This article was written by Marie Fazo and was originally published in The Observer.
In honor of the 175th anniversary of the University, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism hosted a lecture titled, “Fr. John Zahm, C.S.C., in the Founding of the University of Notre Dame” in McKenna Hall.
The speaker for the occasion was Fr. Thomas Blantz, Holy Cross priest and professor of history emeritus who is currently writing a book about the history of Notre Dame.
“The title of this talk this afternoon will sound strange to many,” Blantz said. “Notre Dame was founded in 1842. Fr. Zahm was not born until 1851, nine years later. But Notre Dame was not truly the University — with full college course and graduate programs and scholarly research and money for all of these — until long after.”
At the time of Notre Dame’s founding in 1842, it had a student enrollment of 25 and a faculty of eight, and it accepted nearly everyone who applied, Blantz said. By the early 1890s, enrollment had only reached about 550 students, about 20 percent of whom were college students.
“The president at this time [Fr. Andrew Morrissey] seemed comfortable with this distribution,” Blantz said. “Fr. Morrissey’s chief antagonist on campus was Fr. John Zahm.”
Throughout his time at Notre Dame, Zahm worked to push the University to its full potential. Born in New Lexington, Ohio in 1851, Zahm began his academic career at Notre Dame in 1867, Blantz said.
“Weighing a possible vocation to the priesthood, he enrolled in the classical program [at Notre Dame]” Blantz said. “He played on an interhall baseball team and joined a scientific association, which studied fauna and flora on field trips.”
Upon his graduation in 1871, he entered the seminary of the Holy Cross, studying theology and science for four years, Blantz said. Though he was never a University president, Zahm contributed to Notre Dame, serving as a professor, vice president and provincial superior, Blantz said. He was convinced Notre Dame could be on par with the top universities of the time, something he spoke and wrote frequently about. Additionally, he set an academic example through his own scholarship, research and publications, Blantz said.
“As [Zahm] declared as provincial superior in 1906, ‘To keep our place in the forefront of Catholic institutions of America, we must give continual indications of progress, energy and initiative,’” Blantz said.
To Zahm, progress meant building new buildings, spending money on top-notch scientific laboratory equipment and hiring renowned professors to attract the best students in the country, Blantz said.
Zahm’s collection of the works of Dante — which included over 5,000 books in nearly 30 languages — was considered to be the third best in the United States at that time, Blantz said.
Zahm published over 20 books and many articles which earned national and international acclaim, Blantz said, including “Sound and Music,” “The Bible of Science and Faith,” several books under the pseudonym H.J. Mozans and the controversial “Evolution and Dogma,” which was removed from circulation by the Vatican, Blantz said.
“[“Evolution and Dogma”] explained that belief in the evolution of the human body and all of creation was fully compatible with Catholic dogma, as long as the direct and immediate creation of the soul by God was accepted,” Blantz said. “Expressing his conviction that there could be no conflict between science and revelation, since God was the author of both.”
Zahm pushed for the creation of several essential buildings on campus including a science hall, now LaFortune Student Center; a technology building, now the Crowley Hall of Music; and a library, now Bond Hall. Additionally, Zahm was crucial in the building of the University’s first residence hall, Sorin Hall, in 1889, Blantz said.
“Father Zahm’s most important contribution toward pushing Notre Dame towards true university status was a decision that most at Notre Dame strongly opposed,” Blantz said. “This is the establishment of a house of theology in Washington, close to the campus of the Catholic University of America, recently founded in 1889.”
Blantz said Zahm believed that this would allow seminarians to focus on their studies rather than teach courses to Notre Dame students. They would also have the opportunity to pursue graduate degrees. The program was eventually established in 1895, Blantz said.
Many of the priests who earned Ph.D.s returned to Notre Dame to teach. Some notable participants of the program include Fr. Julius Nieuwland, Fr. Matthew Schumaker, Fr. Matthew Walsh, Fr. James Burns and Fr. Thomas Irving, each of whom who went on to make contributions to the world of academia and to the University.
“Fr. Sorin and the early brothers were the first founders of Notre Dame, and some have called Fr. Hesburgh the second founder,” Blantz said. “If so, might Fr. Zahm deserve some credit also? Maybe something in between — maybe a 1.5 founder of the University for seeing Notre Dame’s potential that early, for laying some important groundwork for it and for nudging it along to the full university status that it enjoys today.”