A death in the family

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

It’s hard to imagine a divide between academic disciplines more difficult to bridge than the gulf separating theology and engineering. Many would question the point of even trying. But Michael Sain felt that integrating his Catholicism with his work as an engineer was the most important thing he had done in 44 years at Notre Dame.

Sain, the Frank M. Freimann professor of electrical engineering, died of a heart attack at his South Bend home in September 2009. He was 72.

One of Notre Dame’s first chaired professors, Sain wrote more than 400 reviewed publications and won dozens of grants and contracts for his investigations. His work in systems theory and control systems — representing dynamic phenomena such as the behavior of large structures during an earthquake in models and equations, and using feedback from a system’s current performance to shape its future performance — garnered worldwide attention.

The overachieving engineer and mathematician possessed a dry sense of humor and a devotion to Mary that four times took him to the site of apparitions in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. A dedicated servant of his profession, Sain also won multiple University teaching awards. Colleagues and students marveled at his patience and humility, his approachability, his gifts for listening and explaining.

The same qualities followed him home. Married 46 years, Michael and Frances Sain raised five children. Sons Patrick ’86, ’90M.S., ’97Ph.D. and John ’90 studied engineering. Daughters Mary ’90, Barbara ’92 and Elizabeth ’02 earned Arts & Letters degrees.

Well past retirement age, Sain was still trying new things. In 2005, using a Lilly Foundation grant for courses that would prompt students from each college and school to probe the religious dimensions of their studies, Sain created “Theology and Engineering.” The popular seminar paired engineering concepts with comparable notions in theology, seeking similarities in the ways engineers and Christians work with fixed principles and variables. Students provided many analogies for the illuminating discussions, translating theological ideas into engineering diagrams in order to fully grasp and analyze them before re-reading the original texts.

Barbara Sain, now a theology professor on sabbatical from Minnesota’s University of Saint Thomas, joined her father in the fall to teach the course and develop emerging ideas into a book. She says feedback became the main analogy: electronic devices receive and process data and adapt in the same way the Christian gathers and employs feedback from an examination of conscience, confession, spiritual direction or prayer.

“For him, it was always about the ideas and the people,” she adds of her father’s enthusiasm for the classroom discussions. “He saw what he was doing as part of what is possible at a university like Notre Dame. This is a school where you can talk about how faith goes together with reason. And it’s a perfect fit.”