The Laetare Medal

In the early 1880s, the Notre Dame faculty and administration were discussing a way to engage American Catholic lay men and women with the hierarchy of the Church.  University President Rev. Thomas Walsh, Rev. Edward Sorin, and Professor James Edwards decided that Notre Dame should bestow a medal of honor each year on an American lay Catholic member, preferably a college-educated “man of letters,” in similar fashion as the Vatican’s Golden Rose.  The Laetare Medal quickly became not only the highest honor Notre Dame bestows, but also the highest honor American Catholics can receive.

As the medal was initially presented on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, the medal was known as the Laetare Medal.  Notre Dame administrators or a delegate usually presented the medal to the recipient away from campus.  As time grew on, the presentations floated further away from Laetare Sunday to accommodate the recipient’s schedule, but the announcement is still made on Laetare Sunday.

Front side of the Laetare Medal given to Albert Zahm in 1925.  Astronaut James Wetherbee (Class of 1974) carried this medal with him on his first flight into space.
Front side of the Laetare Medal given to Albert Zahm in 1925. Astronaut James Wetherbee (Class of 1974) carried this medal with him on his first flight into space aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 1990.

John Gilmary Shea was the first recipient of the Laetare Medal in 1883.  Artist Eliza Allen Starr, dear friend of Rev. Edward Sorin, was the third recipient of the Laetare Medal and the first female recipient in 1885.  Edward Pruess accepted the 1887 medal under anonymity, not wanting public honors.  It wasn’t until after his death that his name was added to the honor roll.

In the early years, an illustrative announcement accompanied the medal.  This practice ended in 1908 on the Silver Jubilee of the Laetare Medal.  Each medal has a unique design, reflecting an important aspect of the recipient’s life.  For example, aviation pioneer Albert Zahm’s (Class of 1883) medal features an airplane and the Golden Dome (see above) while President John F. Kennedy’s medal features the Presidential Seal of the United States.

Laetare Medal certificate to James Charles Monaghan, 1908. Artwork by Howard Darnell of Philadelphia.
Laetare Medal certificate to James Charles Monaghan, 1908.
Artwork by Howard Darnell of Philadelphia.

For decades, Notre Dame administrators, usually accompanied by the local bishop or other Catholic hierarchy, would bring the medal to the recipient.  Usually the ceremony was simple, but other times it was a lavish affair.  In 1911, former Notre Dame professor Maurice Francis Egan, who was then service as the United States Ambassador to Denmark, was awarded the Laetare Medal.  Notre Dame invited dozens of dignitaries, including cabinet members, congressmen, high-ranking military officials, and foreign ambassadors to the presentation ceremony.

In 1918, Los Angeles Bishop John Cantwell spoke to a packed crowd in the Shrine Auditorium on the occasion of the Laetare Medal presentation to attorney Joseph Scott:

“This distinguished assemblage of citizens is unique among civic gatherings.  We come together this evening to witness an academic act of a university whose center is far from here, but whose range of activity is confined only by the continent. … When the University of Notre Dame confers the Laetare Medal this evening, it is the witness of a great university to the superb character of Mr. Joseph Scott.”

[“Joseph Scott Receives the Laetare Medal,” The Tidings, February 28, 1919; CJWC 14/22]

For the Golden Jubilee of the medal in 1933, the presentation was held at Notre Dame’s Commencement.  All living medalists were invited and among those who returned to campus to speak were Margaret Anglin, Al Smith, and Dr. James J. Walsh.

Rev.  Edmund Joyce, CSC, and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, presenting President John F. Kennedy with the Laetare Medal in the White House, 1961/1122.
Rev. Edmund Joyce, CSC, and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, presenting President John F. Kennedy with the Laetare Medal in the White House, 1961/1122.

In 1968, the Notre Dame search committee opened up the requirements of Laetare Medalists to include clergy, not just lay people.  The first religious Laetare Medalist was Rev. John O’Brien, a Notre Dame faculty member and popular author.  Notre Dame has also awarded the Laetare Medal jointly to married couples and groups.

By the 1970s, the presentation of the Laetare Medal became a regular part of Commencement Exercises, and the medal recipient is one of the principle speakers.  In 2006, Laetare Medalist jazz musician Dave Brubeck also graced the audience with a performance of “Travelin’ Blues” (see video below).  In 2009, Mary Ann Gleason declined the Laetare Medal in protest to Notre Dame’s decision to name President Barack Obama as Commencement speaker and award him an honorary degree.

Commencement - Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, presenting Helen Hayes with the Laetare Medal, 1979/0520.
Commencement – Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, presenting Helen Hayes with the Laetare Medal, 1979/0520.

