Notre Dame's Fighting Frenchman

Book cover
Edward Sorinby By Marvin R. O'ConnellUniv. of Notre Dame Press. 737p $49.95

Edward Sorin arrived in the United States from France in 1841, 27 years old, three years ordained and the religious superior of a band of six brothers in the recently founded (1837) Congregation of Holy Cross. When he died in 1893, he was celebrated as the founder of four institutions of higher learning, the superior general of his congregation and a significant figure in the American Catholic community. In Marvin O’Connell he finally has his biographer.

The seven Holy Cross religious who landed in New York City in 1841 were en route to the frontier diocese of Vincennes, Ind., to organize parish schools. The following year, strained relations with the bishop, Celestine Hailandiere, led them to northern Indiana, where they established a boarding school and had it chartered by the state legislature as the University of Notre Dame du Lac. As Notre Dame’s first president, Sorin served for 23 years. O’Connell, professor emeritus of history at U.N.D., describes his leadership as despotic but enlightened: enlightened in the sense that without the assertion of his self-confidence and single-mindedness there would have been no faculty to ignore and no students to expel. Without Sorin there would have been no Notre Dame. Sorin, in O’Connell’s words, had virtually created [Notre Dame] out of nothing and without [him] it would never have survived.


Sorin, more an administrator than an educator, and Notre Dame were always short of money in the early years. His greatest asset was his collaborators, the Holy Cross brothers, sisters and priests who endured penury, isolation and devastating attacks of illness to keep the institution afloat. In 1851 Sorin sent three Holy Cross brothers to California to look for gold. One died there, another withdrew from the congregation and the third returned to Notre Dame without any gold. It was not one of Sorin’s finest hours.

Where the interests of his school and of the Congregation of Holy Cross were concerned, Sorin could be a fierce antagonist. By turns flattering, manipulative and combative, he crossed swords at one time or another with almost every American bishop in whose diocese the Holy Cross religious worked. In the end, though, he managed to prevent the Sisters of the Holy Cross from being divided up into several communities of diocesan right, the fate of more than one women’s community in the 19th-century American church.

Sorin’s relationship with the French priest who was the founder and first superior general of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Basile Moreau, was no less adversarial. When Moreau assigned him to lead the first group of Holy Cross missionaries to Bengal, India, in 1853, Sorin refused to go and threatened to secede from the congregation and take all the Holy Cross personnel in the United States with him. Moreau waited him out and eventually received his submission, but assigned another priest to lead the Bengal mission.

Sorin’s conflict with Moreau is tracked by the author through two-thirds of the more than 700 pages in this book. Relying on more than a thousand letters and documents in the Holy Cross congregational archives in Rome and in the United States, O’Connell goes to great lengths to analyze and explain the relationship between these two men. Moreau was the son of peasants. Trained by the Sulpicians, he was a cautious administrator, highly organized, meticulous about details, given to ascetic practices and of very disciplined work habits. Sorin had been born to a family of the landed gentry. He was used to being in charge, was given to a romantic piety and was optimistic to a fault, a born enthusiast who was forever hatching projects that were often beyond his means to achieve.

The two men were almost bound to clash and carried on a love-hate relationship for years. The Congregation of Holy Cross has introduced Moreau’s cause for canonization, and over the years a number of studies of his life and work published in the United States and elsewhere have made Sorin out to be a villain and Moreau a saint. While hardly making Sorin a saint, O’Connell does redress the imbalance.

Sorin was elected superior general of the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1868, at a moment when a grave financial crisis in France threatened the community’s very existence. Under his leadership the debt was reduced to manageable amounts, but the college and church that Moreau had built in France and that had served as the congregation’s motherhouse were sold. Embittered, Moreau lived outside the congregation for the last four years of his life and died in 1873.

As superior general, Sorin chose to govern the congregation from Notre Dame with annual trips to France and Rome. No matter who held the office of provincial in the United States, Sorin continued to be the guiding force in the American Holy Cross community. During his tenure, colleges were opened in Cincinnati, Watertown, Wisconsin and Austin, Tex. Only the last of these, St. Edward’s University, survives today. The celebration of Sorin’s 50th anniversary of ordination at Notre Dame in 1888 brought together Cardinal James Gibbons and numerous members of the Americanist tendency in the hierarchy. Archbishop John Ireland preached at the Mass. It was a tribute to Sorin’s and Notre Dame’s standing in the American church in his latter years.

Edward Sorin has long enjoyed a somewhat mythical status among Notre Dame alumni and many American Holy Cross religious. O’Connell’s biography at times dispels the myth and at other times grounds it in evidence.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019

“Anyone can do any amount of work,” wrote the American humorist Robert Benchley, “provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Procrastination is an act of will, the choice to postpone what needs to be done.

Nick Ripatrazone January 10, 2019
The stories of Andre Dubus delve into loneliness, the ferocity of parental love, adultery, retribution and sex that is a stay against loneliness.
Kevin SpinaleJanuary 03, 2019