French America

The French Roots of the University of Notre Dame

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to the University of Notre Dame du Lac, which was founded in Indiana 180 years ago.
© Mathieu Persan

On November 26, 2022, the football team at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana will be taking on their historic rivals, the University of Southern California. The very same day, they will also be celebrating their institution’s 180th anniversary, almost two centuries after it was founded by French priest Edouard Sorin in 1842.

Sorin, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, arrived in the United States the year before. Originally from the Mayenne département, he was 27 when he shipped out from Le Havre. His trip took him to New York City, then to Indiana, on the invitation of Célestin Guynemer de la Hallandière, Bishop of Vincennes (the diocese and town in Indiana, founded in 1732, are named after the officer François-Marie Bissot de Vincennes). When he arrived, the young priest wanted to open a school. The Midwest at the time was attracting an increasing number of migrants, and the Catholic Church was very active in the region. This is how Sorin received a property spanning 524 acres near the current town of South Bend, not far from Lake Michigan.

Accompanied by seven brothers of his order, Sorin arrived on November 26, 1842. Struck by the natural beauty of the site, which he compared to a “New Eden” after first discovering it covered in snow, he founded the current institution and named it Notre-Dame-du-Lac (“Our Lady of the Lake”). A wooden church was soon erected along with the first brick building, which housed a classroom, a bakery, a dining hall, and a dormitory. (The construction, known as Old College, is now home to a seminary.) The first classes taught included French, Latin, Greek, mathematics, drawing, and zoology. On January 15, 1844, the State of Indiana granted the university its official charter.

Sorin was the institution’s first president and remained in the job until 1865. (He later founded St. Edward’s University in Austin.) Today, the campus spans more than 1,261 acres. A bronze statue honoring the memory of its French founder stands at its center. What’s more, with more than 8,000 students, Notre Dame is now one of the most prestigious Catholic universities in the United States.

Article published in the November 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.