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Congregation celebrates 175th anniversary

Kristen Durbin | Wednesday, February 29, 2012

 

As the Congregation of Holy Cross celebrates its 175th anniversary today, its enduring influence on Notre Dame’s international vision and commitment to Catholic education and service is readily apparent. 

University President Fr. John Jenkins said the anniversary signifies the strength of the consistent mission of Holy Cross in relation to the legacy of the University it established in 1842.

“It is deeply satisfying to serve a congregation that has maintained a seamless continuity with our founder’s vision for the past 175 years,” Jenkins said. ‘The anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate our past and renew our commitment to education, inquiry and service to the Church and the world.”

Fr. Jim Connelly, a Congregation historian, said its 1837 establishment by Fr. Basil Moreau in LeMans, France, laid the foundation for the group’s forays into international mission work and Catholic education. 

In 1841, Holy Cross brothers ventured from Europe to start schools in southern Indiana at the request of a group of French bishops, Connelly said, which led to the founding of the University in November 1842 when several brothers and priests migrated north.

“There was only one school needed in Vincennes, so the bishop made a deal with Fr. [Edward] Sorin and the Holy Cross brothers: if they came to northern Indiana, he would give them the land to which he held title to start a school,” Connelly said.

A contingent of Holy Cross sisters arrived at Notre Dame in 1843, and they immediately recruited local women to join their community and established a school in Bertrand, Mich., which would eventually become Saint Mary’s College, Connelly said.

Holy Cross, whose American headquarters are at Notre Dame, also played a role in American Civil War history, as several priests and sixty sisters served the Union army as chaplains and nurses, Connelly said. 

Connelly said the national impact of the Congregation and Notre Dame was amplified during the early 20th century with the success of legendary football coach Knute Rockne.

“Immense publicity was brought to Notre Dame with its football success, so that increased enrollment to the thousands and attracted students from around the country,” he said.

The onset of World War II nearly forced the University to shut down due to lack of male students, but the implementation of an accelerated Naval officer training program kept campus alive during wartime, Connelly said.

Despite these wartime challenges, Connelly said Holy Cross continued its reputation as a leader of Catholic education throughout the world, including such institutions of higher education as St. Edward’s University, the University of Portland, King’s College and Stonehill College.

“Because of Holy Cross’s good reputation in establishing Notre Dame, the Congregation was invited to open other schools around the country,” he said. “Some Holy Cross priests are parish priests, but education has been the primary focus here and in missions abroad.”

Beginning with the foundation of the Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh in 1853, the Congregation has maintained a strong international presence in several countries, including Chile, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Brazil, Ghana, India, Peru, Mexico and the Philippines. 

Connelly said these missions focus on the development of secondary schools and parishes, and the work of Holy Cross religious has paved the way for Notre Dame students to serve abroad.

“Many of the programs that have developed at Notre Dame started because they went to places where the Congregation was active, such as east Africa and Chile,” Connelly said.

Fr. Sean McGraw, a Notre Dame graduate and professor of political science, said the international influence of the Congregation is embedded in the mission of the University, and this connection came to life during his visits to Holy Cross missions in Chile, India and Haiti.

“In each of these three places I was struck by the joy of the people there and their commitment to serving the poor and serving in schools,” McGraw said. “To be able to see people filled with so much joy working in challenging situations was a powerful witness that we’re part of something bigger, and Holy Cross allows us to remember we’re an international community.”

McGraw holds a unique connection to the University, as he has lived out the Holy Cross mission as an undergraduate, a co-founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a seminarian and now as a professor. 

“When I came back to start ACE, I realized the wonderful power of education as a transformative force in the world. As a seminarian, I came to know a deeper sense of how everything we do is rooted in Christ and the Gospel,” he said. “Now, as a teacher, I integrate all of those things.”

Through these varied experiences, McGraw said he has come to understand the meaning of the shared mission of Holy Cross and Notre Dame to educate the mind and heart.

“That’s one of the things you always hear about Holy Cross. We teach, reside, pray, celebrate and do things with students, and the community here gives us the opportunity to live that mission, so hopefully we are witnesses of that,” he said. “Holy Cross has had a strong relationship with the laity by forging its mission with the people we live and serve with, which is one of the great legacies of the mission of Holy Cross at Notre Dame.”

Citing the University’s founder as an influence for his vision as an educator today, McGraw said Fr. Sorin’s personal vision of Notre Dame as a beacon of light and hope in the world resonates in his relationship with students.

“I love the notion of seeing the light and giving them hope,” he said. “That’s what we still try to do here, especially in education. We try to help each student discover their passions, their own light.”