Such was Fr. Sorin’s desire to establish a Catholic college for the Catholics of the Northwest territory. In the winter of 1842, Fr. Sorin and his brothers first set their feet upon the ground that would become the University of Notre Dame du Lac (Our Lady of the Lake). In building Notre Dame they faced many hardships, among them harsh winters and a series of fires that burned their work to the ground. Always lacking the funds to continue building, Fr. Sorin and his companions had to be resourceful. In exchange for educating their children, the Catholic residents of the area joined together to aid in the construction, using the trees surrounding the 160-acre property for lumber and the lime-rich mud of the lakes and the Saint Joseph River to make bricks.
Among the first to reside and receive an education at Notre Dame were the orphans of the area. Yes, prior to being the university it is today, Notre Dame had its start as an orphanage! There had been orphanages in the area prior to the one at Notre Dame run primarily by the Sisters of Charity. These orphanages, however, would house children only until the age of 12 or 13. The orphanage at Notre Dame was established by the Brothers of Saint Joseph to house and educate those children beyond the ages of 12 and 13. Notre Dame was known primarily as a vocational school during its beginnings. Many of the people in the area were destined to be manual laborers rather than intellectuals. The Manual Labor School of the Brothers of Saint Joseph was founded to fill the need for a place where vocational training and apprenticeship might take place. From these humble beginnings, Fr. Sorin would see to it that Notre Dame became “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.”
“Yes, we are happy. We have the Lord with us. Only tonight we hung our sanctuary lamp where none had hung before....They tell us we won’t be able to afford to keep it burning. But we have a little olive oil and it will burn while it lasts.... We can see it through the woods and it lights the humble home where our Master dwells. We tell each other that we are not alone, that Jesus Christ lives among us. It gives us courage.”
The light that hung in the sanctuary of a small log chapel at Notre Dame du Lac illuminated the hearts and minds of Fr. Sorin and his companions, inspiring their work and sustaining them in times of hardship. This light allowed Fr. Sorin to see Notre Dame’s potential: “This college will be one of the most powerful means of doing good in the country.” His certainty came from his Catholic faith. This faith is the foundation of the University of Notre Dame, as one of the first acts of Fr. Sorin and his companions when they first set up camp at Notre Dame du Lac was to dedicate the educational institution they would soon begin to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “With my Brothers and myself I presented to the Blessed Virgin all those generous souls whom Heaven should be pleased to call around me, or should come after me. From that moment I remember not a single instance of a serious doubt in my mind as to the final result of our exertions.”
From the beginning, Fr. Sorin recognized that others would come after him to this university “founded on Catholic principles.” He saw that the continuation of the Catholic tradition of intellectual and moral education depends on the efforts of good teachers. In 1860, Fr. Sorin made an appeal for such teachers: “How much the training of Catholic youth is suffering for want of good teachers is a well known fact. In spite of earnest efforts only partial success has been achieved in removing this crying evil. Although besieged daily with requests, it is impossible for us to satisfy even the smallest part of the urgent appeal.” Fr. Sorin feared that he would be unable to satisfy the need for good teachers.
In 1844, two years after founding Notre Dame, Fr. Sorin wrote: “When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a Golden Dome, men may look and find the answer.” Through the intercession of Our Lady, Heaven was pleased to call around Fr. Sorin good teachers who would carry on the Catholic tradition of education; others would follow. Notre Dame’s history is now full of such teachers. Many great Catholic intellectuals and teachers have filled the ranks of the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, people who have—in the words of one such faculty member, Frank O’Malley—helped the university continue in its mission to “redeem the time.” In the midst of a “deliriously secular culture,” Notre Dame remains a place true to its foundations, a place where it is not entirely unrealistic to dream of making the Truth visible to the world. The light that burned in that first sanctuary lamp in 1842 has been kept alive through the efforts of many great Catholic intellectuals and teachers at the University of Notre Dame. Looking to that golden dome, people may know why the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition has been kept alive at the University of Notre Dame. It is because Notre Dame, Our Lady, is our Mother.
Notre Dame: 100 Years by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.
Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac by Edward Sorin, C.S.C.
Brother Aidan’s Extracts by Aidan O’Reilly, C.S.C.
Fr. Edward Sorin, Brother Aidan’s Extracts, University of Notre Dame Archives
Hope, C.S.C., Aurther J. Notre Dame: One Hundred Years. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1943.
Sorin, C.S.C., Edward. Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.
Letter from Fr. Sorin to Fr. Moreau, 5 Dec. 1842.
Fr. Sorin’s Vocational Appeal, 1860
“The Main Building.” A brochure by the Office of Public Relations and Information. University of Notre Dame.
Garvey, Michael O. Labors from the Heart: ed. Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.