On a beautiful November 13, 1875, the steamship L’Amerique left New York and set sail for Le Havre, France. Aboard were Rev. Edward Sorin, making one of his many journeys between America and Europe, and Catholic artist Miss Eliza Allen Starr. They were supposed to arrive on November 23, but their plans took a great detour.
Around 3:30am on Sunday, November 21, 1875, the shaft of the L’Amerique broke and left her stranded near the Scilly Islands in the Celtic Sea. The nearby Royal Mail Steamship China was able to take on a few of L’Amerique’s passengers and cargo, but many stayed behind. November 23rd newspaper reports claimed that “L’Amerique was proceeding under sail for Havre, all well” [The Patterson Weekly Press, November 25, 1875]. Scholastic reported similar news, not knowing yet that L’Amerique and many of her passengers were still stranded, although not sinking.
Father Sorin and Miss Starr were among the passengers left behind on the disabled steamer. They hoped a rescue ship would come by that Friday. The week’s weather was beautiful and calm: “On Friday evening the ship seemed actually to stand on a sea of glass, so profound was the calm. The sounds on board were as peaceful and domestic as those of a country-house. In fact the stillness was so deep as to be solemn, and almost oppressive; for no ship had come, as we had so confidently expected” [Starr, “Pilgrims and Shrines”]. Then the weather turned and the sea became rough.
A German rescue boat finally found L’Amerique on Tuesday, November 29th. However, “the roughness of the sea and the darkness preclude all thoughts of a transfer. She could only take our dispatches to Southampton, and go on her way” [Starr]. While the weather once again cleared, no ships arrived to the rescue. Fortunately, there were enough provisions on board to sustain the crew and passengers the extra week at sea. However, thoughts of not being rescued lingered in the minds of Starr and Sorin. They were comforted by prayer and both vowed to keep the devotion of a Thousand Hail Marys.
On Sunday December 5th, L’Amerique was approached by a group of fishermen from Newfoundland. Unfortunately, their boats were not capable of rescuing the steamer. L’Amerique had no means of communication and they could only hope that a passing steamer would find them before it was too late. Back home, the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students worried greatly: “The non-arrival of the ‘Amerique’ causes great anxiety—
Telegraphic reports from Paris and London describe the ‘Amerique’ as going slowly but surely to the destined port. But though these reports allay any extreme fears for the safety of our Venerated Very Rev. Father Sorin, and the other dear friends on board—still, the suspense and anxiety will be very painful till certain tidings of the safety of her passengers reach us” [Scholastic, 12/11/1875].
The Ville de Brest had gone in search of the incapacitated L’Amerique on November 24 and finally spotted her on December 5th and approached closer at midnight. The weather and rough seas prevented a rescue for another week. On December 12th, the crew of the Ville de Brest transferred the ninety passengers from L’Amerique and towed the disabled steamer back to Ireland.
Father Sorin wrote to Scholastic about the ordeal and said that during the transfer to the Ville de Brest Miss Starr “went down bravely enough half the length of the rope ladder along the side of the big boat, but when she reached the lower boat I could see she was still alive by the sign of the cross she was making and repeating. Ah! she is a Christian woman” [Scholastic, 01/08/1876].
After the Ville de Brest rescued L’Amerique, the continued storms prevented a swift return to port. They wouldn’t arrive safely at Queenstown harbor until December 18, 1875, nearly three and a half weeks after their original anticipated arrival date in Le Havre. Ville de Brest then took the passengers to Le Havre through more storms. From there, the travelers took the train to Paris, arriving on Christmas Day. They went to Mass at Notre Dame des Victoires, where prayers and Masses had been said for weeks earlier for their safe rescue.
In January of 1876, Fr. Sorin commissioned artist Luigi Gregori to paint a mural in the newly built Church of the Sacred Heart (now the Basilica) in thanksgiving of his rescue. The mural depicted Christ walking on water with Saint Peter sinking below the waves while the other apostles remain in the boat. Unfortunately, the murals on the southern wall on either side of the organ were painted over sometime between 1951 and 1977.
“A Memorable Voyage” by Miss Eliza Allen Starr from “Pilgrims and Shrines,” as reprinted in Scholastic issues 01/31/1885 and 02/07/1885
“Accident to the Amerique,” The Patterson Weekly Press, 11/25/1875