Brother Placidus was chosen because he had a terrible temper, and it was hoped the long journey would cool him off. Brother Lawrence was picked because he was a good leader, Brother Justin because he was a born follower.
And then there was Brother Gatian. Historians disagree on why he was chosen — some say he was sent away because he wanted to get married, others because he’d expressed interest in being a priest. One thing is definite: For Father Edward Sorin, CSC, getting rid of Gatian, even temporarily, was akin to removing a burr from under the saddle.
In 1849, Sorin was desperate for cash. His eight-year-old university was deeply in debt, and a fire had destroyed several outbuildings and the supplies they contained. Then, from out of the west, came the glimmer of a possible solution to the school’s “pecuniary embarrassments.”
Without seeking permission from his superior in France, Father Basil Moreau, Sorin decided to send four Brothers and three laymen to the glittering promised land called California. It may have been the most unfortunate decision he ever made. For the Brothers, it was even worse than misfortune. One would die. One would quit the order, his health broken. Two would return, bringing back nothing but hard-luck stories.
But hard luck, for the Brothers of Holy Cross, was almost business as usual. The order began in turbulent times; turbulence has continued through much of its history.
July 14, 1789: Angry mobs hit the Paris streets, and the cobblestones soon flowed with the blood of aristocrats. The French Revolution had begun.
For 21-year-old Jacques-Francois Dujarie, the city of Angers, where he was studying for the priesthood at Le Grand Seminaire, was suddenly an unfriendly place. Priests had been designated servants of the state and given a no-win choice: either take an oath of allegiance to the civil state and face excommunication, or refuse the oath and risk deportation, imprisonment or the guillotine.
Since he was not yet ordained, Dujarie escaped the oath. He went to work as a weaver but was forced to move from town to town when his continuing religious activities aroused suspicion. Still, the pious man managed to continue his studies and work with a parish priest near Ruille-sur-Loir until, late in 1795, he traveled quietly to Paris and was quietly ordained. On New Year’s Day 1796, Father Dujarie just as quietly celebrated his first Mass in the basement of a farmhouse near Ruille.
Six years later, the Catholic Church finally began emerging from the shadows of the Revolution, and public worship was allowed once again. Dujarie became the parish priest of Ruille, but his troubles were just beginning.
The Revolution had left France in a state of educational and religious chaos. The youth of Dujarie’s parish, he wrote, were not only in “a state of gross ignorance, but almost in savagery.” He set about building a lay community of female teachers, and after 14 years of turmoil the community was reorganized as a religious congregation: the Sisters of Providence.
In 1820, about the time the Sisters’ community got on an even keel, Dujarie received permission to start a community of Brothers. His plan was to educate and then send them wherever they were needed as teachers, choirmasters or aides to parish priests.
The new society was hardly an immediate success: The first postulant left a few days after he showed up. Finally, however, five young men became charter members of the Brothers of Saint Joseph. Three quickly left. But within five years, even with constant defections, 73 Brothers and postulants belonged to the community.
The life of those who stayed was guaranteed to test anyone’s piety and patience. For one thing, there were the rats that scurried about the dormitory at night; in the morning the Brothers often had to search for small items carried off by the unwelcome visitors. For another, there was the need to garden, build a convent for the Sisters, cook and clean. The Brothers’ chores allowed them little time for lessons; this often proved to be their downfall as teachers.
Another problem was Dujarie himself. Anxious to serve the uneducated masses, he frequently would send a barely trained brother out on his own to start a school. Abbe Basil Moreau, who became the second superior of the Brothers, once wrote that this pattern “resulted in fatal consequences” when the novice Brothers “were exposed to the dangers and seductions of the world.” In other words, a high percentage of Brothers left the fold and a high percentage of schools closed within months of opening.
At age 67, his health failing, Dujarie took the unselfish step that saved his congregation of Brothers from extinction. He officially turned the governance of the community over to Moreau in 1835. The Brothers’ novitiate was moved to Le Mans, which also was home base to a group of auxiliary priests founded by Moreau. This group of priests and the transplanted Brothers of Saint Joseph were designated the Association of Holy Cross.
