Reflections from the Dome

Sorin

 

This first excerpt about Father Sorin is from Francis Wallace's Notre Dame: Its People and Its Legends...

EDWARD FREDERICK SORIN was born on February 6, 1814, in the French village of La Roche, which at that time was composed of three families. His father was a farmer.

Nobody can ever itemize accurately the complex influences-of nature and of grace; conscious and unconscious, apparent and hidden-which move any man to his way of living his life. But Sorin for reasons which he assuredly never found invalid entered the seminary at Le Mans, to study for the priesthood, when he was in his early teens.

While he was there a missionary bishop, Simon Brute, of Vincennes, Indiana, came-as missionary bishops still do come to seminaries-to tell the assembled young men what arduous apostolates were currently open. It seems impossible not to believe that Brute's visit profoundly influenced Sorin's later life.

He was ordained when he was twenty-four; for fifteen months he was curate in a small town. Then presumably discontented-it would be romantic but quite unfounded to say that he felt a nameless urge to establish Notre Dame rising in him-he went for counsel to the Abbe' Moreau.

Basil Anthony Moreau had been a professor at the seminary during part of Sorin's time there. In 1835 he had given up teaching and had organized a small group called Auxiliary Priests, whose particular mission it was to assist pastors of very poor parishes. At about the same time, at the request of their aging founder, Father Jaques-Frangois Dujarie', he took over direction of the Brothers of St. Joseph, a considerably larger group of religious teachers - established in 1820 and already flourishing.

It must be remembered that the French Revolution had not extended its coverage of liberty, equality, and fraternity to the Catholic Church. In the post-revolutionary period a startling yet understandable number of Catholic organizations were quickly established to repair, by teaching, preaching, and charity, the religious condition of France itself, and to assist in missions of French foundation. Of these numerous groups, one was the Brothers of St. Joseph, another the Auxiliary Priests. These two, merging under the superiorship of Moreau, eventually became the Congregation of Holy Cross.

When Sorin, presumably not content under the mild obligations of his life as small-town curate, came to see Moreau in Le Mans, Moreau in turn was there meeting, in that same summer of 1839, a messenger from Indiana. Celestine de la Hailandiere vicar-general and right-hand man to Bishop Brute of Vincennes, had come to France to try to arrange for a missionary expedition to America. What he particularly wanted was a group of teaching Brothers. During that summer Brute died; Celestine de la Hailandiere was named his successor and consecrated in France; and he and Moreau came to a somewhat cloudy agreement-the details of which seem later to have been more or less misunderstood on both sides-that within a year a party of Brothers, accompanied by a priest, would set out from Le Mans for the diocese of Vincennes.

On the surface it all shapes up; Notre Dame is in the making; a set of incidents, casual, apparently accidental meetings (but really causal connections): a plot working out, with determined personalities, pregnant circumstances, and coincidences in time setting up a progression of effects which could hardly have been foreseen but which, once its elements are all in position, takes  on design,even a kind of inevitability.

There was also suspense. What many people do not understand about missionary activity is that in addition to requiring rather especially dedicated, selfless men it also costs money. Moreau seems to have been a person incapable of exact calculation about the number of francs necessary to support life, either his own or that of others. (For this reason-quite apart from what appears to have been his general sweetness of characters great many people, having similar difficulty with dollars, may feel a strong personal affiliation with him.) While De la Hailandiere from this country kept clamoring for the promised contingent, Moreau in France kept stalling. The two of them had apparently never finally decided either who was to foot the bill or how it was to be split. Moreau had an active, growing community-in 1840 there were fifteen Auxiliary Priests, eighty Brothers, forty-five novices, thirty-nine establishments, with a fortieth just starting in Algeria-but he didn't have any francs to spare for financing an expedition to America. Yet curiously, almost unreasonably, the American project stayed alive. And its initial financing came about by fluke: a zealous woman in Le Mans donated a gold chain; it was raffled off; some quite unexpected money came in.

Of course Sorin was the man chosen by Moreau to lead the expedition to America.

He had taken his vows as an Auxiliary in 1840. The chances are that the delays irritated him tremendously, and that he offered them up with pious snorts of suppressed impatience.

On August 8, 1841, he sailed from Le Havre with six Brothers on the "Iowa," bound to New York.

