The University of Notre Dame is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Servant of God Brother Columba O’Neill, C.S.C., on Nov. 20 (Monday), with a series of events including a novena, a Mass and a spotlight exhibit at the Hesburgh Library.
Brother Columba was a humble cobbler who worked at the University from 1885 until his death in 1923. He also served as a nurse and caregiver for the University’s founder, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., toward the end of Father Sorin’s life. Brother Columba began the formal process for sainthood on June 24, 2022, when Bishop Kevin Rhoades announced the opening of the cause for canonization.
The novena, co-sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, will begin at 6 p.m. Monday (Nov. 13) in the chapel in Keenan-Stanford Halls. Participants will pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart together as they prepare to mark the centenary. The event is open to the public as well as to members of the Notre Dame community, and those interested can register here.
The following Monday (Nov. 20), a Mass will be held at 5:15 p.m. in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in honor of Brother Columba, with Rev. William Lies, C.S.C., provincial superior of the Congregation of Holy Cross, United States Province of Priests and Brothers, presiding.
“Don’t you sense that there are saints wandering among us? Brother Columba was one of them,” said Father Lies, who served as vice president for mission engagement and Church affairs at Notre Dame prior to his election as provincial superior. “We lift him up as an example of all the holy people on this campus and around the world who in their humble, healing ways continue to build the Kingdom on Earth.”
The Mass, which is open to the public, will also feature a brief reflection by Brother Philip Smith, C.S.C., the U.S. coordinator of the cause for Brother Columba.
While working at Notre Dame, Brother Columba made more than 10,000 images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and more than 30,000 Sacred Heart badges, which he shared with students who came to pick up their shoes, often with instructions to pray a novena. Cures began to be reported throughout South Bend and beyond, and Brother Columba began receiving letters requesting his help.
Brother Smith has curated more than 10,000 letters to and from Brother Columba thanking him for his prayers, badges and cures.
“Brother Columba was an ordinary man, with a profoundly simple prayer life, utterly focused, like so many others in the early 20th century,” Brother Smith said. “He was intent on using his skills for the better of self and community.”
An exhibit of artifacts, “Path to Sainthood: Brother Columba O’Neill,” including one of the Sacred Heart badges he created, is also on display in the Rare Books and Special Collections room in the Hesburgh Library through November.
In addition, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism commissioned new research into the life of Brother Columba, which was published in October in the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.
“Brother Columba reflects in his letters, ‘God humbles me, yet he honors me,’ as he prays for others, mends their shoes and ministers to anyone in the community who asks,” said Heather Foucault-Camm, program director for the Science and Religion Initiative at the McGrath Institute and lead organizer of the novena. “Let us lift up this life of humble holiness and turn to Brother Columba’s example as we seek to more fully understand what it means to be a person for others.”