Father Dujarie died in 1838. While not an adept strategist, his desire to help educate the “savage” youth of France was never in doubt.
Captain George B. Woodworth, who ran a farm near Notre Dame, officially was in charge of the seven-member expedition for gold. As the boss, he frequently drove the traveling Brothers a little crazy. “We work on Sundays as well as weekdays. The Brothers would like to rest on Sunday and to do some praying. . . .” wrote Brother Lawrence from a campsite in Burlington, Iowa. Gatian added in a postscript: “Here we have the third priest without anyone giving us time to go to Mass or Confession. We want to do these things if the Captain would let us.”
After almost five months of arduous travel, during which Gatian kept himself occupied by counting gravesites and animal skeletons, the company reached California in July of 1850. It was a stunning disappointment. Prices for necessities — things like food — were “eight times as high as in the States,” wrote Gatian. The swarms of other gold-seekers did little to make the religious company feel at home. Because they slept in the open within six feet of other tentless campers, the Brothers felt obligated to say their prayers in bed “so as to avoid scandal and be mocked,” wrote Brother Lawrence.
The first hint of more serious problems showed up in a November 1 letter sent to Sorin by Brother Lawrence. “[A]ll are sick,” he said of the company. “This sickness will ruin us. It is an affliction from God which we must take as a punishment for our sins.”
Lawrence’s ominous words hit all too close to home. Five days later, Brother Placidus died; he was 38. No priest was available to administer the sacraments — a fact that upset the remaining three Brothers and, when he finally learned of it, infuriated Father Sorin’s superior.
The Brothers still had no gold.
When Sorin sailed from France for America in 1841, six Brothers went with him. Their roles were clearly defined. Three brothers — Joachim, Francis Xavier and Lawrence — were chose for their knowledge of skilled trades; the other three, Vincent, Anselm and Gatian, were selected for their promise as teachers.
“They wanted to be humble people and serve in a humble kind of way,” says Brother Bernard Donahoe, CSC, ’55, of his predecessors. “Their attitude was . . . in the natural order of things, a priest should run things.”
While Sorin dealt with numerous political problems and still managed to get a school started in northern Indiana, the Brothers toiled to build a community — just as the earlier Brothers under Dujarie’s sponsorship had toiled to start a community and build a home.
The work was often grueling. During their first two years in South Bend, a group of about 20 Brothers cut down trees, made approximately a quarter of a million bricks, and built a chapel, two buildings for a new college, a novitiate and a second chapel. Under the direction of Brother Lawrence, 120 acres of farmland were cleared.
While some Brothers began teaching at the new college called Notre Dame, others took on the task of teaching a trade to the orphans and boys from destitute families who enrolled in the Manual Labor School. That school was chartered to the Brothers of Saint Joseph — and while it did teach trades to the less fortunate, it also supplied free “apprentices” for which Sorin certainly found good uses.
Education was still the basic mission of the Brothers; as they had done in France, they continued in America to open small schools wherever a bishop asked for their help. Unfortunately, Sorin seemed prey to the Dujarie trap — he would send untrained Brothers off to start schools that frequently closed in less than five years.
“I don’t believe there was any plan,” says Brother Donahoe, who has studied the history of the Brothers. “Usually they were totally untrained; it was a pretty lonely existence in many cases. Very often they had to pull out just for lack of finances.”
Brother Donahoe is more diplomatic than was Brother Gatian, who never missed a chance to tell Sorin exactly what he thought of the priest’s entrepreneurial schemes. In 1849, a year before the gold expedition, Sorin sent Gatian to Brooklyn, New York, to check out a school run by two Brothers that a local priest had complained about; Gatian wrote Sorin twice a week, bitterly complaining about the priest’s poor planning.
