What One Man Started

Author: Kerry Temple ’74


In August 1857, when the Very Reverend Basil-Antoine Marie Moreau made his one trip to Notre Dame, he was wracked by the kind of bipolar tussle that defined his life and dogged him all his days.

The man was a contrary vessel of charisma and violent temper, holiness and torment, humility and self-righteousness. He was a priest of vision, kindness, equanimity. He was also a priest of severity, zealotry, imperiousness. During his three-week stay at Notre Dame, amid the swells of great achievement and promise, were swirling—in America and in France—the countercurrents of his demise, the wrestling for power, money and authority that would prompt his displacement from the religious order he had established and lead him toward sainthood.

That fitful journey to sainthood took a major step forward this September when the deposed founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross was beatified in LeMans, France, the city where he lived and died, and the home of the congregation’s mother church. Completing the third of four stages necessary for canonization came 150 years and a month after the Notre Dame visit so indicative of the man’s triumphs and troubles.

Sixteen years before his arrival in Indiana, Moreau had sent perhaps his best young priest and six Holy Cross brothers to help establish the Catholic Church in the New World. That 27-year-old priest, Edward F. Sorin, had not only planted the Holy Cross footprint in American soil, he had launched in 1842 a school in the Indiana wilderness that was a successful enterprise when Moreau, as Holy Cross superior general, came to see for himself what his charges had accomplished.

Sorin’s New World expedition was thriving in 1856 when he reported to Moreau that the province of Notre Dame had 18 houses, staffed by 238 religious educating 3,000 children. This represented a fourth of all the priests and brothers and more than half of all the Holy Cross sisters in the world, and nearly a third of all the children then in Holy Cross care.

There were reasons for celebration. The Vatican had just approved the Holy Cross constitutions, officially sanctioning this budding religious order after more than two decades of formation. Fashioned in the wake of the French Revolution, which had attempted to purge France of Catholicism, the congregations’s early growth in Europe and abroad had been impressive. By the time Moreau sailed for America from Le Havre in July 1857, worldwide some 72 Holy Cross priests, 322 brothers and 254 sisters staffed 114 houses, including 86 primary schools, eight high schools and four boarding schools.

Moreau had not only sent missionaries to North America, but the pope had placed Holy Cross in charge of his own orphanage in Rome and the Holy See had entrusted a mission to it in East Bengal. The mother church in Sainte-Croix had been ceremonially consecrated, and on a more deeply personal level the founder had emerged from a severe depression. As his journals attest, this “dark night of the soul” was a terrifying and prolonged battle with the devil.

Furthermore, the Indiana school started by Moreau’s protégé was flourishing according to Moreau’s vision for the religious order he had created. He had wanted la Congregation de Sainte-Croix to bring together priests, brothers and sisters in a community that reflected the Holy Family, and there at Notre Dame was just such a community.

Reasons for distress

Then again, heading this community was the stubborn and freewheeling Sorin. Five years earlier Sorin had openly defied his religious superior when he had been instructed to leave Notre Dame and direct the Bengali mission for Holy Cross. Sorin, who had already skirmished with Moreau over control of newer Holy Cross ventures in North America, not only refused to obey Moreau’s assignment to East Bengal, he had sought from the local bishop dispensation for himself and the Notre Dame community from Moreau’s authority. That threat prompted Moreau to send an envoy in 1855 to investigate and bring the renegade home. This particular dispute was settled when Sorin eventually acquiesced and Moreau, over time, relented.

Adding to Moreau’s distress was one of the primary reasons for his Notre Dame visit—to inform the Holy Cross sisters that the Vatican had refused to include them in this new religious order. It had been difficult enough getting approval for a congregation that combined priests and brothers. Moreau’s plan to bring men and women together in a community reflecting the familial relations of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was never realized, even though Moreau himself would technically remain religious superior of the Sisters of the Holy Cross for most of his lifetime—and their most devoted champion (though, again, not without recurrent squabbles).

