre Dame Press brings the Basilica to you.

In celebration of the Advent season, the Press brings you a seven-part series to tell the unique story of the stained-glass windows – the improbable creation of a glassworks by cloistered Carmelite nuns in LeMans, France.

The nave is the main body of the church, set apart for worshippers. The stained glass windows in the nave are filled with forty saints. Each saint is presented twice—in a large image above and in a smaller narrative scene below. (Chapter 3)

Who are the saints in the nave? They are founders of new religious orders, educators, and missionaries, as were the Holy Cross founders of Notre Dame. They are also young saints, full of faith and courage and remarkable for their years. They are laborers who are defined by their charity and preaching. They are the noble and the wealthy who used their position and resources for others and to defend the faith. They are second-career saints whose lives reveal an ever-deepening Christian life. This household of saints is made up of all classes, ranks, ages, talents, and states. They lived from the earliest Christian times up to the era of Blessed Mary of the Angels, who died in the eighteenth century and was beatified just nine years before her window was made. All were defined by a life of prayer. (Chapter 3)

The forty saints in the nave were chosen with particular viewers in mind—the all-male student body, the brothers and sisters of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the all-female students of St. Mary’s College, and the local parishioners, as well as those who came to Notre Dame on pilgrimage. Many who worshipped at the basilica attended daily mass and were familiar with the saints and their role as intercessors, as well as the liturgical year.

Certain that the example of a virtuous and holy life could inspire the same in the students, Fr. Sorin constantly encouraged Notre Dame’s teachers to exemplify virtue and holiness by their lives. He expected every member of the student body to become a Catholic leader after they completed their education. He understood teachers to be surrogate parents who fulfilled a sacred obligation, “for the training of the child is,” he said, “the forming of the man, of the citizen, of the future saint.” (Chapter 3)