For the centennial of the Laetare Medal in 1983, University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh admitted,

“there was serious discussion whether the University should continue to make the annual award.  After all, with twenty-one Catholic members of the United States Senate, we are hardly an immigrant minority; we have entered the mainstream.  But the consensus was that our nation will always need – and it will be salutary to recognize – the kind of men and women who have worn the Laetare Medal, persons of excellence and faith who exemplify best what it means to be both American and Catholic.  For this reason, I suspect that there will be a Laetare Medal as long as there is a Notre Dame”

[Laetare Medal Centennial: 1883-1983, PNDP 40-La-01].

Notre Dame: One Hundred Years
by Arthur J. Hope
CJWC 14/22
PNDP 40-La-01
GNEG 02D/24B
GPHR 45/4321
GPHR 35m/05764
Declining Notre Dame:  A Letter from Mary Ann Glendon,” Mary Ann Glendon,  April 27/2009 (
List of Laetare Medal Recipients


Edward Sorin & the Founding of Notre Dame

On February 6, 1814, Edouard-Frédéric Sorin was born and baptized in the small town of Ahuillé, France.  He was born the seventh of nine children into a relatively well-to-do Catholic farming family, a generation or so after the bloody French Revolution.  The Revolutionaries heavily persecuted the Catholic Church, sending thousands of priests to the guillotine or exile.  However, by the time Sorin’s birth, France had begun mending fences with the Church.  In this resurgence of peace, Sorin saw an opportunity for leadership to rebuild the Catholic Church in France through the priesthood, a calling he had since childhood.

Chateau de la Roche - Birthplace of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, in Ahuille, France, 1939/0715.
Chateau de la Roche – Birthplace of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, in Ahuille, France, 1939/0715.

In 1834, at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Le Mans, France, Sorin met the charismatic professor Rev. Basil Moreau, who was on the brink of founding the Congregation of Holy Cross.  Sorin was ordained on May 27, 1838, and assigned to be a parish priest in Parcé-sur-Sarthe.  A year later, Sorin jumped on the opportunity to join Moreau’s new ambitious order that focused on education and foreign missions, rejoining the novitiate in Le Mans.  On August 15, 1840, Sorin officially took vows in the name of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

At the appeal of the Célestine Guynemer de la Hailandière, Bishop of Vincennes, for clergy in a predominantly French Indiana,  Moreau offered to send six brothers led by a young priest – Edward Sorin.  As would echo throughout Sorin’s life, Sorin saw this assignment as a direct mission from God and he threw himself into the idea with unabashed zeal.  Before he even left French soil, Sorin declared his allegiance to America, which to him was a relatively blank canvas upon which he could help build the Catholic Church:

“How happy I am to be able to assure you that the road to America stands out clearly before me as the road to heaven. … Henceforth I live only for my dear brethren in America.  America is my fatherland.  It is the center of all my affections and the object of all my thoughts. … At the present time I see clearly that our Lord loves me in a very special manner as has been told me many times.” [Sorin to Hailandière, summer 1841, as quoted by O’Connell, page 52.]

The group left France on August 5, 1841, the Feast of Our Lady of the Snows, a coincidence not lost on Sorin a year later, and headed to New York.  Hailandière arranged for Samuel Byerley to meet the group in New York, who remained friend and benefactor to the Community throughout the years.  From there, they took an arduous journey primarily across a series of canals and rivers to Vincennes, with none of them knowing English.

Portrait of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, c1860s.
Portrait of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, c1860s.

Fr. Sorin and the Brothers were assigned to St. Peter’s parish near Washington, Indiana, tasked to build a novitiate for the Brothers of St. Joseph.  The hope was that novices would serve as teachers within the diocese.  A poor harvest, lack of monetary resources, and struggles between the strong personalities of Sorin and Hailandière led both of them looking for new opportunities.  As it happened, the Diocese of Vincennes had in its possession a tract of land in Northern Indiana, near the south bend of the St. Joseph River.

The land now occupied by the University of Notre Dame has a long tradition of being a place of Catholic missions.  French Jesuit Rev. Claude Allouez founded a mission along the lakes and christened it Sainte-Marie-des-Lacs.  Rev. Stephen T. Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States, came to the area at the request of Leopold Pokagon, leader of the Potawatomi, for Catholic priests to minister to his people.  He bought the parcels over time in 1830-1832.  As one who was often negotiating real estate deals, Badin sold the land and a few dilapidated buildings to the Diocese of Vincennes in 1835 for $751 with the condition that it be used for a school and orphanage.  Rev. Ferdinand Bach was given the task to build such institutions on the land in 1840.  His failure to do so and abandonment of the post timed perfectly with Sorin’s ambition to build a college in America.

Perhaps as a way to physically distance himself in Vincennes with Fr. Sorin, Hailandière offered the northern land to Sorin as a place for him to build his envisioned college, giving him only two years to do so.  Sorin was so determined to make it a reality that he made up his mind to leave Vincennes in the middle of a harsh Indiana November without first seeking permission from Fr. Moreau.

