The University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana, has a notable history especially when it comes to athletics, but it was the university's photogenic architecture that drew us to campus for a recent visit.
Buildings like the Main Hall with its Golden Dome, the Hesburgh Library with its giant mosaic popularly known as "Touchdown Jesus", and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart dominate the landscape. I'll cover a few of these buildings in greater depth in coming months. Today I'll offer a brief history of the university and a glimpse at some of the architecture and public art on campus.
The University of Notre Dame traces its origins to Catholic missionaries who came to northern Indiana in the early 1800s in an effort to evangelize among Native Americans in the area. Today the school honors and celebrates its Catholic identity, something readily apparent in the religious art, numerous chapels, the imposing Gothic-inspired Basilica, and a heavy emphasis on faith and service at Notre Dame.
In 1842, the Bishop of Vincennes offered Father Edward Sorin, a 28-year-old French priest and missionary, 524 acres of land in northern Indiana with the condition that Sorin establish a school there within two years.
Father Sorin traveled to the tract of land to discover an abandoned log cabin built by other missionaries a decade earlier. Sorin and his crew worked to make the cabin habitable and built a church and school building of rough timber.
The Log Chapel on campus today replicates the original log cabin (destroyed by fire during the late 1800s).
The school's then-wilderness location worked to its advantage because it was the only Catholic school of consequence easily accessible to places like Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Its relative isolation also meant that its students didn't always have adequate schooling to prepare for classical college-level work, so Notre Dame also offered basic courses, college prep classes, and a manual labor school in addition to a traditional college curriculum of arts and letters, philosophy, history, math, and languages.
The State of Indiana granted Notre Dame its charter in 1844. Workers completed a four-story main building with a dome that same year, and the university granted its first degrees in 1849.
Father Sorin served as Notre Dame's first president, remaining in that post until 1865.
In 1844, Sisters of the Holy Cross established a nearby school for women called St. Mary's College as Notre Dame didn't officially admit female students until 1972. Today, St. Mary's College is a pretty little campus, but heavy winds coming through the night before our visit resulted in fallen trees and blocked off areas making it impossible for us to take decent photos (leaving something to do for our next visit).
The opening of railroads and canals to ease travel to the Midwest, and large European immigrant populations of Catholics settling in the area, fueled Notre Dame's growth.
The Main Building, with its Golden Dome topped by a 19-foot-tall, 4,000-pound statue of St. Mary, remains a focal point on campus. The school re-gilded the dome in 2005. Interestingly, it only took about a fist-full of gold leaf to cover the entire dome!
Today, Notre Dame's many buildings date from various eras. I appreciate the fact that the school's newer buildings complement the older buildings in style, and they all easily blend together as one cohesive and harmonious whole, without looking dated or appearing as a jumble of disparate styles.
Feed the term "University of Notre Dame history" into a search engine and you'll likely get more links about the school's football history than anything else. Check out the stories of some of Notre Dame's most notable football games, including its first contest in 1887 versus the University of Michigan in Greatest Moments in Notre Dame Football History by John Heisler.
Football and the team's identity as "the Fighting Irish" became increasingly important in Notre Dame's culture, starting on the 1920s. Did the name originate because of stereotypes of combative Irishmen, or did it originate as the result of violent fighting between Notre Dame students and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan groups on campus in 1924? Check out Notre Dame Vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan by Todd Tucker to learn more about this little-known conflict.
Interested in the early history of the University of Notre Dame or St. Mary's College? Check out A Brief History of the University of Notre Dame Du Lac, Indiana, from 1842 to 1892 (a book prepared for the school's 150th anniversary) or Saint Mary's College by Amanda Divine and Colin-Elizabeth Pier.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved