Brief History of Notre Dame
Deep in the heart of the American Midwest lies a school dedicated to the Mother of God.
The men who founded the University first called the school L’Universitie de Notre Dame du Lac. On November 26, 1842, they came to a ten-acre clearing in the Potawatomi wilderness. It was the coldest winter on record and they had only three hundred and ten dollars in cash, several horses and an ox. On the site were two frozen lakes, a mantle of snow and a twenty four by forty foot log cabins built by an early missionary named Rev. Badin. Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C. and his seven companions looked around them, consecrated the site and declared it a University.
Rev. Sorin wrote his superior in France, “We made haste to inspect all the various sites on the banks of the lake which had been so highly praised. Yes, like little children, in spite of the cold we went from one extremity to the other.” (Thus starting a tradition of running around the lakes, which many ND students enjoy doing).
Despite financial hardships and a cholera outbreak in 1854, Notre Dame grew and flourished. A sister school, St. Mary’s Academy (now College), took root nearby under the guidance of Holy Cross sisters. Rev. Patrick Dillon took over as Notre Dame’s president and constructed a new Main Building to hold classrooms, a library, a dining hall and dormitories for both students and faculty. The left wing of the building, then Carroll Hall, was home to the prep school students; the right, then Brownson Hall, housed students of collegiate age. The youngest students (“minims”) lived in St. Edward’s Hall. During the Civil War, Holy Cross priests and sisters frequently served as chaplains and nurses, respectively. Among the chaplains was Rev. William Corby, C.S.C. who won the love of Irish-Americans as chaplain of the Irish Brigade. From 1866 - 1881, there were four University presidents: Rev. Corby, who served twice, Rev. August Lemonnier, C.S.C. (Rev. Sorin’s nephew) and Rev. Patrick Colovin,C.S.C.
In April 1879, wood shavings that construction workers had left behind on the Main Building’s roof ignited in the sunlight and the university burnt to the ground. Rev. Corby was serving his second term as the president at that time. Hearing the news, Rev. Sorin broke short a visit to Montreal, returned to Notre Dame and gathered everyone together into the church, which was one of the few buildings left standing. “Tomorrow we will begin again and build it bigger,” he said. “And when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top, with a golden statue of the Mother of God, so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.” Helped by the students who stayed over the summer, Rev. Corby rebuilt the school by the beginning of the fall term.
In the next decades, under the administrations of Rev. Thomas E. Walsh, C.S.C., Rev. Andrew Morrissey C.S.C., Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., and Rev. James A. Burnsand, C.S.C., the watchful eye of Mary’s statue on the dome (a gift from St. Mary’s College) the University of Notre Dame became a school of national prominence. Academics became more solid; the prep school was closed, the school was organized into four colleges and faculty qualifications were stiffened. Rev. Julius Neiuwland invented synthetic rubber and Rev. Albert Zahm, C.S.C. conducted aeronautic research that helped lead to the first airplane. In 1883, Notre Dame gave its first Laetare medal to John Gilmay Shea in honor of an outstanding American Catholic.