There was trouble at the gangplank. Moreau had given Sorin three thousand francs to cover expenses for the whole group from Le Mans to Vincennes, Indiana. Somebody had figured wrong. It turned out that ordinary passage for seven to New York would cost thirty-five hundred francs; how much it would later cost to get from New York to Vincennes-that incredible spread of American miles-presumably nobody at the pier dared think. So Sorin made a quick deal, on his own. He had the temperament for instant decision. He also had a talent for independent action. He was a man who liked to get things done. Without bothering his religious superior for more
money he simply arranged for cut-rate steerage accommodations for himself and the six Brothers. They traveled in
"a large hall below deck sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, lighted only at one end by a trap door five feet square," in which space were crowded "over fifty persons, all varieties, scattered pell-mell, without any distinction, sometimes quarreling, sometimes exuberantly merry."

This initial difficulty over money and its immediate resolution establish a strain; they set a pattern; they prefigure much of Sorin's later life. There was hardly ever a time thereafter when he didn't have to stew about money. And there was hardly ever a time when he didn't meet emergency, financial or otherwise, by some impulsive decision which often involved difficulty for himself and for others, but which somehow always turned out surprisingly well.

A schoolmate of Sorin's, recalling in later life certain boyhood realities, is recorded as having said: "Of . . . us, Edward Sorin was always first. And he knew how to profit by it to boss the others. He was born for that."

It strilkes me as illuminating that, to this very day, almost everybody at Notre Dame seems to think of Sorin as a great, burly, tall, muscular man, of incredible vigor and enormous physical strength. This is probably an unwarranted identification of quality and quantity. For if for if third-hand testimony is acceptable-I got it from a man
who got it from a man who knew Sorin well-the founder of Notre Dame was about five feet eight, wiry rather than huge, equipped with dynamism rather than with sinew.

A man here on the campus who has done considerable research into local backgrounds made the precise charac- terization the other day when I happened to be talking to him. "Sorin always had his own ideas," this man said. "And by God, he saw to it that everybody around him had his ideas too!"

Next is a vignette from Richard Sullivan's wonderful book Notre Dame, story of a great university...

Edward Frederick Sorin, approaching his eightieth birthday, died of Bright's disease in the middle of the morning of Tuesday, October 31, 1893-

He had been noticeably ailing for about a year.

He had left instructions that there was to be no fuss about his funeral. "No strangers of any sort are to be disturbed by any telegraphic announcement, no invitations whatsoever to attend; none present but my dear children of the Holy Cross around my bed; no delay to wait for friends at a distance." The words indicate his own awareness of his importance; they also seem to be perfectly sincere expression of his own wishes; they were, however, as he no doubt expected they would be, completely ignored after his demise.

A bishop sang his funeral Mass; and an archbishop preached the sermon; the whole country was represented at the ceremonies in the mourning-draped church where, some years earlier, in almost exactly the spot where the casket lay, he had stood after the Fire to talk to his drooping followers.

The bell he had installed in the church he had built tolled deep enough-as I have heard it toll since for other
men-to shake the very inwards and to awe the very cars of those attending. He was buried in the Community cemetery, over to the west, between the lakes.
He was a highly considerable man, this Edward Frederick Sorin, priest, Superior-General of the Congregation of
Holy Cross.

I've heard so many things said and read so many things written about him that it's like going out on a limb to add
to the comment.

Yet I must confess that I do not think he was the bravest pioneer ever known to American education; nor am I convinced that the snows that fell in 1842,when he came here, were necessarily the coldest snows to fall, here or anywhere, ever; nor am I sure that he was in all ways a great, admirable, heroic figure. I share, I'm afraid, at least partially, the skepticism induced in thousands of Notre Dame graduates by repeated exposures to the glories of the founder. So much rhetoric has been spent on him that the wind turns on itself and is self-muffling. When I read that "in all our country, nor in any single country" there is no place "where one single man has transformed a savage wilderness into such a place of splendor and culture as this University of Notre Dame" I get, frankly, the least bit groggy. How are you going to check on a statement of that kind? I don't want to be finicky; but how are you going to be sure? I'm afraid that, with others, I feel that Sorin has been the victim of some unconstrained eloquence, here and there, along the way.