The separation of the sisters from the Congregation of Holy Cross was only one quarrel Moreau contended with at Notre Dame. Other issues arose between the frontier school and the Old World mother house 4,000 miles away—lines of authority, control of real estate assets and the management of finances. One heated argument between Sorin and Moreau centered on 15,000 francs: Was it a gift or a loan? By the time Moreau was aboard ship on his way home, he wrote of his Notre Dame visit: “The enemy of good was on the alert, and I felt as if some invisible force were working against me. I encountered a mysterious kind of stubborn opposition from this bitter enemy of all God’s works.” Sorin’s journal, on the other hand, spoke of the visit only in glowing terms.

Notre Dame would continue to be, would always be, Sorin’s school. There is no doubt that Moreau’s CSCs would embed in America a school that would extend Moreau’s hopes for communities that nurtured a sense of family and fostered in its students the development of the mind and heart. Those two traits were fundamental to Moreau’s vision for his Holy Cross initiatives throughout the world. But Notre Dame would also reflect and embody Sorin’s bold ways, the American spirit he found so appealing. Sorin was certainly as hard-headed as his mentor, and he had acquired from his liberating frontier surroundings a bit of its independence and anti-authoritarian character. It is not surprising that the two strong-willed men clashed. It is also not surprising that the generations of CSCs who have served this Indiana institution have traditionally seen themselves as sons of Sorin rather than Moreau.

Moreau, however, had bigger problems to deal with—and more rancorous adversaries—closer to home. Through the lens of history the dynamics and personalities are tricky to decipher and shaded by subjectivity. Sorin’s biographer, Father Marvin R. O’Connell, cites Moreau’s “propensity to quarrelsomeness,” and adds, “Despite all his admirable qualities, he regularly found not peace but a sword.” Moreau, he says, was industrious, dependable and intelligent, a popular preacher who gave missions and retreats throughout his lifetime. O’Connell also notes: “He organized his life down to the smallest detail, and he carried over that punctiliousness into his relationships with others.”

Moreau, the progeny of a long line of French peasants, was ordained in 1821, three decades after the French Revolution launched its attack on the Church, targeting priests and bishops who were dispersed, imprisoned or killed, and shutting down or confiscating convents, churches and monasteries. After decades of suppression and persecution, Catholicism gradually re-emerged in the French countryside, a place of impoverished parishes lacking clergy that provided the young priest with a cause which required zeal, toughness and strength of character.

More tough times

Moreau responded bravely and aggressively to the task, and in 1835 he was appointed by a bishop to head a band of priests to serve the parishes near LeMans. These priests would soon be joined by the Brothers of Saint Joseph, founded in 1820 by Father Jacques Dujarie, who asked his friend Moreau to assume authority over these teaching brothers when he had grown old. Moreau agreed, and his plans for a unified religious community bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience began to take shape. Moreau’s tenacity, his administrative and organizational skills, and his sense of duty and loyalty to spreading God’s kingdom throughout the world—as well as his ability to marshal the people and resources to realize his vision—were indeed heroic.

Moreau’s motto for the congregation—"The Cross, Our Only Hope"—conveyed his sense of mission and spirituality. He sought in all ways to be Christ-like, and this often meant an exacting level of piety, sacrifice and self-denial. His biographer, Gary MacEoin, writes of Moreau’s fasting several days a week, his not using his bedroom fireplace even during winter, his practice of scourging himself and wearing “metal girdles with sharp points that dug into the skin at each movement.” He also limited his sleeping hours, MacEoin writes: “In the middle of his active life, he stopped going to bed altogether, and for the last 25 years he slept sitting in a deep armchair.”

But by 1857, returning from Notre Dame, Moreau was to face his sternest test yet. A serious challenge to his administration came from within the ranks of Holy Cross, led by its most distinguished members, men picked by Moreau for positions of leadership and prestige—Sorin, Father Victor Drouelle, the procurator at Rome and liaison with the Holy See, and Father Louis-Dominique Champeau, superior of the CSCs in Paris and head of their college there. The story is an old one: Strong-willed and ambitious leaders sparring over control, power and money.

The ingredients for the collision included the Vatican’s bolstering the authority of the congregation’s religious superior when it approved the constitutions that year and Moreau’s lieutenants bristling at the founder’s new empowerment. The situation worsened as these men of well-intentioned aspirations tried implementing plans that exceeded the resources available, then dipped into Holy Cross coffers without proper approval, thus incurring formidable debts. Complicating these already volatile matters was Moreau’s practice of accepting into his personal possession various gifts, bequests and properties that came to the congregation through him and his personal relationships with benefactors. This entanglement may have been innocent at the outset but surely fueled the fires when it came time to sort out and repay the congregation’s imposing debts.

At the center of the fray was Brother Marie Julien. He had earned admiration as general steward of the mother house and was assigned by the congregation’s general chapter in 1857 as steward of the house in Paris and assistant to the superior general. He thus gained power of attorney to transact business with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a major source of funds for the Holy Cross missions. Brother Marie Julien became, in effect, the congregation’s banker, allowing Drouelle, Champeau and Sorin to conveniently draw from accounts without Moreau’s knowledge (though Sorin seems to have largely kept himself occupied with the American scene and out of the political tempest brewing in France).

The house of cards—and the tensions it caused—continued to rise over the next several years, until the internal squabbles required an investigation by Church authorities. The tumble came in 1860 when an examination of Holy Cross finances revealed a startling fact: “Marie Julien,” writes Moreau biographer MacEoin, “had been duped by a swindler who had convinced him to invest huge amounts of borrowed money in a bogus stock deal. It was not suggested that Marie Julien wanted the money for his own use. His purpose was to put Holy Cross once and for all on its feet. But the effect was the same.”

The brother took off, Vatican officials investigated, fingers pointed. The debt was enormous—equal to about one-fourth of the gross assets of Holy Cross in France. Moreau, driven by the desire to honor the loans and protect the congregation’s reputation, enforced an austerity program in order to pay off the debt. But the severe restrictions further damaged his relations with Drouelle, Champeau and others. Some Holy Cross ventures were curtailed and holdings sold; the internal furor sharpened, and the Vatican tried (not once but several times) to sort out the mess. On June 21, 1866, after years of sacrifice, bitter wrangling and personal torment, Moreau was removed as superior general—and assigned the burden of guilt for the acrimonious financial collapse. By then the congregation included 500 religious in almost a hundred houses in France, Algeria, Canada, the United States and Bengal. When Moreau left his office, the debt was nearly gone, although properties at LeMans and Sainte-Croix—symbolically and literally at the heart of Holy Cross—would be liquidated.

A dream survives

Then 68, Moreau continued as superior general of the sisters. He also continued to write and to give missions and retreats, with, writes MacEoin, “all the enthusiasm of a young man.” He died on January 20, 1873. In 1955 the cause for canonization was initiated, and 130 years after his death Moreau was declared “venerable” by Pope John Paul II, moving him a step closer to beatification and eventually sainthood.

The religious order Moreau founded survived the financial crisis, the selling of the mother house, and the general chapter in Rome in 1868, during which the CSCs voted on whether they would cease operation or persevere. Moreau’s life work was rededicated, and Sorin was elected superior general. Sorin, who died in 1893, would make 50 transAtlantic voyages in his lifetime, spending most of his days at Notre Dame while managing the international affairs of the congregation as it expanded its reach.

Today the congregation has 1,670 priests and brothers serving in 15 countries on four continents, operating schools, parishes, missions, medical clinics, homes for the homeless, colleges and universities. There are CSCs in Europe and North America as well as in Bangladesh, India, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania who are teachers, artists, biologists, doctors, authors, scholars, missionaries, servants of the poor and parish priests. Perhaps its most visible endeavor, its most notable achievement is the University of Notre Dame—and Notre Dame today is undoubtedly what it is because of the vision, leadership and dedication of the congregation.