Fr. Sorin and seven of the Brothers – Mary (later changed to Br. Francis Xavier), Gatien, Patrick, William, Basil, Peter, and Francis – left Vincennes on November 16, 1842, and their 250 mile trek was not an easy one.  They only gained five miles on the first day in the cold, snow, and high winds.  Impatiently, Fr. Sorin and four of the Brothers went ahead of the other three, who were slower with all the gear loaded on a broken-down ox-drawn wagon.  Eleven days later, Sorin and the four Brothers arrived in South Bend.  Alexis Coquillard, nephew of the South Bend merchant of the same name, greeted the band and showed them to their new home that same afternoon.

Engraving of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, and the founding of Notre Dame in November 1842.  The artist is F.X. Ackermann, who was a faculty member from 1890-1937. Caption:  "Father Sorin's Arrival, Nov. 22, 1842."
Engraving envisioning Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, and the founding of Notre Dame in November 1842 [the exact date is left up to interpretation, but is generally acknowledged as November 26th].  The artist is Francis Xavier Ackermann, who was a faculty member from 1890-1937.
Finally writing to Moreau over a week after arriving at Notre Dame, Sorin basks in the majesty of the land:

“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 [Our Lady of the Snows], whose name it bears; and also of the purity of soul which should characterize the new inhabitants of these beautiful shores. …  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!  There, I could willingly exclaim with the prophet: Dominus regit me … super aquam refectionis educavit me! [“The Lord guides me … beside still waters”; Psalm 23]  Once again in our life we felt then that Providence had been good to us, and we blessed God with all our hearts.”

The great dreamer continued,

“While on this subject, you will permit me, dear Father, to express a feeling which leaves me no rest.  It is simply this: Notre Dame du Lac has been given to us by the Bishop only on condition that we build here a college.  As there is no other within five hundred miles, this undertaking cannot fail of success, provided it receive assistance from our good friends in France.  Soon it will be greatly developed, being evidently the most favorably located in the United States.  This college will be one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country, and, at the same time, will offer every year a most useful resource to the Brothers’ Novitiate; and once the Sisters come – whose presence is so much desired here they must be prepared, not merely for domestic work, but also for teaching; and perhaps, too, the establishment of an academy. … Finally, dear Father, you may well believe that this branch of your family is destined to grow and extend itself under the protection of Our Lady of the Lake and St. Joseph.  At least such is my firm conviction; time will tell whether I am deceived or not.”
[Sorin to Moreau, December 5, 1842]

The men quickly got to work clearing the land to build a new log chapel, which opened on March 19, 1843, the Feast of St. Joseph.  Sorin nearly exhausted his finances buying lumber and bricks with the hopes of building a grand main building.  Unfortunately, the hired architect showed up months too late for it to be open in 1843.  In the meantime, the Community built the sturdy brick Old College so that at least the Brothers wouldn’t have to spend another drafty winter in the log chapel.

In the summer of 1843, more support personnel came from Le Mans – “two priests, Fathers Francis Cointet and Theophile Marivault; a seminarian, Mr. Gouesse; one Brother, Eloi; and four Sisters, Mary of the Heart of Jesus, Mary of Bethlehem, Mary of Calvary, and Mary of Nazareth” [Wack].  Each had his own talents, which contributed greatly to the growth of Notre Dame.

Among the first students to arrive were Theodore Alexis Coquillard and Clements Reckers in 1842.  Others slowly trickled in and Notre Dame had 18 students enrolled by June 1844, although many didn’t stay long enough to earn a degree.  Ever ambitious, Sorin saw Notre Dame as a central beacon for the influx of Catholic immigrants in America.  Notre Dame would be the model for all levels of Catholic education – elementary, preparatory, collegiate, seminary, vocational.  He envisioned satellite campuses and most definitely institutions for girls and women.  Notre Dame applied for a charter with the State of Indiana to grant degrees with the authority of a college and formed an administration.  On January 15, 1844, Indiana chartered Notre Dame as a university, even though it would be some time before Notre Dame would have a strong collegiate student body and faculty.

Engraving of the first Main Building in 1844
Engraving of the first Main Building in 1844

Mr. Marsile, the main building architect, finally arrived in August 1843.  Sorin was running out of funds, but knew that if he delayed building, it might never happen.  He boldly decided to start the project right away.  Fortunately, the winter of ’43 wasn’t as harsh as the year before and “[b]efore the first snow fell, the walls were raised and the building was partially under roof.  The remainder of the work, particularly the inside plastering and preparation of the rooms, was left to be finished in the spring.  By June, 1844, the main college building was complete. This first main building did not include the two wings which had been planned; these were left to be added in later years” [Wack].  Notre Dame was well on the way to success, although not without the obstacles and growing pains that many American colleges faces at this time.


Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac by Rev. Edward Sorin
Edward Sorin
by Marvin O’Connell
The University of Notre Dame du Lac: Foundations, 1842-1857 by John Theodore Wack
The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History & Campus by Thomas Schlereth
Sorin to Moreau, December 5, 1842
GNDL 21/08
GCSC 04/30
GCSC 04/32

Sorin’s Golden Jubilee

In 1888, Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, celebrated his Golden Jubilee – fifty years since his ordination as a priest on May 27, 1838, in LeMans, France.  Shortly after his ordination, Sorin joined Rev. Basil Moreau’s fledgling Congregation of the Holy Cross, which sent Sorin as a missionary to America in 1841.  Father Sorin arrived at Notre Dame in November 1842 and for the next fifty-one years he grew the University and the Congregation into world-renowned institutions.

Appropriately enough for a man who dedicated his life to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the grand celebration was scheduled for August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption.  One problem with that, however, was that classes didn’t resume until September, so many of the Notre Dame students would not be on campus to participate in the festivities.

Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of the Very Rev. Edward Sorin, August 15, 1888. Seated:  Bishop Richard Gilmour (Cleveland), Archbishop William H. Elder (Cincinnati), Father Sorin, Cardinal James Gibbons (Baltimore), Archbishop John Ireland (St. Paul), Bishop Joseph Dwenger (Fort Wayne), Bishop John Watterson (Columbus), Bishop Richard Phelan (Pittsburgh) Standing:  Bishop James Ryan (Alton), Bishop John Janssen (Belleville), Bishop John Keane (Washington, D.C.), Bishop Maurice F. Burke (Cheyenne), Bishop John Lancaster Spalding (Peoria), Bishop Steven V. Ryan (Buffalo), Bishop Henry J. Richter (Grand Rapids). The group is seated between Sacred Heart Church Basilica and the Main Building. Photo by A. McDonald of McDonald Studio, South Bend, Indiana.  The 09/08/1888 issue of Scholastic, page 48, mentions that copies of this photograph are being sold "at the low price of $1.00 each."
Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of the Very Rev. Edward Sorin, August 15, 1888.
Seated: Bishop Richard Gilmour (Cleveland), Archbishop William H. Elder (Cincinnati), Father Sorin, Cardinal James Gibbons (Baltimore), Archbishop John Ireland (St. Paul), Bishop Joseph Dwenger (Fort Wayne), Bishop John Watterson (Columbus), Bishop Richard Phelan (Pittsburgh)
Standing: Bishop James Ryan (Alton), Bishop John Janssen (Belleville), Bishop John Keane (Washington, D.C.), Bishop Maurice F. Burke (Cheyenne), Bishop John Lancaster Spalding (Peoria), Bishop Steven V. Ryan (Buffalo), Bishop Henry J. Richter (Grand Rapids).
The group is seated between Sacred Heart Church Basilica and the Main Building.
Photo by A. McDonald of McDonald Studio, South Bend, Indiana. The 09/08/1888 issue of Scholastic, page 48, mentions that copies of this photograph were being sold “at the low price of $1.00 each.”

To accommodate the students’ schedule, Acting University President Rev. John Zahm scheduled another celebration on the actual anniversary of Sorin’s ordination.  This celebration was a private affair for the Notre Dame students to express their gratitude to their adored Founder and few visitors were invited.

On Saturday, May 26th, the eve of Sorin’s anniversary, every building on campus was decorated with flags, banners, flowers, and garland.  At 4:00 pm, there was a reception with the students, faculty, and administration in Exhibition Hall.  The afternoon’s entertainment included student speeches, poems, and recitals as well as performances by the Orchestra and South Bend St. James Vocal Quartet.

Card from Rev. Edward Sorin's Golden Jubilee, 1888/0815
Card from Rev. Edward Sorin’s Golden Jubilee, 1888/0815

After dinner, Sorin, Zahm, and faculty members retired to the Main Building porch, where below the Band played and the student military units gave their gun salutes.  Then a barouche drawn by two black horses came up Notre Dame Avenue by surprise.  Professor John Ewing presented the carriage and steeds to Sorin as a gift from the students, faculty, and alumni.

As night fell, “there was a grand illumination of the college buildings and grounds. … Chinese lanterns of every hue and size swung from tree and arch and fountain in the beautiful parterre before the college, while flags and festooning and colors gay made the solemn towering walls of the main building put on a look of gladsomeness.  And out of every window of the massive pile… there beamed the noon-day brilliancy of the Edison light.”  The Band, gun salutes, and student cheers continued underneath a fireworks display.  “The wonted sylvan stillness of Notre Dame was kept in exile far into the night” [Scholastic, 06/02/1888, page 595]

Sunday, May 27th, began with Solemn High Mass sung by Rev. Edward Sorin with Rev. William Corby delivering the sermon.  Afterwards, under threat of rain, Sorin quickly blessed the cornerstone of Sorin Hall, a dormitory with private rooms for the collegiate students.  The day continued with more banquets, speeches, toasts, performances, and military drills, in typical Notre Dame fashion.  Due to the weather, the scheduled baseball games and and boat races were deferred to Monday.

