Father Edward Sorin Came From France : The Man Who Founded Notre Dame

Times Staff Writer

In the center of the campus of the best-known Catholic university in America is a larger-than-life statue of a man with a white beard that flows to his waist.

The man is Edward F. Sorin, a Catholic priest who came to America from France in 1841. A year later, at age 28 and a bankroll of $300, Father Sorin founded the University of Notre Dame du Lac (Our Lady of the Lake).

Sorin dedicated the university to the Blessed Virgin Mary and vowed: “When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft, so that, without asking, all men shall know why we succeeded here.

“To that lovely lady, raised high on a dome, a golden dome, men may look and find the answer.”


Ever since 1888, when Sorin’s huge golden dome was erected on top of the school’s administration building, students here have been known as the “Golden Domers” or simply “Domers.”

Crowned by a 19-foot-high, gold-leaf statue of Notre Dame, the Golden Dome is part of Sorin’s legacy. And recently releafed, the Dome appears more lustrous than ever.

Sorin served as Notre Dame’s president until 1865. Then he became superior-general of the Congregation of Holy Cross priests who teach and administer the school. He was also chairman of the university’s board of trustees and played a key role in Notre Dame’s leadership until his death in 1893.

His imprint is everywhere on the 12,500-acre campus, including Sorin Hall, the school’s oldest dormitory. He started the school band, one of the oldest university bands in the country.


In the 1850s, all locales with a Post Office appeared on official government maps. To make sure his school was on the maps, Sorin applied for--and was granted--a Post Office in 1851. Sorin was the first postmaster and Notre Dame has had a Post Office ever since.

President Reagan officially unveiled the Knute Rockne commemorative stamp at the Notre Dame Post Office on March 9, 1988--the first U.S. stamp ever to honor an athletic coach.

Because he played “The Gipper” in the Warner Bros. 1940 movie “Knute Rockne--All-American,” the former President considered himself an honorary alumni. He delivered the commencement address here in 1981, when he and Pat O’Brien, who played Rockne in the film, were given honorary degrees.

Rockne Died in Plane Crash


Rockne, a chemistry professor, was head football coach at Notre Dame from 1918 until he was killed in a 1931 airplane crash at 43. His teams won 105 games, lost 12, tied five. Five Rockne teams went undefeated, six lost one game, two were national champions. His lifetime winning percentage of .881 ranks at the top of the list for college and pro football coaches.

Though the game put Notre Dame on the map, there is more to the campus than football. On a wall in school publicist Dennis Moore’s office, and in many places on campus, is a photograph of a football and this message underneath: “If this is all you know about Notre Dame, you have a lot to learn.”

Ranked 18th academically among America’s 204 national universities in a recent U.S. News and World Report survey, Notre Dame attracts more than $20 million a year in research funding, primarily in science and engineering. It is a significant figure given that university has neither a medical complex or agricultural school.

The aerodynamics of glider flight and transmission of wireless messages were pioneered at Notre Dame. Formulas for synthetic rubber were discovered here. The university is a world leader in radiation chemistry and gerontological research. Notre Dame Press is the largest Catholic university press in the world.


Located next to the Golden Domed Administration Building and also completed in 1888 is the French Gothic church Sacred Heart. Designed by Sorin and Brother Charles Harding, Sacred Heart is patterned after the main church in Sorin’s hometown, Aluille, France.

Sorin maintained close ties with France and the Vatican, making 52 transatlantic crossings in his lifetime. In 1874, during a visit to Rome, he convinced Pope Pius IX to grant Vatican artist-in-residence Luigi Gregori a two-year leave to go to Notre Dame. Gregori stayed 17 years, becoming Notre Dame’s artist-in-residence.

He did all the church’s frescoes as well as a series of 12 paintings in the Administration Building depicting scenes from the life of Christopher Columbus. Each is 11 feet high and 5 1/2 to 9 feet wide.

Last year, 92% of the students were Catholics. Co-ed since 1972, today women compose one-third of the student body and minorities account for 13%. Students come from all 50 states, and 60 countries. The 1988-89 enrollment totaled 7,500 undergraduates, 1,300 in the graduate program and 850 in law school.


Once Had Own Mortuary

Notre Dame had an agriculture school until 1932, when both the school and the campus farm were discontinued. For years, the university was self-sufficient in many ways. It even had its own mortuary and hearse to handle burials in the school cemetery.

The 14-story Theodore M. Hesburgh Library is the largest collegiate library building in the world. Hesburgh, 72, the university’s 15th president, retired two years ago after 35 years on the job.

Hesburgh was also an international leader. President Eisenhower appointed him to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1957; President Reagan sent him to El Salvador to oversee the elections in 1982. And Pope Pius XII sent him to Vienna in 1956 to represent the Vatican at the International Atomic Energy Agency.


Hesburgh’s successor, the Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, 47, like all previous presidents of the school, is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross. There are 405 priests in the religious order, most connected with Notre Dame. The president of the school is always selected from the ranks.

Malloy, who played basketball for Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship, has been a professor since 1974. He lives austerely in students’ quarters in century-old Sorin Hall. He likes to tell the story of his first few months as a student at Notre Dame:

“I flunked math and engineering drawing my first semester. I was .1% from flunking out of the university. I went on to become president of the school I almost flunked out of. So, there is hope. . . .”