“Permit me to speak frankly,” Gatian wrote, as though Sorin could do otherwise. “You generally do things only by halves & you require real miracles from your subjects & then blame them when these miracles are not really wrought. . . . But you were the cause of Brother Basil’s & Aloysius’s deficiency; you should not have sent them to New York: they were not, & they are not able to teach — They have not the least experience in or knowledge of the plan of instruction.”
Along with the Brothers who taught, or tried to, there were others known as the Working Brothers. Tailors, bakers, field hands, shoemakers, porters, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, beekeepers; many Brothers spent their entire religious lives as full-time laborers. Rev. James Trahey, CSC, in a 1907 history, The Brothers of the Holy Cross, offered a rather backhand compliment to the “lowly Working Brothers”: “[T]he actions of those who ‘live laborious lives’ are better known to God than man. We look to the external, and we are seldom aware of the secret toil and struggles that enter into the life of the least among us.”
Even today, the externals of those “lowly” Brothers can still be looked at — most of the original brick buildings still standing on campus, including Old College and Brownson Hall, were built by these men.
By 1900, most of the grammar schools the Brothers had started were either closed or in different hands. Along with the handicap of poorly-trained Brothers, the failure of these schools was traceable to economics. “The good sisters undersold us,” says history buff Brother Thomas Moser, CSC, provincial of the Brothers’ Midwest Province.
The demise of the Brothers’ schools drastically cut back on what the order had to offer candidates interested in teaching. “With few schools of their own and with a colossal ignorance of the meaning of the Brothers’ vocation prevalent among our laity, recruiting was of course difficult,” wrote Brother Aidan, who served as superior of the Brothers’ house of studies from 1907 to 1912.
But the Brothers themselves pulled together and developed an educational program for their novices and postulants that turned the congregation back toward its educational mission. Soon they found a slot awaiting them. “The Brothers were looking for a niche,” says Brother Donahoe, “and Catholic high schools were just picking up steam.”
In 1909, at the request of the diocesan bishop, the Brothers opened their first high school, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was the beginning of a successful enterprise, and many other high schools followed. Once again the Brothers’ community rebounded successfully from hard times.
The death of Brother Placidus in California was followed quickly by news of another kind of loss to the Brothers’ community. Brother Gatian, then 24, withdrew from the congregation.
Only 14 when he’d joined up in France and 15 when he traveled to America with Sorin, Urban Monsimer had provided a definite bonus to the fledgling community at Notre Dame. He learned English quickly, taught bookkeeping and math, and served as secretary on several committees. But he also could be a major pain when it came to rules and, at 20, fit perfectly into the job of master of discipline.
Still, he had his fans. Timothy Howard, in his massive 1907 A History of St. Joseph County, Indiana, tips his hat to one of his favorite teachers from his student days at Notre Dame: “Brother Gatian was a genius, an incomprehensible Frenchman! He was capable of doing anything and everything. He was at that early day the intellectual soul of the institution.”
Gatian even had a wry sense of his own reputation. In the minutes of an official meeting written by Gatian himself, he noted, “Bro. Gatian, however, a bold member, told [Sorin] plainly that he did not act properly. . . .”
Gatian announced his decision to leave the congregation in a letter from California, and even offered a respectful farewell to Sorin. He also made it clear that his soul was in no danger: “I am not impious, thanks to Mary, & as far as I can I am a practical Catholic, abstaining from whoring, gambling and drinking, from swearing, from meat on Friday & mining on Sundays.”
That was not, of course, the last Sorin would hear from the inveterate letter-writer.
For Brothers Lawrence and Justin, searching for gold continued to be a fool’s game. By July 1851, about 16 months after the start of their beleaguered mission, both had returned to Notre Dame, writes Brother Franklin Cullen, CSC, author of Holy Cross on the Gold Dust Trail. The records and chronicles kept during that period are strangely silent about their return; the project had become a definite embarrassment.
“I call it the great divorce — but that’s the minority view,” says Rev. Andre Leveille, CSC, ’77.
