Marion T. Casey | September 11, 2017
Every Sunday morning, I read “By the Book” in The New York Times Book Review. The interviewee often is asked which guests they would invite to dinner. The combination might be as disparate as Michelangelo, Jane Austen, Nelson Mandela and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Life spans rarely connect. So I decided to have a dinner party for four minims (French for “little ones”) from different decades of the 87 years of their existence at Notre Dame. My dinner would comprise one each from the 1840s, the 1860s, the 1890s and the 1920s. The Notre Dame boarding school took in minim boys ages 5 through 12 from 1842 through 1929, though occasionally a 3- or 4-year-old and even more 13-year-olds slipped through that net.
My first guest, from the 1840s, would be a descendant of the French-Canadian fur trappers who settled in the northern Indiana area. The French language would have attracted Father Edward Sorin to them as he explained his plan of turning a cluster of makeshift buildings surrounding a log cabin chapel a few miles north of South Bend into a school. There, elementary school-aged children in a school-deprived Indiana could learn. Outsiders liked the idea, too. Quickly some took the lake route: Chicago to St. Joseph, Michigan, then again on the St. Joseph River to South Bend. This outer world of Illinois (which Sorin called the “granary” for Notre Dame) heard about the school that taught grammar, reading, mathematics, music, science and more. The Catholic religion was supposed to be gleaned by just being there. All religions were welcomed.
In 1844, with the stroke of a pen, the State of Indiana declared Notre Dame to be a university. Word spread. Upwardly mobile parents impressed by this auspicious title started sending sons by foot, by a water route, or by wagon. Since small boys were bona fide students of the University, they were charged the same rate as the upper division young men. An enormous cost. Despite that, some parents tendered more. Mrs. Conill from Iowa offered Father Sorin more cash if it would go toward her child’s access for tutors or advanced placement but not toward “puddings and pies.” (“Don’t tell him I wrote,” she added.) Education meant that much.