University of Notre Dame 175th Anniversary

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This homily was given by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades at the Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the penultimate day of the Notre Dame Trail pilgrimage.
We give thanks to God as we celebrate this year the 175th anniversary of the University of Notre Dame. A special welcome to all who have walked the pilgrimage of the Notre Dame Trail, remembering the journey made by 29-year-old Father Edward Sorin and the Holy Cross Brothers from Vincennes to South Bend in 1842. I hope the walk has been good not only as physical exercise, but as a spiritual experience, a pilgrimage of faith.

In preparing this homily, I thought it would be good to reflect a bit on the arrival of Father Sorin and the brothers here on November 26, 1842. You have probably read about the famous letter that Father Sorin wrote to Father Basil Moreau, the founder of the Holy Cross Congregation, just a week after his arrival here at this place that was called Saint Mary of the Lakes. Father Sorin wrote: “Everything was frozen over. Yet it all seemed so beautiful. The lake (he did not know there were two lakes), 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. May this new Eden be always the refuge of innocence and virtue!” He ended the letter by saying: “Finally, dear Father, you cannot help see that this new branch of your family is destined to grow under the protection of Our Lady of the Lake and of St. Joseph. At least, that is my deep conviction. Time will tell if I am wrong.”

I believe that Father Sorin and the brothers began Notre Dame on hallowed ground. The reason I say this is because of what took place and who lived here before Father Sorin’s arrival. The only building on the 524 acres given to Father Sorin by the Bishop of Vincennes was the log cabin, the log chapel. It was built 10 or 11 years earlier by the missionary priest, Father Stephen Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States. Father Badin as a devoted missionary priest who served the native Potawatomi Indians. He built the log building here as a chapel and as a residence for himself. Today, his remains are buried beneath the log chapel. Originally, they were interred in the cathedral of Cincinnati, then transferred to Notre Dame and interred beneath the floor of the newly finished replica of the log chapel in 1906.

The reason I say that Notre Dame was established on holy ground is especially because of the saintly priests who lived and served here immediately prior to Father Sorin’s arrival. After the departure of Father Badin, he left in charge of the mission here a Belgian priest named Louis DeSeille. He lived in the log chapel and served the native Potawatomis with much love and devotion, striving to help the Indian congregations of the area who were threatened with deportation to the West. Father DeSeille, stricken by a fatal disease, died in 1837. In the log chapel, you can see the painting of Father DeSeille at the altar giving himself Viaticum at the altar with his beloved Indian faithful watching in prayer. Father DeSeille died shortly thereafter and was buried by the native converts in the floor of the chapel. His remains are still there today.

Father DeSeille was succeeded by another holy priest, newly ordained Benjamin-Marie Petit. His dedication to his Indian flock was amazing. When the militia rounded up some 800 Potawatomi people in late summer of 1838, the young Father Petit went with them westward along the cruel Trail of Death. By the time they crossed the Mississippi River, about a fifth of the people had died because of the terrible deprivations. 29-year-old Father Petit, worn out by fever and depression, died in St. Louis on February 10, 1839. I think this young priest can be called a martyr of love for the oppressed people he loved and served. He carried the cross with them. He was a shepherd who did not abandon his flock. Father Petit, like Father DeSeille and Father Badin, is buried beneath the log chapel. His body was brought back to Notre Dame by Father Sorin in 1857. In my opinion, the log chapel is the holiest spot on the Notre Dame campus, a special place to pray. Though not as beautiful or well known as this Basilica or the grotto, it is truly a hallowed place.

I mention this history today so that it will become more widely known. Father Sorin himself was inspired by these missionary priests and recognized that he had arrived on hallowed ground. In that first letter to Father Moreau, he testified to the fact of how moved he was by the examples of Father DeSeille and Father Petit.

The log chapel is also very important in the history of our diocese since it was the first chapel, the first little church, in the present-day Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. The first worshippers here were the Catholic Potawatomi and Catholic, mostly French, immigrants of the South Bend area. And it was here, with the arrival of Holy Cross, that the first Catholic school was founded. Students began to arrive here shortly after Father Sorin and the brothers arrived. The humble school began in 1843, the first building constructed which still stands today, the Old College. The following year, the Indiana legislature granted Father Sorin the articles of incorporation for the University of Notre Dame du Lac.

Perhaps this has been more of a history lesson than a homily. But, in a way, I think the history of this place and its pre-history with the missionaries and the Potawatomi peoples is itself a homily, a reflection on God’s presence and grace here, even before the arrival of Father Sorin, which made this place truly holy ground. Father Sorin, inspired by the missionaries here before him, began the holy enterprise of Catholic education in northern Indiana at this hallowed place.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus exhorted the crowd to walk in the light. He said: “Walk while you have the light, so that darkness may not overcome you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.” Like the missionaries before him and the first Catholics of this region, the Potawatomi Indians and the early immigrants, Father Sorin and the brothers and generations after them, have believed in the light and walked in the light, the light of Christ. Jesus is the true light in the darkness of this world. The saints are people who shine with His light and guide us along the path of life. The brightest light that reflects the light of Christ is the one to whom Notre Dame is dedicated, Our Lady. She is our mother. One of her titles is Star of the Sea. On the often dark and stormy sea of life, Mary is the brightest star, the human being who most perfectly and beautifully reflects the light of Christ in the world. She is the star who keeps us on the route, on the path of goodness and holiness. She is the greatest saint; in fact, we call her the Queen of All Saints. Her golden statue on the dome of the Main building is a constant reminder of Notre Dame’s mission and of our call to holiness. May our Mother Mary, the Star of the Sea, continue