[photoshelter-img i_id=”I0000jZvDw1WUsco” buy=”1″ caption=”Sorin Hall exterior, c1893. Corby Hall is under construction in the background.” width=”576″ height=”480″]

The official celebrations for Father Sorin’s Golden Jubilee took place on August 15, 1888.  Thousands of people, clergy and lay, were on campus for the event and many more sent Father Sorin letters and telegrams, congratulating him on his milestone.  Due to the far-reaching influence of Sorin and Notre Dame, formal invitations were not issued.  Rather, Father Corby issued general invitations in newspapers across the country via the Associated Press.

The arrival of James Cardinal Gibbons to South Bend the day before itself was the cause of much fanfare.  “An immense concourse of citizens was gathered at the station in South Bend on Tuesday evening together with several Catholic societies, bands and any number of people in vehicles. So great was the crowd and the desire to see the Cardinal when the train arrived that it was almost impossible for him and his suite to reach their carriages.  Very Rev. Father Corby took charge of the Cardinal in Father Sorin’s barouche, and the long procession filed down South street into Michigan, and then across the Water street bridge and on out to Notre Dame.  Bands of music were playing, the great bell of Notre Dame could be heard, and all along the line of march were decorations and illuminations.
The society of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of South Bend acted as escort” [Scholastic, 08/25/1888].

There ceremonies of August 15th started off at 6:00 am with the consecration of Sacred Heart Church.  Bishop Joseph Dwenger of Fort Wayne led the consecration ceremony, which lasted three hours.  Bishop Maurice Burke of Cheyenne then blessed the large bell in the tower of the Basilica.  The cornerstone for the Basilica was laid on May 31, 1871; the first mass and blessing was held on August 15, 1875.  The Lady Chapel addition was completed in late 1887, in time for Sorin’s Jubilee; but the steeple wouldn’t be complete until 1892.  In February 1888, Father Sorin requested that Sacred Heart Church be elevated to the status of Basilica Minor, a title that would eventually be realized over a hundred years later in 1992.

[photoshelter-img i_id=”I0000RFMbX5hkSik” buy=”1″ caption=”Basilica of the Sacred Heart exterior without the steeple, 1888.” width=”576″ height=”352″]

Father Sorin said low Mass at 9:30 am.  Just after 10:00am, Cardinal Gibbons celebrated High Mass and a choir from Chicago sang Haydn’s Imperial Mass. “The  Knights of St. Casimir, clad in the full uniform of the Polish guard, were drawn up before the communion rail with sabres drawn, and all this, with the glittering tapers, the clouds of incense, the thunder of the great organ, and the solemn nature of the celebration, made the scene an impressive one” [Scholastic, 08/25/1888].

Archbishop John Ireland gave the sermon, which was later published and distributed, including in Scholastic‘s Jubilee issue.  Mass let out at 12:30 pm, which was followed by a lavish banquet with numerous toasts and speeches in the Main Building refectories.

Front page of the banquet program for the celebration of Rev. Edward Sorin's Golden Jubilee, featuring an engraving of Main Building by A.C. McClurg & Co., 1888/0815.
Front page of the banquet program for the celebration of Rev. Edward Sorin’s Golden Jubilee, featuring an engraving of Main Building by A.C. McClurg & Co., 1888/0815.

Later in the afternoon, Bishop John Watterson of Columbus, Ohio, dedicated and blessed the buildings of the “New Notre Dame.”  The Second Main Building had been consecrated in 1866, but it and several other buildings were destroyed by fire in April 1879.  The evening concluded with fireworks and musical performances by local bands and the Chicago musicians who earlier sang at Mass.

Sorin’s Golden Jubilee and Notre Dame’s Golden Jubilee a few years later marked a long history of growing success for the Congregation of Holy Cross and her famous University.  These Jubilees also held deeper ramifications for the Catholic Church in America:  “What had been accomplished at Notre Dame under [Sorin’s] stewardship seemed to a wider public emblematic of the growth and maturing of the American Catholic Church as a whole, an there were those in high places anxious to give expression to this fact.  To honor the founder of Notre Dame was in effect to proclaim the enduring and legitimate status of the Church, after much struggle, had attained within American society.  In accord, therefore, with the late nineteenth century’s predilection for gaudy celebrations, featuring bands and banquets, fireworks and fiery oratory, plans were formulated at the beginning of 1888 to solemnize Father Sorin’s golden anniversary as a national as well as personal triumph” [O’Connell, page 702].


Edward Sorin
by Marvin O’Connell
“History of Sorin College” (
GNDL 22/19
CEDW 30/16
GGPN 15/10
GMLS 04/02
CSOR 04/01

Rev. William Corby at Gettysburg

Notre Dame’s military ties pre-date the Civil War, so when war broke out between the North and the South, Notre Dame inevitably became involved in the conflict.  Students and alumni joined the ranks, on both sides of the fighting.  Members of the Congregation of Holy Cross also volunteered, but in more peaceable jobs of chaplains and nurses.  Rev. William Corby was one of those priest who left his position at Notre Dame and joined up with the predominately Catholic Irish Brigade in 1861.  Corby spent the next three years as chaplain for the New York regiment.

