Notre Dame historian Father Marvin O’Connell likes to tell a story about one of the first of the numerous books he has written, Thomas Stapleton and the Counter Reformation, published in 1964. He gave a copy to his mother, who told him she planned to read it during Lent. “After finishing the first chapter,” he says, “she let me know that she had changed her mind. She’d decided not to read the book and to give up chocolate instead.”
This was one among the many stories told at a conference honoring Father O’Connell on May 5 in Notre Dame’s McKenna Hall. But none of the participants in the day-long gathering, entitled “Telling Stories that Matter,” seemed to share Mrs. O’Connell’s estimation of her son’s work. As they discussed this and his other books, there was recurrent praise for Father O’Connell’s “painterly eye,” his vivid and engaging prose, and his ability, as historian Rick Janet, professor and chair of history at Rockhurst University put it, “to let the story speak for itself simply by telling it well.”
One such story is Father O’Connell’s 2001 book Edward Sorin, a magisterial biography of Notre Dame’s founder, Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC. It is difficult to imagine a biographer better suited by background for this definitive work: A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1972, O’Connell had come here as a newly ordained priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, earning a doctoral degree in 1959. He had chaired the history department from 1974 to 1980 and directed Notre Dame’s undergraduate program in London from 1993 to 1995.
But nothing could better equip O’Connell than his own commitment to the historian’s craft. A year after his retirement from active teaching, he had spoken of this at a meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association. It was true, he told his colleagues, that historians, “have presumed to present ourselves to our contemporaries as guardians of the collective memory of our race,” but “more than that, history, whatever its scientific trappings, remains an art, and we are artists. Existentially the past is gone beyond recall; whatever reality it possesses depends upon us who think about and write about it.”
The past as O’Connell has retrieved and reconstructed it occasionally reveals less than flattering features in the personalities of Notre Dame’s founder and even of his religious superior, the recently beatified Rev. Basil Moreau, with whom the impetuous Sorin often clashed bitterly Recounting a particularly unpleasant decision Father Sorin made in 1858 to override the objections of the Notre Dame faculty and expel five Protesant students, O’Connell wrote, “Despot Sorin surely was, but, for the most part, an enlightened one. . . . Without Sorin there would have been no Notre Dame; without him it would have dissolved like a dream, as did so many other institutions, private and public, founded during the same era.”
Conference participants extolled similarly complicated assessments O’Connell had made in eight of his other books — on the characters and controversies of the 16th and 17th centuries in early modern Europe; on the ecclesial, theological and cultural arguments of 19th century Oxford and among Catholics and Anglicans in England; on the Catholic Modernists in Europe and on Archbishop John Ireland and the Americanist movement in this country.
“However often and egregiously I have failed to live up to it,” O’Connell said, “my ideal has always been to see the past and to reconstruct it, as an integral whole, with all the relationships and complexities that involves . . . how can one do otherwise if one truly seeks to chronicle that tangle of mind and emotion, of pride and passion and sentimentality, or providence and chance, of cruelty and compassion, of the good and the bad, that has been the human story?
At the conference, some 50 of O’Connell’s colleagues and friends were able to appreciate anew the application of that scholarly ideal to the lives and times not only of Fathers Sorin and Moreau, but also of other such similarly complicated characters as Blaise Pascal, John Henry Newman, Archbishop Ireland, the French philosopher Maurice Blondel and the excommunicated modernist Catholic priest Alfred Loisy.
Theologian Michael Baxter, a former student of O’Connell’s, mentioned a single thread running through the compelling portraiture under discussion. “Remarkable in the various characters Marvin has written about is their dedication to the Church and to God. . . . Reading about the people he has written about helps us to see what they are trying to see; like Moses, they try to see the invisible — God.”
Few of his readers, former students and friends would disagree with Baxter’s suggestion that O’Connell’s vocations as a priest and a historian have flourished mutually. Literate people interested in the university and community that Notre Dame has been and is becoming will be pleased to learn that O’Connell is at work on another book, this one on the University’s presidents from Sorin to Hesburgh.
That, too, should be something to read.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public information and communication. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.