John Wukovits ’67 | December 19, 2017
The Christmas seasons of World War II were anything but normal at Notre Dame. As usual, students rushed to classrooms and looked forward to the holidays, but they could not have helped but notice the enhanced military presence occasioned by the war with Adolph Hitler’s Germany and Emperor Hirohito’s Japan. Hundreds of uniformed midshipmen, completing their pre-war training at Notre Dame through an arrangement between the University and the United States Navy, jostled for space on the narrow pathways that connected classroom buildings with student dormitories.
By Christmas 1944, the fourth since the Navy’s encampment began in September 1941, young officers-to-be had become as much a fixture of student life as football games and pep rallies, but they also reminded the rest of the student body that, despite the religious significance and sentimentality of the season, war, violence and bloodshed were an inescapable reality of the world beyond campus.
Students were not the only members of the Notre Dame community touched by the conflict. Along with his Holy Cross brethren at the University, Father Thomas A. Steiner, CSC, the congregation’s provincial superior, celebrated Christmas with Midnight Mass in Sacred Heart Church, a building resplendent with religious paintings, icons and statues. Many people entered the church through its eastern Memorial Door, beneath the inscription, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” honoring alumni and students killed in World War I. Steiner’s thoughts, though, most likely centered on those alumni who had perished in this new war, as well as on the 29 chaplains from Notre Dame and six Holy Cross missionaries then living in battle zones around the globe.
As provincial, Steiner managed the day-to-day activities of the community in the U.S. and approved or denied all requests from Holy Cross priests and religious to serve overseas. From their distant posts these men sent him frequent letters in which they explained their duties, described battlefield conditions and inquired about the latest events back home at Notre Dame.