Notre Dame’s Civil War Chaplains with two officers from the Irish Brigade at the Union Army camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, Summer 1862. Sitting: Captain J. J. McCormick; James Dillon, CSC; and William Corby, CSC. Standing: Patrick Dillon, CSC, and Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. Photo by Alexander Gardner, official photographer of the Army. Original glass negative is housed in the Library of Congress.

On July 1, 1863, the Irish Brigade marched into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  They spent much of the next day  getting their armament into position near Cemetery Hill.  Corby notes in his memoirs that he could see the Confederate lines a mile away, also preparing for battle.  Around 4pm, the conflict became heated.  Corby recounts, “The Third Corps were pressed back, and at this critical moment I proposed to give a general absolution to our men, as they had absolutely no chance to practise [sic] their religious duties during the past two or three weeks, being constantly on the march”  [Corby, page 181].

Portrait of Rev. William Corby, CSC, 1863
Portrait of Rev. William Corby, CSC, 1863

Colonel St. Clair Mulholland was attached with the Irish Brigade and later gave this account of Corby’s famous absolution [Originally published in the Philadelphia Times, reprinted in Scholastic, April 3, 1880, pages 470-471]:

There is yet a few minutes to spare before starting, and the time is occupied in one of the most impressive religious ceremonies I have ever witnessed.  The Irish Brigade, which had been commanded formerly by General Thomas Francis Meagher, and whose green flag had been unfurled in every battle in which the Army of the Potomac had been engaged from the first Bull Run to Appomattox, was now commanded by Colonel Patrick Kelly, of the Eighty-eighth New York, and formed a part of this division. The brigade stood in columns of regiments closed in mass.  As the large majority of its members were Catholics, the Chaplain of the brigade Rev. William Corby, CSC, proposed to give a general absolution to all the men before going into the fight.  While this is customary in the armies of Catholic countries of Europe, it was perhaps the first time it was ever witnessed on this continent…  Father Corby stood upon a large rock in front of the brigade, addressing the men; he explained what he was about to do, saying that each one would receive the benefit of the absolution by making a sincere Act of Contrition, and firmly resolving to embrace the first opportunity of confessing his sins, urging them to do their duty well, and reminding them of the high and sacred nature of their trust as soldiers and the noble object for which they fought.  The brigade was standing at “Order arms,” and as he closed his address, every man fell on his knees, with head bowed down. Then, stretching his right hand towards the brigade, Father Corby pronounced the words of absolution.  The scene was more than impressive, it was awe-inspiring.  Near by, stood General Hancock, surrounded by a brilliant throng of officers, who had gathered to witness this very unusual occurrence and while there was profound silence in the ranks of the Second Corps, yet over to the left, out by the peach orchard and Little Round Top, where Weed, and Vincent, and Haslett were dying, the roar of the battle rose and swelled and reechoed through the woods.  The act seemed to be in harmony with all the  surroundings.  I do not think there was a man in the brigade who did not offer up a heartfelt prayer.  For some it was their last; they knelt there in their grave-clothes — in less than half an hour many of them were numbered with the dead of July 2.

Paul Wood’s Absolution under Fire at the Snite Museum of Art

Corby continued, “That general absolution was intended for all  in quantum possum  not only for our brigade, but for all, North or South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge.”   A non-Catholic officer approached Corby after the Battle of Gettysburg and echoed Mulholland’s sentiments about the absolution:  that it was one of the most powerful prayers he had ever heard [Corby, page 184-185].

Rev. William Corby, CSC, statue at Gettysburg, c1910s "Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ipsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos , a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen" [Corby, page 183]
Rev. William Corby, CSC, statue at Gettysburg, c1910s
“Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ipsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos, a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen” [Corby, page 183]
 The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with casualties exceeding 57,000.  Fr. Corby’s absolution of the troops stayed deeply in the imagination of the survivors for years to come.  After the war, Mulholland remained a friend of Notre Dame until his death.  In 1900, Professor Jimmy Edwards invited Mulholland to Notre Dame’s Commencement Exercises.  Mulholland regretted that he was unable to attend because he had just spent a week with veterans at Gettysburg.  He was surprised to find them still talking about the absolution:  “Instead of being forgotten it is becoming more widely known” [CEDW XI-2-c].

Corby’s famous absolution has since been immortalized, among other places, in Paul Wood’s Absolution under Fire (1891) at the Snite Museum of Art and in statues on the Gettysburg Battlefield (1910) and on Notre Dame’s campus (1911).


