He’s known fondly by long-time Notre Dame staffers as “Eddie Freddie.” Whether Father Edward Frederick Sorin, CSC, who lived from 1814 to 1893, would have approved of this lighthearted name is difficult to judge, but the founder of Notre Dame most certainly was an exuberant man who fit in well with the fledgling spirit of the new frontier called America.
Now Father Marvin R. O’Connell gives the life of this amazing man its due in the definitive biography, Edward Sorin, published last November by Notre Dame Press. “He was capable of duplicity, pettiness, and even ruthlessness,” O’Connell writes. “But for sheer courage, and for the serene determination that courage gives birth to, he was hard to match.”
Fortunately for his biographer, who spent five or six hours a day for almost four years researching and writing the book, Sorin also was a fascinating subject. “There was always something exciting going on in his life,” O’Connell says.
The Notre Dame emeritus professor of history also was fortunate because he understands French, Sorin’s native language, which was invaluable in translating the several thousand pages of correspondence O’Connell gathered at the Holy Cross congregation’s archives in Rome. “The record is there,” he says, and although the correspondence wasn’t meant for the public eye at the time, O’Connell wonders if it was carefully saved with an eye toward eventual histories and biographies.
O’Connell hastens to note that this biography is not a history of Notre Dame, but it is sometimes difficult to separate the two. From the November 1842 arrival of Sorin in South Bend to his death and burial at ND in 1893, Notre Dame and Sorin are almost inseparable.
One man did try to separate the two – Sorin’s superior in France, Father Basile Moreau. It is the powerful struggle between the two priests, a clash that O’Connell calls the leitmotif of the book, that provides the most fascinating glimpses into the character of the optimistic, self-confident and at times rather moody visionary.
Sorin’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, says O’Connell, was “the guiding light of his life.” Along with Sorin’s deep sense of a “divine mandate,” O’Connell notes, he was aided by his unerring practicality. “I gained a deeper appreciation of his pragmatic side,” says O’Connell. “He was a great man for adjusting to realities.”
Those realities included outbreaks of cholera, constant brushes with near bankruptcy, fires, local anti-Catholic sentiment and continuing tussles with Moreau. Through it all, remarks O’Connell, “I guess he imbibed the American spirit.” That go-for-it gusto served Sorin, and a nascent Notre Dame, well. It also makes for a biography that at times reads more like an adventure, as Sorin makes more than 50 trans-Atlantic journeys in an era when travel was neither quick nor safe.
At more than 700 pages, with almost 65 black and white photographs, the sprawling, lively work does come with one joking caveat from the author: “Don’t read it in bed — it’s too big.” Which only befits a man with big ideas.
Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine.