Indiana at 200 (34): The Founding of Notre Dame du Lac

September 22, 2014

by Andrea Neal

If he could see it now, Father Edward Sorin would surely marvel at what has become of Notre Dame du Lac, Our Lady of the Lake, the Catholic university he founded in 1842.

These days it’s called simply Notre Dame, of course, but for Sorin the lake that inspired the name was providential. The spring-fed St. Mary’s Lake provided not only food, water, ice and marl for making bricks, but inspiration.

Arriving at South Bend with seven Holy Cross brothers on a frigid day in late November, Father Sorin took in the scene and declared it “beautiful.”

“The lake, especially, with its broad carpet of dazzling white snow, quite naturally reminded us of the spotless purity of our august Lady whose name it bears, and also of the purity of soul that should mark the new inhabitants of this chosen spot,” he wrote in a letter dated Dec. 5, 1842.

Sorin, a missionary from France, had traveled from the Catholic diocese in Vincennes with instructions from the bishop to convert 640 acres in St. Joseph County into a place of higher learning. The land had been held in trust since being purchased from the U.S. government for a Catholic mission to Native Americans.

The University of Notre Dame was officially chartered by the Indiana General Assembly on Jan. 15, 1844.

At first it was a modest venture that offered preparatory and grade schools, a manual-labor school and training for the priesthood, in addition to a small classical college attended by a dozen or so students annually.

After a fire destroyed most of the university in 1879, Father Sorin vowed to expand the school and its curriculum. He said the fire was a message from above that he had not dreamed big enough. “Tomorrow we will begin again and build it bigger, and when it is built we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has,” Sorin said.

Three hundred workers, toiling from dawn to dusk, completed construction on a new building within four months of Sorin’s pronouncement. A golden dome was added in 1882, topped by a 19-foot-tall, 4,000-pound statue of Mary. The Main Building still stands and provides classroom space and offices for administrators.

By the time Sorin died in 1893, Notre Dame was on its way to becoming a premier research university and had launched a football program that would become world famous under Coach Knute Rockne in the 1920s. Today more than 12,100 students attend its four undergraduate colleges, architecture school, law school and graduate school, and admission is competitive with six applicants for every spot.

Peter Lysy, senior archivist and records manager at Notre Dame, has no doubt Father Sorin would be pleased with how things turned out — once he overcame his shock at the changed demographics. Formerly all-male, Notre Dame’s student body is almost half women. It is 23 percent minority.

Drawing 2.15 million visitors a year, the University of Notre Dame is one of the most popular tourist sites in Indiana. “If Father Sorin looked at it objectively,” Lysy said, “he’d be very happy with the school, the prestige, the academic quality and the influence Notre Dame has.”

Note to readers: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


Directions: From downtown South Bend, go north on U.S. 31/Indiana 933 to Angela Boulevard. Turn right onto Angela, and then turn left at the second stoplight (Eddy Street). Follow signs to visitor parking.

Old College..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Old College, constructed in 1843, is the oldest surviving building on the Notre Dame campus. It houses male students pursuing religious vocations. (Photo by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame.)


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