I suppose, trying to sum him up, as I feel I ought to do at this point, I can only sum up my own feeling for him. What he was, in himself and to himself, I simply do not know. "The heart of another is a dark forest." But as a writer, engaged on a work dealing with a place which Sorin unquestionably started and dominated, so that under him it was brought up, like Pip, by hand, I must declare that I have been captivated by the character of this powerful French-American priest. He seems to me a terrific man. Only once before, in my own experience, has a character so come up and taken over while I wrote about him. there have been places in this book where I have tried deliberately to keep Sorin down; but he would not be kept down; there have been spots when I've started out against him, but have been won over by the sheer human force and verve of the man. To the best of my knowledge I've concealed nothing nor said anything untrue of him, either for or against. Yet I have a feeling that there's more to be written, both against and for: he is not a character to treat with a light rendering, once over.

He fascinates me. I am sorry to have reached a point where he can no longer lunge as he likes into the story I'm telling. True, by influence he dominated Notre Dame for a dozen years after his death, and he is not forgotten yet; but influence and memory are not like the personal, living, bludgeoning presence of the man.

I think he would have liked the steam fitter immensely; [Editor's note: see this months edition of Campus Life for the story of the steam fitter.] in the talk of green grass and dandelions he would have found pious implications and deep meanings; but I think he would nevertheless have been irritated with me for unbecoming conversation, and even more irritated at the student who, breathing hard at the stairs, showed up late for a scheduled conference with a member of the august faculty.

He strikes me as a tremendous human being. Fallible. Terribly strong yet capable of weakness. Opinionated. Never evasive. A man able to turn on at will a beautiful charm. Also pigheaded. Honest but sly. Never prissy. Thoroughly masculine. Deep enough for some soul-stirring, some heavy wrestling in the interior. A man of muscle, bone, gut, heart, and mind, with a certain percent- age of salt in his system, and a soul given over freely and irrevocably to the highest endeavor open to creatures.

The vocabulary of the steam fitter would be necessary to express my personal affection and regard and reverent intolerance for him.
                                       Eternal rest grant him, 0 Lord.
                                            And let perpetual light shine upon him.

 

And finally an excerpt from a book edited by James O'Rourke, Reflections In The Dome, a chapter entitled "How the Landscape Has Changed" by Robert Leader.

I have been a dome-watcher for some 67 semesters. It has become part of my psychological landscape as the ocean or a mountain or a great river will be to those who reside nearby. For me it had been a matter of give and take: Sometimes I watch the dome and, at other times, it seems to be watching me. But when I think seriously about the great gilded cupola and the golden Lady, I know it is up there, at work, in sun and rain and in fog and snow because of the bullheadedness of a cantankerous Frenchman.

In 1879, after the incredible feat of raising a new Main Building in three months, community interest cooled toward building the dome and erecting the sculpture of Mary. Art (and showy symbols) must wait until practicality was served. God knows there were many pressing needs at the time and cooler heads than Sorin's regarded the building of the dome as foolishness. The archives record that it took the old priest three years of constant haggling, along with a few temper tantrums, to get his dome and his beloved statue up there above the whole campus.

We should remember what appeared at the time to be a matter of fiscal irresponsibility was to be, in the long run, the best investment in public relations (corporate identity, if you will) that the community ever made.

In a community of intellectuals, where knowledge is specialized and often profound, there is always a chance that information will be mistaken for wisdom. Father Sorin reminds us that we must guard against always doing the intelligent thing- the sensible thing. The artist in Academia, often isolated and suspect, serves as a balance spring. His creative activities are not always completely rational, sometimes they are intuitive, often unpredictable, occasionally incomprehensible. At close range, his vision and determination often appear to be blindness and stubbornness. Fr. Sorin had the vision and reflexes of an artist. He has always been my favorite. He is still here. He lives on in each of us who is willing to put up a fight, no matter what the odds, for this very special place dedicated to The Mother of His Son.

I try to remember the image of a heartbroken, but not defeated priest poking through the smoldering ashes of his college and promising to build again and again if necessary.

We are Sorin's children. I have labored not only for yesterday and today but I have planned for tomorrow. I have a daughter and three sons who are Gold Domers.


Back to Irish Reveries