Well, perhaps not. As World War II raged, the Brothers and priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross finally broke the close ties established 100 years earlier by Moreau. In 1945, the congregation was reorganized into two distinct societies. One was made up entirely of Brothers, and for the first time ever the Brothers could elect one of their own as provincial. The other society consisted of priests and those Brothers who wished to serve as priests’ assistants. The societies still share a common superior general and constitution.
“It was a power struggle,” says Brother Moser. “It was felt that the priests were exercising undue control on the Brothers.”
With autonomy came a division of assets — the Brothers got Saint Edward’s University in Austin, Texas; the high schools they’d helped start; Saint Joseph’s Farm in Granger, Indiana; a novitiate in Rolling Prairie, Indiana; one million dollars; and a chunk of land west of what was then called Dixie Highway, bordering the western edge of Notre Dame. On that property the Brothers eventually built Holy Cross College and their own Midwest Province headquarters.
There followed a period of extremely rapid expansion. In the next 10 years the Brothers opened a dozen high schools, most of which are alive and well today.
Another significant change occurred in 1974. Before that time, a strict rule was in force: “Once a Brother, always a Brother,” as historian Trahey exressed it. Brothers who wished to become priests had no choice but to leave the Congregation of Holy Cross and their own Midwest Province headquarters.
The rule was not, as it may sound, designed to keep the Brothers in their place. Its real purpose, says Leveille, was to “protect and respect the vocation of a Brother.” That purpose, however, worked against those Brothers who eventually felt a calling to the priesthood.
It was Leveille himself who finally broke the mold. A CSC Brother for almost 10 years, he decided after much thought that he wanted to be a priest, but he did not want to leave the congregation. At a General Chapter meeting in 1974, the rule prohibiting CSC Brothers from pursuing the priesthood was abolished; four years later Leveille was ordained.
“All my training as a Brother has been helpful to me as a priest,” he says. “I grew up in the most wonderful group of people. They were educators — wonderful educators.”
Today there are more than 600 Holy Cross Brothers in the United States, and their focus is still primarily on education. Along with two colleges — Holy Cross in South Bend and Saint Edward’s in Austin — the Brothers run more than 20 high schools and a few middle schools.
Those seeking to become Brothers must first attend a candidate program at Saint Edward’s, then a novitiate at Cascade, Colorado, then a post-novitiate in San Antonio, Texas. From there, the choice of further education is determined by each candidate’s own interest. Some pursue master’s degrees in social work, teaching areas or administration, others take on anything from law school to medical school. “People are becoming professional in the jobs they do,” says Moser.
It will surprise no one familiar with their history to learn that the Brothers of Holy Cross are once again having trouble finding and keeping candidates, at least in the United States. Although more candidates are joining the order in Third-World countries, the numbers are not overwhelming even there. While no one is willing to guess what the next chapter will be, Leveille and others wonder if Brothers will eventually become an outmoded or even nonexistent vocation.
“Our history, I think, is one always of flux,” says Brother Moser. And being down, the Brothers have learned, doesn’t mean being out.
On his return to Notre Dame from the less-than-promised land of California, Brother Lawrence resumed his skillful handling of financial affairs both on the farm and at the University. He and Sorin continued a strong friendship until Lawrence’s death in 1873 at age 58.
Brother Justin returned to his trade as a shoemaker and continued his mild-mannered ways. He died in 1870 at age 69.
The former Brother Gatian stayed in California and continued to send Sorin advice and opinions with a biting edge:
“I die, I think, the victim of the wretched System followed in your Institution & so many others. No attention is paid to health,” he wrote in 1860 from San Francisco. “Your subjects have not enough of exercise in the open air & they dress alike Summer & Winter, buttoning tightly across the breast as if the intention were to choke them as soon as possible. Why not dress according to the Rules of science and common sense!”
Gatian’s reference to his approaching death, while blatantly unfair in the placement of blame, was otherwise accurate. He left California for France to see his father one last time and died three months after writing the above letter. His travels had come full circle; he breathed his last at 34 on the farm where he was born.
The California grave of Brother Placidus, the man who was sent away to work on controlling his temper, has never been found.
Carol Schaal is a former editor at this magazine.