X: Religion

University of Notre Dame

Altar, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, University of Notre Dame.
      The University of Notre Dame, which dates its beginnings from the arrival in November 1842 of the French missionary priest Edward F. Sorin and a handful of religious brothers, was fortunate in the timing and location of its founding. The Indiana-Michigan border region stood on the threshold of rapid development, and the infant institution four miles south of the state line grew along with the area, profiting especially from early rail connections with Chicago and its burgeoning Catholic population. Its history can divided into three epochs of roughly a half-century each.
Father Sorin dominated the first, serving as president of the university until 1865 and guiding his successors until his death in 1893. A man of expansive vision, he took advantage of its early presence in a developing area to make Notre Dame the base from which the priests, brothers, and sisters of his religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, extended their apostolic works throughout the country. The college, always the centerpiece of the project, gradually assumed greater independence and stature. Like all nineteenth-century Catholic colleges, it was a combined secondary-collegiate institution. College level work improved in scope and quality after the Civil War, but Notre Dame was still bottom heavy with prep students in 1900, when its overall enrollment of 700 made it one of the nation’s largest Catholic colleges. Between Sorin’s death and World War II, Notre Dame moved decisively toward true university status. At the same time, its fame in football gave it unprecedented national visibility and nurtured a fanatical following among its real and “subway” alumni. Academically, prep-level students were eliminated, curricular offerings expanded, scholastic standards upgraded, organizational procedures modernized, and foundation support successfully pursued. Prospective faculty members among the Holy Cross community were sent off for doctoral training, and many lay faculty were hired, including an important sprinkling of European refugee professors. By 1940, enrollment neared 3,300 and graduate work was well established at the master’s level, along with a few solid doctoral programs in the natural sciences.
Thanks to these developments and to its experience in war-related research projects, Notre Dame was poised to participate fully in the post-World War II boom in higher education.   Three Holy Cross priests provided able leadership. Systematic fund-raising and academic expansion began in the presidency of John J. Cavanaugh (1946-52), but the real breakthrough came under Theodore M. Hesburgh, in whose thirty-five year term (1952-87) dozens of new buildings were erected, academic quality was improved, women were admitted to the formerly all-male institution, and juridical control was transferred from the Congregation of Holy Cross to an autonomous lay board of trustees. Under Edward A. Malloy (1987– ), who aspires to make Notre Dame a leader among the nation’s research universities, the annual operating budget now exceeds $600 million; doctoral degrees are offered in twenty-three fields, and over 11,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students populate the 1,250 acre campus.
Father Sorin might find the statistics overwhelming, but the reality accords with the vision he projected 160 years ago.
Philip Gleason
University of Notre Dame
Robert E. Burns, Being Catholic, Being American, 2 vols. (1999-2000); Arthur J. Hope, Notre Dame: One Hundred Years, rev. ed. (1978); Marvin R. O'Connell, Edward Sorin (2001); Thomas J. Schlereth, The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of its History and Campus (1976).