Memoirs of Chaplain Life
by Rev. William Corby
Scholastic, April 3, 1880
CEDW XI-2-c:  St. Clair Mulholland to Jimmy Edwards, 06/08/1900
GPHR 45/3024




175th Anniversary of the Congregation of Holy Cross

On March 1, 1837, in the town of Saint-Croix near Le Mans, France, Blessed Basil Antoine-Marie Moreau joined his band of auxiliary priests with the Brothers of St. Joseph, which was founded by Father Jacques-François Dujarie.  The Vatican officially recognized this group of priests, brothers, and sisters as the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1857.

Portrait of Rev. Basil Moreau, c1860s

In 1841, Moreau sent Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, from Le Mans, France, to a newly formed diocese in Vincennes, Indiana.  Sorin’s ambition was stifled in Vincennes, so when Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere conceded to let Sorin establish a college elsewhere in the diocese, he quickly jumped on the opportunity.  As luck would have it, Rev. Stephen T. Badin had sold the Diocese of Vincennes land just north of South Bend, Indiana, in 1835, with the intent of using it for an educational institution.  The land became available to Sorin and upon his arrival in November 1842, he renamed the area Notre Dame du Lac.  After serving as President of the University of Notre Dame for 23 years, Sorin became Superior General of the order in 1868 and served in this position until his death in 1893.  As such, Notre Dame’s history is inevitably an important part of the history of the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC).

The Notre Dame Archives houses many records concerning the Congregation of Holy Cross and its members, particularly of those who have connections to the University of Notre Dame.  Other notable repositories of Holy Cross materials in the Notre Dame area are the Indiana Province Archives, the Midwest Province of the Brothers’ Archives, and the Sisters’ Archives.


Fundamental Act of Unity, March 1, 1837
Holy Cross Celebrates 175 Years” by Fr. Arthur J. Colgan, C.S.C. (published 03/01/2012)
Moreau’s Faith & Vision:  A quick biography of Blessed Basil Moreau, CSC
“The University of Notre Dame:  A Portrait of Its History and Campus,” by Thomas Schlereth


Women & Spirit Exhibit

The Women & Spirit:  Catholic Sisters in America traveling exhibit stops in South Bend from September 2 – December 31, 2011, at the Northern Indiana Center for History.  A number of photographs and audio-visual materials from the Notre Dame Archives make an appearance in this exhibit.

Early in Notre Dame’s history in 1843, four Holy Cross sisters joined founder Rev. Edward Sorin.   For over 115 years afterward, they graced the “French Quarter” behind Main Building, now known as the Brownson Hall complex.

 Two unidentified Holy Cross (CSC) Sisters, c1860s-1870s

The nuns at Notre Dame were entrenched in university life from 1843-1958.  “They staffed the laundries, infirmaries, kitchens, and St. Edwards’ Minims School.  There was hardly a facet of Notre Dame life they did not influence.  They set type in the University Press offices located just east of the rear of Brownson Hall, bound books and periodicals, and deciphered mysterious chirography in manuscripts which baffled the editors.  They were tailors, nurses, gardeners, seamstresses, cooks, and charwomen for thousands of Notre Dame priests, brothers, lay faculty and students.  Beginning with only 4 sisters, their numbers grew to 140, then dwindled to only 14 in 1958″ [Schlereth, page 45].

Mass of thanksgiving in the Holy Cross Sisters’ convent chapel, 1958/0504. 
Caption:  “Rev. Arthur Hope, CSC (right), author of Notre Dame: 100 Years, preaches at a Solemn High Mass May 4th marking the departure of virtually all the Holy Cross nuns from the campus after 115 years of devoted service to the University.  Pope Pius XII sent his congratulations and apostolic blessing to the Sisters who vacated the campus convent and returned to their mother-house at St. Mary’s College the following day.  in earlier years more than 100 Holy Cross nuns served Notre Dame in many capacities.  Only five nuns will remain to care for altar linens and staff the student infirmary.”


In its mission to collect, maintain, and preserve records that document the life of the Catholic Church and her people as lived in the American context, the Notre Dame Archives houses a number of collections regarding religious women from various congregations, organizations, and individuals.  Among the larger collections are those of the National Assembly of Religious Women (US), the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of the United States, Sr. Marie Augusta Neal, and the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

 Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW), later Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), August 1963



University of Notre Dame: Portrait of History and Campus by Thomas J. Schlereth
GSBA 3/15
GPHR 45/3464

Elizabeth Ann Seton – America’s First Saint

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) was canonized as America’s first native-born saint in 1975.  As part of the mission of the Archives of University of Notre Dame to collect and maintain records that document the life of the Catholic Church and her people as lived in the American context, the University Archives holds a number of collections containing material regarding Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton.  Most notably are the Robert Seton family papers.  Robert Seton, grandson of St. Elizabeth, was the titular archbishop of Heliopolis, founder of the American Sisters of Charity, and the founder of Seton Hall University.

