Taking a “vigorous stand”

Author: Dennis Brown

Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C.
Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C.

Notre Dame and the cholera pandemic of 1846-60

Much like the current coronavirus pandemic, though longer and on a greater scale, cholera crippled the world throughout much of the 19th century. Beginning in 1817 and continuing to 1896, five cholera pandemics killed millions of people worldwide.

The first originated in India and the fifth stretched from 1881 to 1896, with few nations spared the pain and suffering to varying degrees. Other cholera pandemics continued in the 20th century, though improved sanitation and, in particular, major breakthroughs in medicine, reduced the mortality rates.

Much as is the case today, global transportation, as well as greater trade and migration, played a significant role in the initial spread of the disease from India to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and East Africa. The second and subsequent waves rocked North America, Europe and South America as well. Though precise figures are unknown, the estimated number of deaths in just the first two pandemics reached into the millions.

Perhaps the most significant death attributable to cholera, at least in the United States, was that of President James K. Polk. The country’s 11th president, he pledged to serve only one term, from 1845 to 1849. His health was undermined by his time in the White House and, just months after leaving office, he died June 15, 1849, of what most historians believe to be cholera.

Scientists of the day ascribed various causes for the cholera outbreaks. Some blamed poverty in certain communities; some in the United States pointed at immigrants, especially the Irish; others looked upwards, to divine intervention; and many people thought that stagnant standing water was a culprit.

It was the third pandemic, from 1846 to 1860, that had the most profound and tragic consequences for Notre Dame, then a very small college that had been founded only four years earlier by Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C. Stagnant water was the likely cause.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter VI of “Notre Dame – One Hundred Years,” a book by Rev. Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C., published in the University’s centennial year of 1942. In this chapter, Father Hope, a professor of philosophy, describes a calamitous event that preceded the even more harrowing battle with cholera on campus. Many of the challenges the small community faced at the time parallel those we face today. It all ended with an audacious move by Father Sorin on Holy Thursday, 165 years ago.


Notre Dame – One Hundred Years

By Rev. Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.


Chapter VI

IN THE YEAR 1849, along in November, Father Sorin was preparing for the consecration of the new church. He had finished the edifice only by squeezing every possible penny from his resources. But, of course, the Bishop was coming for the ceremony. One must receive a Bishop with decency. Father Sorin had set aside some little money to grace the festivities. There would be extra candles for the procession, some expense for the outfits of the altar boys; and, of course, there would be a banquet fitting the occasion. As he counted his money he saw that he would have nothing left.

It was a pity, too. The morning set for the arrival of the Bishop, Father Sorin was interrupted in his preparations by an insurance agent. Hadn't Father Sorin better put some insurance on these new buildings? Never can tell when fire might destroy what you have built at so much cost. "That's true!" answered the priest, "but see, right now, I haven't the money. If it were not for this little celebration for the consecration of our church, I could spare the cash. But not today! No, you must come later and I will insure the buildings."

A week passed. Then came Saturday, November 18th. At midnight the Sister Sacristan awoke to find three rooms in the Apprentices' building in flames. She screamed in terror. Immediately her cries awoke the entire community and student body.

The fire spread so rapidly that nothing could be saved. Within two hours, this new building, 150 feet long and two stories high, was reduced to ashes. Up in smoke went the tailor shop, the bakery, the kitchen with all its provisions, the shoemaker's shop, the sacristan's room with all the altar linens, and the stables. The apprentices' dormitory, beds and bedding, their clothes with the exception of what they had on, and all the effects in their study room, were flaming ruins. As he stood looking at the smoking pile, Father Sorin must have had many a sorry thought about that insurance agent. The desolate priest went to his writing desk and wrote to his superior in France:

All the bread and the flour in the bakery has been burned. I don't know how, nor with what I am going to serve breakfast for 150 persons.