Nineteenth-century Notre Dame was clearly the creation and reflection of the intrepid Sorin, who brazenly founded the school as a university when it consisted of a shabby log cabin overlooking a pair of adjoining lakes on 524 acres of woods, a very long walk from the pioneer settlement near the south bend of the Saint Joseph River. Sorin and his cohorts—virtually all of whom initially were Holy Cross brothers and priests—carved their place into wilderness, establishing a school (that took students of all ages) and the farms, shops and auxiliary enterprises necessary to sustain the operation. Priests and brothers were administrators, teachers, rectors, farmers, cooks, bakers, tailors, cobblers, butchers and religious leaders. And the sisters, in addition to launching nearby Saint Mary’s College, served Notre Dame as cooks, housekeepers, caretakers and teachers. Communally, their ingenuity, resourcefulness and hard work pushed the fledgling institution through some tough decades financially as well as tragic epidemics and catastrophic fires.

By early in the 20th century Notre Dame was making a name for itself in the national consciousness, and Holy Cross religious predominated in the classrooms, residence halls and in University administration. It was not until James Frick became head of public relations and development in 1966—a year before University governance was turned over to a lay board of trustees—that Notre Dame had a layperson as a vice president. Today the institution is directed by this lay board of trustees but ultimately is governed by the University fellows composed of six laypersons and six Holy Cross priests. The University president has always been a CSC.

The rows of crosses in the Holy Cross cemetery offer a litany of men whose lives—singly and collectively—have given Notre Dame its sense of place. Those values fundamental to Notre Dame today derive from Holy Cross principles: The nurturing of mind and heart. A devotion to community that has deepened to familial kinship. The mutually animating interaction of student and teacher. The quest for truth, the application of knowledge toward the benefit of others, the intimate, gnarly give-and-take of residence hall living. A deep, rich and textured Catholic character.

The Notre Dame ethos

Generations of students cite Holy Cross priests as those most influential in their lives at Notre Dame—as teachers, rectors, mentors, pastors, confessors, friends. CSCs have populated the offices of the Main Building, been scientists and scholars, been celebrated in campus folklore as prefects of discipline, authors of The Religious Bulletin and “Letters to a Lonely God.” As campus ministers they’ve performed weddings and baptisms and other rites of passage—whether coaxing a student into adulthood or personally bequeathing the Notre Dame ethos upon the latest cohort of Domers.

“Holy Cross priests,” says Rev. Peter Jarret, CSC, religious superior for the 60 or so CSCs now serving the University, “share a deep sense of the history of the place and a longstanding passion for its mission. Notre Dame has been in our blood for so long it’s been passed from generation to generation until this way of doing education—the emphasis on mind and heart—is in the family.”

In recent years University observers and leaders have looked to Holy Cross as keepers of the traditions, the corporate body that animates and safeguards the Catholic nature of the institution, and as the leaven for those efforts to fulfill the University’s mission. The vitality of residence hall life is certainly attributable to the presence of Holy Cross there. But Jarret and others are aware that the legacy will be harder to sustain if the impact of Holy Cross is felt only in the dormitories or Campus Ministry, and becomes less conspicuous in academics and administration. Notre Dame has been a good source of vocations to the congregation, but the overall decline in vocations coupled with the expansion and advance of the institution has meant a decline in the proportion of Holy Cross religious across campus. Sharing the effort, though, has been a hallmark of the CSCs wherever they’ve been.

“The thing about Holy Cross,” says Rev. Patrick Neary, CSC, head of the congregation’s seminary at Notre Dame, “is that we’ve never tried to do it alone; it’s not just us. Notre Dame has always depended upon the talents of lay people, and we’ve always collaborated with the laity. But our presence is critical to remind people what Notre Dame is all about.”

Those qualities can be traced to Moreau and the traits he wanted Holy Cross to bring to the world. They’ve been shaped and adapted by all who have contributed to the institution—both lay persons and the many CSCs who have taken up the vision and given their lives to the place. Moreau’s beatification is a fitting testimony to the power of one person, but it’s also a splendid tribute to a community of diverse individuals and an opportune reminder of a legacy shared.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.