Building Notre Dame

The indelible images of the older Father Sorin and his flowing white beard make it very easy to forget that he was only 28 years old when he established the University of Notre Dame, an energetic young priest with a bold vision for the future.

Sorin’s imprint is everywhere at Notre Dame. Even today, much of his life’s work stands near the Main Quad located at the heart of the campus. He was personally involved in the design and construction of many of Notre Dame’s oldest and most treasured buildings, including Old College, the Main Building, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Washington Hall, and St. Edward’s Hall. Although it was built after his death, it was Father Sorin’s idea to build a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes at a peaceful spot on campus.

He was not only a priest; he also was a postmaster. In the 1850s, all locales with a post office appeared on official government maps. To make sure Notre Dame was on the maps, Father Sorin applied for—and was granted—a post office in 1851. Sorin himself became the very first postmaster, and the university has had its own post office ever since.

And while he influenced the arc of the university’s history in countless other ways (it’s sometimes forgotten that he started the University band in 1846, the first in the country), perhaps the most famous story in his legacy unfolded after the great fire of 1879. In April of that year, the Main Building and four nearby structures burned to the ground. Surveying the rubble of what was virtually the entire university at that time, Fr. Sorin commented on its meaning:

“I came here as a young man and dreamed of building a great university in honor of Our Lady. But I built it too small, and she had to burn it to the ground to make the point. So, tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.”

Just three years later, the current Main Building was completed, with one added touch: a statue of Our Lady atop the gleaming golden dome.