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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 340-342
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Edward Sorin. By Marvin R. O'Connell. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2001. Pp. x, 737. $49.95.)
This biography of the founder of the University of Notre Dame is exhaustive and definitive. Yet just as O'Connell finds the "author's apparently obsessive concern for detail" in a footnoted biography of Basile Moreau, the founder (in 1837) of the French Congregation of Holy Cross, "the book's greatest merit," so something similar could be said about this life. O'Connell paints a vivid and lively portrait not only of Sorin but of the University of Notre Dame, of which Sorin was the soul for fifty years. In addition, an overriding theme is the dispute between Moreau and Sorin, who was Moreau's student and eventually his successor, over the direction of the community of Holy Cross. In this struggle, the passions of both men are made clear as well as their blindness. Founders usually have strong personalities; evident in the clash of these men.
In 1841 Sorin led a band of brothers on a two-month journey to Vincennes, Indiana, to serve the Catholics in that diocese. O'Connell depicts the successive disputes which Sorin had with the local bishops, usually over the bishops' desires to control the educational work of the brothers, the rightful task of Father Sorin. After an initial settlement at Black Oak Ridge, west of Washington, Indiana, Sorin accepted in late 1842 an offer of land in South Bend, Indian land purchased by Father Stephen Badin and donated for some religious usage, and named his mission there Notre-Dame-du-Lac. Soon the associated community of sisters, the Marianites, joined the Holy Cross men at Notre Dame.
The subsequent story is one of growth, of the "University" of Notre Dame as well as the American Holy Cross communities, through countless struggles, fires, and deaths. In all this, O'Connell portrays Sorin as somewhat manipulative in his correspondence, sometimes exaggerating points or even fabricating matters in order to get his way, something the author labels, at one point, as "if not a devious game, then one of serpentine subtlety" (p. 151). Sorin, in this process, became less and less able to keep obedience to his superior, Father Moreau, one he still respected enough to want his hand at death as a relic at Notre Dame (p. 428). His own judgment, based on his growing experience, became, however, more his guide than his superior was. Still, O'Connell cites Sorin's courage and determination as foundations for the success of his ventures (p. 183). The author summarizes: "the paramount truth remains that Notre Dame survived because Edward Sorin—domineering, charming, supple, courageous, sometimes duplicitous and always devoted to God's cause as he saw it—refused to fail" (p. 400).
O'Connell highlights, as the quality of this courage, Sorin's ability "to seize upon an idea and then adjust it to suit his needs" (p. 247). Sorin was a missionary seeking to keep the Catholic faith alive in a Protestant land and he saw all that he did to be for that purpose. If he developed higher education in northern Indiana, and reformed the curriculum in 1849, it was to further that mission, not "learning for learning's sake" (p. 246). Even his failed St. Joseph Company, sent to prospect for gold in California in 1850, sought to serve his goal. He also expanded the mission of the community to other parts of the United States in [End Page 340] order to create a greater allegiance to Holy Cross; this was to be the beginning of the trans-Atlantic struggle for control of this international congregation. Sorin became briefly (1851-1853) the Provincial of the Congregation in the United States, refused in 1852 to become a bishop and head up the congregation's new mission to Bengal, and in 1853 began to push for independence of the American segment of the congregation.
One of Sorin's closest collaborators was Eliza Maria Gillespie (1824-1887), who joined the Marianites as...