Engraving of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton around the age of 22, after a 1796 portrait

Letter from Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton to her daughter Anna, 12/31/1798

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton’s prayer book with handwritten notes, 1812

Advertisement for the Masses in celebration of the canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton at the Novitiate Chapel of the Order of Our Lady of Mercy in LeRoy, New York, 1975.

Catholic Parish History Collection

During the past several decades, interest in parish histories has grown considerably in America. Throughout the United States, pastors and parishioners have become more keenly aware of the need to preserve the history of their parishes in written form. Consequently, the publication of parish histories has flourished.

Saint Mary’s Church Diamond Jubilee Parish History of Annapolis, Maryland, 1928

The Parish History Collection represents a specialized resource in the holdings of the Archives of the University of Notre Dame.  The core collection was originally formed through the dedicated and persistent efforts of Francis P. Clark (1936-1979).  The collection includes occasional items which are not strictly parish histories, as, for example, histories of schools, religious congregations, and some diocesan histories. It should be noted that the University Archives holds works on priests, religious orders, lay organizations, dioceses, and schools often affiliated with the parishes as separately organized subject collections.  It should also be noted that the University Archives generally does not have the actual parish records and that the parish histories seldom contain much information about individual parishioners.

The parish history collection in the Archives contains information on more than 2000 parishes throughout the United States. The major portion of the Archives collection documents parishes in the Midwest and the Ohio River Valley. The microfilm segment of the Archives collection sometimes duplicates printed items.

Parish History of St. Francis Seraph in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1884 (in German)

The Theodore M. Hesburgh Library, a separate entity from the University Archives, also holds a number of parish histories in their Catholic Americana Parish History Collection.  The Library collection contains printed parish histories, and some newspaper accounts, of more than 1300 Catholic parishes throughout the United States and other countries.  The Library collection continues to expand through solicitation, purchase, and gifts received.

Both collections contain books, pamphlets, newspapers clippings, and ephemeral materials which frequently describe the history of the parish from its inception to the date of publication of the work. Frequently parish histories celebrate the anniversary of the founding of a parish or the dedication of a church. Also included are jubilee celebrations, financial statements, invitations, general histories, directories, bulletins, and some photographs, which are mainly from the Indiana and Kentucky region. Most items in the collection reflect activities of parishes beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Rarely do items pertain to parishes prior to 1800.

Cover of the Souvenir of the Centennial Celebration of St. Patrick’s (Old Cathedral),
New York, New York, April 23, 1909

Parish histories also are found in other collections in the University Archives, including the following collections:

The Archdiocese of New Orleans Collection

Early in the 1880’s Professor James F. Edwards, librarian of the University of Notre Dame, aware that irreplaceable items pertaining to the history of Catholicism in America were constantly in danger of being lost through neglect, carelessness or willful destruction, began to implement a plan which he had conceived for establishing at Notre Dame a national center for Catholic historical materials. The frail but hard-working Edwards set about acquiring all kinds of relevant items, including relics and portraits of the bishops and other missionary clergymen, a reference library of printed materials, and an extensive manuscript collection.  Notre Dame’s ambitious scheme for an official American Catholic archives had to be given up in 1918 when Canon Law was changed to require each bishop to maintain his own archives.

James Edwards acquired the The Archdiocese of New Orleans Collection in the 1890s and it remains a very important collection in the University Archives.  The first two items in the collection are dated 1576 and 1633 and are two of the oldest documents in the University Archives.  There are a number of items for the period from 1708 to 1783, but the great bulk of material pertains to the years 1786 through 1803. Consulted mainly by historians of the Catholic Church, this collections also proves useful also to secular historians because of the close connection between Church and State which existed during both the French and Spanish colonial regimes in Louisiana and Florida.

De Perea, el Padre Fray Estevan, Guardian of the Province of New Mexico
to Very Rev. Francis de Apodaca, Commissary General of all New Spain,
of the order of St. Francis.

In the 1960s, with the aid of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the University Archives microfilmed the Records of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas, 1576-1803, containing the early documents from the New Orleans collection.  A digital edition is now available to researchers online with abstracts in English summarizing the original Spanish, French, and Latin documents.  The online guide gives extensive information on the provenance of the collection, the history of the diocese, and the explanation of how to use the collection.  Researchers can browse by date or name or can search by keyword.  For more information, please contact the Archivist and Curator of Manuscripts.

<img class="aligncenter" src="" alt="" width="434" height="549" 1719 Feb. 14
Nepuouet, Galpand, notary in the court of Montreuil Bellay and Arpairteur sworn resident at the royal seat of Senechaussee de Saumur and Andre Hullin, notary royal. Rochettes, (France)
A marriage agreement between Perrine Bazille widow of Jean Douet, laborer, mother and guardian of Marie, Perrine, Francoise and Anne Douet her children and those of the deceased on the one side; and on the other side Gille Beaumont, laborer. The parties live at Rochettes, parish of Concourson. Property arrangements were made. (This document was drawn up in France).