Above Photo: Bezaleel W. Armstrong, circa 1846. 2nd Lt., 1st and 2nd Dragoons. Served in the Mexican War at Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Right: Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Photo from Hayden Survey, William H. Jackson, 1870. Courtesy National Archives.
November 26, 1842 - The University of Notre Dame is founded by Father Edward Sorin of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. The University would be granted a charter by the state of Indiana two years later.
There was snow on the ground of the five hundred and twenty-four acres that the Bishop of Vincennes had granted Father Edward Sorin and seven other members of the newly begun Congregation of the Holy Cross when the University began. It was November 26, 1842 in those mission fields when the French Reverend named it L'Université de Notre Dame du Lac or University of Our Lady of the Lake. Those roots remain strong in a university based on Catholic faith and traditions. It was officially chartered by the Indiana legislature on January 15, 1844.
But there are a few more questions that are pertinent to its establishment. First, who was Father Edward Sorin? French born in Laval in 1814, Sorin was middle class in a family opposed to the French Revolution. He entered seminary Precigné, then Le Mans. On August 15, 1840, he and several other priests formed the Congregation of the Holy Cross, with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. With the need for more priests in Vincennes, Indiana at a new parish, Sorin and six brothers left Le Mans in August 1841, arriving in Vincennes on October 10, 1841. He soon accepted the lead at a parish in Montgomery, worshiping to thirty-five Catholic families in the area.
How did Father Sorin start the University of Notre Dame? Well, first he wanted to start one in Montgomery, but the bishop refused as there was already a college there, St. Gabriels. He offered land outside South Bend, which had been donated to the church. So, Father Sorin and seven brothers packed up and traveled the two hundred fifty miles to their new location, arriving on November 26, 1842.
"Everything was frozen, and yet it all appeared so beautiful. The lake, particularly, with its mantle of snow, resplendent in its whiteness, was to us a symbol of the stainless purity of Our August Lady, whose name it bears; and also of the purity of soul which should characterize the new inhabitants of these beautiful shores. Our lodgings appeared to us-as indeed they are-but little different from those at St. Peter's. 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, perfectly enchanted with the marvelous beauties of our new abode. Oh! may this new Eden be ever the home of innocence and virtue!," Father Sorin, November 1842.
What was there when they arrived and how did the University grow? A log cabin, a two story clapboard building, a shed, and two lakes. They've managed to turn that into a celebrated university known for its education and sports. However, it was not easy. Sorin solicited help and funds from the residents of South Bend, and managed to build a second cabin to house those coming from St. Peter's in 1843. It was completed by March. The Bishop had given him a two year deadline to start the college proper. His first architect failed to show, but the brothers managed to construct the first college building, a two story structure called Old College to house classrooms, a dormitory, and bakery.
By fall, the first residents and students were orphans below college age, but when the first architect finally arrived, he had the first main building of the University of Notre Dame completed by 1844. Father Sorin was its first president, an administrator more than an educator. He ran the school for primary, secondary, and college aged students like a French boarding school. Sorin remained as president until 1865.
A Lesson in Notre Dame Philosophy
By the 1920's, Indiana had become a less tolerant location for those of the Catholic and Jewish faiths, plus those of Irish heritage. The new immigrants had developed a rising nationalistic view and did not view those other than Protestant as being one hundred percent American. The Klan had moved into Indiana, although not yet to South Bend. However, they wanted that to change.
Under Knute Rockne, they decided that one way to thwart the Klan was to play football at a high level and bring pride to the community as a whole. The Klan favored boycotting businesses and hating everything that their thought purity did not agree with. So their publication, the Fiery Cross, was always at odds with the student newspaper, the Notre Dame Daily.
In 1923, the Notre Dame team was almost unstoppable, losing only one game, to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and enduring a spate of hostile language toward them from the fans. Neither the football team nor the Nebraska University agreed; issuing public apologies for their fans' words. However, the Klan remained unpleased that they could not infiltrate South Bend as they had other Indiana communities. On May 17, 1924, they decided to hold a rally there. Five hundred students and residents opposed it and prevented the rally from occurring. But this only fueled the desire of the Klan to portray the Catholic students as the real troublemakers. Two days laters, the Klan baited the students into a clash with Klan members, again stating that the Catholic students were the problem.
By the time football season began in the fall of 1924, the Klan had successfully portrayed the Catholic students and residents in a bad light, stating that they were preventing peaceful assembly by Protestant Klansmen. Father O'Hara considered the football team as the avenue to regain their prestige and good name. Success was immediate for the 1924 team, but at an upcoming game against Army, the Klan decided to bring two hundred thousand into South Bend while the team would be in New York City to face Army. The Klan, for some unknown reason, and probably only propaganda anyway, cancelled the rally, and Notre Dame beat Army handily. This was the game where the idea of the Notre Dame players as the Four Horsemen arose and gave the university popular publicity.
The Klan continued to claim that they held parades and rallies in South Bend, but no violence occurred, and many thought it was a publicity ruse. Meanwhile, the 1924 Notre Dame football team continued into 1925 and gained an undefeated season in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Slowly the Klan in South Bend and around Indiana began to get pushback. Notre Dame and Knute Rockne were being spoken about in positive terms.
Cities began to enforce no-mask ordinances; black residents came out in record numbers to vote against Klan backed candidates. The Indianapolis Times won a Pulitzer Prize for identifying notable citizens who were members of the Klan.
Image above: Montage (background) Notre Dame University Main Building with the famous Golden Dome, 2016, Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Library of Congress; (inset) Father Edward Sorin, CSC, first president and founder of Notre Dame, prior to 1890, unknown author. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Below: Four horsemen of the Notre Dame football backfield, 1924, no known author. Courtesy Library of Congress. Information Source: notredame.edu; "Integrity on the Gridiron," 2019, Jill Weiss Simins; Wikipedia Commons.