The loss was estimated at three thousand dollars …

This conflagration of 1849 was the worst so-far suffered at Notre Dame. There had been other fires previous to this, in which damage, more or less serious, had been done to some of the buildings. This fire left an indelible impression on priests and Brothers. After that, nothing so tranfixed them with fear as the cry of "Fire!" The general use of candles and lamps and stoves was always a danger. There was no sense of security. The community lived in perpetual fear lest they should be wiped out by fire.

Fire was only one of the things that threatened the life of the University. Another disaster befell the institution that was to prove more costly. At various times during eight years, from 1847 to 1855, an exhausting epidemic of malarial fever and cholera so oppressed the faculty and students that the University almost closed its doors. Some inkling of what might happen was given in 1845 when many were sick of malaria, although none died. But in 1847, shortly after the harvest, one of the Sisters at Bertrand (Editor’s note: the original home in Bertrand, Michigan, six miles north of Notre Dame, of Saint Mary’s College), Sister Mary of Mount Carmel, died, while, at the same time, twenty of the sisters were violently ill. At Notre Dame, Fathers Sorin, Granger, and Cointet were sick. Brother Gatian, who kept a chronicle of those days, was ill for months. During the next few weeks, there were fifteen or twenty sick all the time. The infirmary could not contain them. One of the dormitories was transformed into a hospital. Many of the students were attacked. The few religious who were able to stay on their feet dragged themselves from bed to bed, trying to minister to the wants of the sick. It was a desperate situation. There was so much to do, and there were so few to do it. Each one's tasks were multiplied by five or six, and at nightfall, those who were well fell exhausted on their beds. Some of the students went home with the fever. In spite of the fact that the epidemic was very wide-spread, parents were persuaded that the cause of the infection was at Notre Dame itself. They refused to send their children back to school, and dissuaded many others from coming.

The following year, the fever abated somewhat, but many of the faculty members were sick. In fact at one time there was only one professor able to be up and about. As there was, strangely enough, very little sickness among the students just at this time, the boys must have enjoyed themselves.

In 1854 the ravages of cholera made themselves felt in many parts of the country. Particularly in the South, at New Orleans, thousands died from the plague. There was a general epidemic in many regions. When, in the late summer, the disease seemed to have spent itself, and when it seemed that Notre Dame was to escape the scourge, one of the Sister postulants was taken with violent pains in the chest. She died in a few hours. The following night one of the apprentices, a promising lad of thirteen, was found dead in bed by his own father who had come to see him and had himself been watching over the boy for the past few days.

A few days later two young students were sent home in coffins. Terror began to spread through the ranks. Father Sorin began to think that it would be perhaps the wisest thing to close down the University. As though his mind were not already harried enough, someone burst into his room to tell him that one of the Brothers, Brother Alexis, had been drowned in the lake.

Up at Bertrand, conditions were terrible. Five persons, two professed Sisters, two novice Sisters, and one postulant, died about the same time. At Notre Dame death came to five Brothers and three postulants. It was feared that if the students knew of these deaths a panic might ensue. Consequently Father Sorin tried to keep them in the dark. The dead were taken to the cemetery at night and buried without any religious solemnity. Conditions, however, could hardly be kept secret, and when professors did not appear for class, the students suspected the worst. Their fears were confirmed when, day after day, the mounds of sandy clay increased in the cemetery.

On September 7th, Father John Curley died. His death was particularly affecting. He was a young man, lately come from Ireland, and had been ordained just the year previous. When the cholera struck the University, he had been especially zealous in his care for the sick. So genuine was his devotion, so fearless his ministrations, that the entire community was crushed by his death. When they gave him the last sacraments, however, and witnessed his profound satisfaction with God's will, Father Sorin could write: "It left nothing to be desired; nothing to be feared."

Father Curley had been dead ten days. Already there were nineteen new graves in the cemetery. Then, on the afternoon of September 13th, Father Cointet, returned from one of his missions, feverish, weary, and sick. When they told Father Sorin, it was as though a knife had pierced his heart. Because Father Cointet, more than any other of his associates, had been Father Sorin's comfort and buoy, the fear of another catastrophe drove him to distraction.

