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Fr. John Zahm, eclectic Notre Dame administrator, died 95 years ago today

| Thursday, November 10, 2016

“I regard Father Zahm as the greatest mind produced by the University in its long career, and perhaps the greatest man in all respects developed within the Congregation of the Holy Cross since its foundation,” former University president Fr. John W. Cavanaugh wrote in The Catholic World in 1922.

Fr. John Zahm, who died 95 years ago today, was an influential priest, scientist, theologian and explorer.

Born in Ohio in 1851, he Zahm graduated from Notre Dame with honors in 1871 and joined the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1875. At that time, “college” students included those in grade school, and high school as well apprentice students. Zahm, however, believed Notre Dame should become a research university, a vision which he pursued later as vice president of Notre Dame.

Emeritus professor of history Fr. Tom Blantz, who studies Zahm and Notre Dame’s history, said Zahm’s efforts to realize that vision was perhaps his most remarkable achievement. Zahm was not the easiest to get along with, though, and Morrissey replaced him as vice president of the University, Blantz said.

Outside of his contributions to Notre Dame’s administration, Zahm was first and foremost known as a scientist. The author of books such as “Women in Science” and “Sound and Music,” he explored a variety of questions, such as which instrument was closest in sound to the human voice.

When Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, Zahm wrote “Evolution and Dogma,” attempting to harmonize the theory with the Catholic faith.

“He was certainly progressive, championing modern liberal views of trying to harmonize church and state, trying to harmonize science and religion,” Blantz said.

John Cavanaugh, writing in 1922, took it further.

“It required the courage of a superman for a priest to attack this question with the plainness and freedom of the ancient Fathers,” he wrote.

Still, certain Catholic leaders took offense to the work, and the Vatican asked Zahm to take it out of print. He complied, and the book was never put on the index of banned books.

“Zahm probably did have influence on some people, but he probably didn’t have the influence he wanted to have,” Blantz said.

Zahm was also fascinated with Dante, collecting first and early-edition works of the Italian poet throughout his lifetime. Today, Notre Dame has one of the largest collections of Dante books in North America, in large part due to Zahm’s original collection, Blantz said.

Zahm also he went to South America multiple times, once with his friend President Theodore Roosevelt in 1914. The purpose of the trip was to explore the uncharted River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle. On this trip, Theodore Roosevelt became sick and almost died. It was perhaps this trip that ruined his health and led to his death six years later, Blantz said.

With his many interests and contributions, Zahm is remembered as one of the most widely-educated and scholarly people from the University.

“He was a very brilliant man, no doubt about it, and was interested in many things,” Blantz said.

Despite controversies during his lifetime, Zahm was also remembered fondly just after his death, 95 years ago.

“Few men of his period had so much energy, and none had more initiative,” Cavanaugh wrote. “He never missed an opportunity of pouring his own burning love of scholarship and achievement into the hearts of seminarians and young priests. He himself was a great inspirer.”

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