For a week, while the doctors and Sisters tried frantically to cure him, Father Cointet lay in the infirmary. He seemed to be of the impression that he was going to get well. On September the 18th, however, Father Sorin told the good priest to prepare for death. Father Cointet was surprised. But he was resigned. After having received the last sacraments, and passing the whole night in fervent prayer, he died the following morning. "When I saw he was going to die, I thought I would lose my mind," wrote Father Sorin. "For eleven years, he had been the glory, the light, the joy, and the life of the community and the missions." Some idea of how much he was revered can be gathered from the fact that, when Father Sorin had completed his church, he buried Father Cointet by the side of those two great missionaries, Fathers Deseille and Petit. It was a bold compliment to his co-worker that his bones should rest in the same grave with men he considered saints.

During the following winter, the sickness abated, but did not totally disappear. All were so weak that the slightest upset sent them back to the infirmary. In the following spring new cases developed. Happily the students were not touched. But such seemed to be the contagious condition of the college that everyone lived in dread lest there should be a general exodus of the seventy students, and thus bring the school to a close. One day in March, 1855, a young seminarian, Mr. De Vos, died. A few days later, Sister Bethlehem died.

In South Bend, and in surrounding towns, they were saying openly that there must be something about Notre Dame itself that was causing all this sickness. It didn't seem to occur to these critics that there had been a general epidemic throughout the country. To add to the local misery, as Father Sorin himself records, there was the bitter insinuation of the "Know-Nothings" that the Notre Dame cholera was brought on by the Catholic religion. Others professed a more plausible solution. Some said that it was caused by a certain fish that the Indians had always regarded as poisonous, and of which there was an abundance in the lakes; others decided that the cause lay in the drinking water; the greater majority, however, laid the blame on the marsh land that surrounded the lakes. And this latter opinion was shared by Father Sorin. He had attempted on more than one occasion to lower the water level of the lakes, and drain the marsh. At the western end of St. Mary's Lake the water descended in a narrow stream to St. Joseph's river. This stream, about a quarter of a mile long, flowed through property that belonged to a Mr. Rush. Rush had built a dam in the ravine that lies just below St. Mary's College. This dam kept the water in the lakes at a high level. When he demanded an unreasonable price for the property, Father Sorin was unwilling to submit to this bit of highway robbery, as he put it.

Then early in April, 1855, came the death of Brother John of the Cross, one of the most able and exemplary of the Brothers. Everyone was thoroughly aroused lest the series of deaths in 1854 should be repeated. Something had to be done. To the great surprise of everyone, Mr. Rush came forward and offered to sell the property at a more reasonable figure. Father Sorin could have the property for $8000. They spent four days drawing up the necessary papers, and just when the transaction was to be completed, Mr. Rush left town.

Father Sorin was deeply resentful. He felt that Mr. Rush was playing with human lives, that his avarice had blinded him to the misery so long endured at Notre Dame. Rush wanted more money. It didn't matter if a few more religious died in the meantime. In this moment of trial, Father Sorin took the law in his own hands. It was Holy Thursday morning, 1855. Before Mass, Father Sorin called five or six of his workmen. He told them to get their axes and hatchets and crowbars, to go over to Mr. Rush's dam, and to smash it to pieces. If anyone asked them what they were doing, they were to say simply that they had orders to tear down the dam. They were do it quickly and expeditiously! Then Father Sorin went to say Mass.

This bit of high-handed business might have had serious legal consequences for Father Sorin. That it did not was due partly to the fact that even in South Bend, there was resentment against Mr. Rush for his annoying behavior. Then, too, Mr. Rush seems to have been completely non-plussed by Father Sorin's boldness. Father Sorin, some months later, wrote: "There are moments when a vigorous stand upsets the enemy." Anyhow, Rush completed the deal. The water level sank. The marsh was dried up. There was no more cholera at Notre Dame.

Editor’s note: More than 20 members of the Notre Dame community died of cholera between 1847 and 1855.