History of Notre Dame: August Lemonnier, A Forgotten Man, Part Three

I graduated in 2009 from the University of Notre Dame with a BA in History. As a senior, I felt I had a fairly good grasp of the history of Notre Dame. That was, until I took my senior thesis class with Father Blantz: The History of Notre Dame. It opened my eyes to an entirely new, exciting side of a university that helped to shape me into the man I am now. Over the next several blog posts, I would like to share excerpts from my thesis paper in hopes that you take the time to research other topics, eras, and people within the rich history of Notre Dame. I say time and again that the people at Notre Dame make it the place it is. I hope to find this true as well. Without further ado, please let me introduce you to Father Auguste Lemonnier: A Forgotten Man.

Among the first to reside and receive an education at Notre Dame were the orphans of the area. There had been orphanages in the area prior to the one at Notre Dame run primarily by the Sisters of Charity. These orphanages, however, would house children only until the age of 12 or 13.

The orphanage at Notre Dame was established by the Brothers of Saint Joseph to house and educate those children beyond the ages of 12 and 13. Notre Dame was known primarily as a vocational school during its beginnings. Many of the people in the area were destined to be manual laborers rather than intellectuals. The Manual Labor School of the Brothers of Saint Joseph was founded to fill the need for a place where vocational training and apprenticeship might take place. From these humble beginnings, Father Sorin would see to it that Notre Dame became “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.” 

The Industrial School was for Catholics who are unable to give boys a college education for moderate expenses, learn a trade, and work manual labor while getting their religious training watched over. [1] This school included five hours of work a day and four hours of schooling. Payments varied from year to year: 150 dollars for the first two years and 100 dollars for the last three years. Not until 1873-1874 was there the first mention of "civil engineering" at Notre Dame.
The college of engineering branched out from the previously mentioned Manual Labor School. It was offered to advanced students in the wake of the Civil War when the need for surveyors for roads and railways was in high demand. The 1873-74 catalogue stated that "The Civil Engineering program will start in the first session of 1873-74 and will afford our advanced students the opportunity long desired of fitting themselves for important professions in life."[2] The College of Engineering was formally established at Notre Dame in 1897, although a program in civil engineering was offered as early as 1873. The college is now organized into the Departments of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science and Engineering. In 1991 the Department of Civil Engineering from the College of Engineering and the Department of Earth Sciences from the College of Science merged into the present Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences. Facilities include Cushing Hall of Engineering, which was completed in 1931, and Fitzpatrick Hall of Engineering, dedicated in October 1979. The current enrollment of the college is approximately 1,062 undergraduates and 267 graduate students, with a faculty of 105.[3]

In my opinion, I don’t think Father Lemonnier gets enough credit for what he did. Just imagine Notre Dame without the library and without that identity. This is by no means taking away anything that Jimmie Edwards did and he should be given full credit for his accomplishment, but if it wasn’t for Lemonnier and his support and friendship with Edwards it never would have happened. Father Lemonnier was able to communicate his vision in terms that caused followers to buy into it. He communicated clearly and passionately, as passion is contagious.

Also, he had the discipline to work toward his vision single-mindedly, as well as to directing his or actions and those of the team toward the goal of improving the University. Likewise, there is little mention of Lemonnier's dealings with the new civil engineering school but he should be given much credit for that and allowing other administrators to help devise such a program that would allow for student development and make them successful professionals. Father Lemonnier ensured that credit for successes was spread as widely as possible throughout the University. Also, he took personal responsibility for failures. This helped other people feel good about themselves and caused the University as a whole to be a closer knit group.

By April 8, 1874, Father Lemonnier was, though only 35 years old, unmistakably a sick man. Perhaps the students realized that this might be their last opportunity to celebrate a man in whom they had so much trust, and for whom their affection was so great. “The curtain falling, Rev. Father Lemonnier arose, bearing in his hands the ribbon-decked addresses presented him during the evening. He expressed his heartfelt thanks to all, individually and collectively, for their appreciation of what he choose to call his feeble efforts in their behalf, and hoped that the students of Notre Dame would continue to conduct themselves as well in the future as they had done in the past; that if they would assure him of this, he would feel fully recompensed, and perfectly contented that they would, one day, make good and useful members of society, thus causing the Alma Mater to take pride in numbering them among her children."[4]

 When the fall term opened, as was previously mentioned, Father Lemonnier was a very sick man. He said: "I came into the world with nothing; I take nothing with me; I am detached from everything; I desire nothing but the grace of God!"[5]  Finally, on the evening of October 29th, after blessing those who had taken such exquisite care of him, he died, very quietly. The next morning, when his death was announced to the students, the campus was deep in sorrow so genuine and real that no greater tribute could have been paid to this energetic and zealous priest

Father Lemonnier’s life, although short, was not lacking accomplishment. He therefore shouldn’t be glossed over just because he died an untimely death that only had him as president for two years. He had his hand in the university for a long time even before he became president and the gains he made during his presidency are still felt to this day and have created for him a lasting legacy. "The life and death of Father Lemonnier we see an almost perfect illustration of the Christian character: gifted with talents of the highest order, he relinquishes all hope of worldly success, becomes an exile from his native land and devotes his life to the welfare of the strangers; here, by his gentle and graceful manners, his varied accomplishments, his zeal, and his integrity, he wins the god will of everyone, draws hundreds of youths to his noble life, and honors God with his religion in his every work: and finally when disease and death came to try him as in a fiery furnace, he endured with a patience and died with confidence that showed how solid was the foundation upon which his faith rested."[6]

Perhaps only in death can one be appreciated for the life that they lived.  Looking back through different articles and writings, it is amazing to see the admiration and loyalty that everyone had towards Father Lemonnier.  The following is an excerpt from a small book of clippings that was made shortly after his death:


"Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee,
None named thee but to praise.
Tears fell when thou wert dying,
From my eyes unused to weep,
And long where thou art lying,
Will tears the cold earth steep.

When hearts, whose truth was proven
Like thine, are laid in earth
Then should a wreath be woven
To tell the world their worth.
And I, who woke each morrow
To clasp my hand in thine,
Who shared thus joy and sorrow,
Whose weal and woe were mine.
It should be mine to braid it
Around they faded brow,
But I've in vain essayed it,
And feel I cannot now." [7]

These along with many other handwritten letters to the university voicing their sadness were the norm in the wake of Lemonnier’s death.  For example, this is a letter from A.C Dodge sending his regards:

“Who, that knew him, can ever forget his open, frank and urbane bearing-that smile that seemed to be the pure, warm sunshine of the heart; and the thousand courtesies and kindnesses which gave a 'daily beauty to his life'?' [8]

These letters and poems have helped to create an aura around Father Lemonnier and what could have been if he had lived longer.  Even Father Sorin commented on the loss of his beloved nephew from the University’s perspective.

"For had he lived, he would have very probably brought out Notre Dame to a conspicuous rank among the Institutions in the land. His whole soul was here; his whole heart was set on Notre Dame, its students, its patrons, and friends." [9]

In a letter to the community, Father Sorin writes of Father Lemonnier's last request of him:

. . . But there is one thing in particular which, as a last request, I feel bound to respect; a dying friend's wish presents itself to the living with a special sacredness, claiming, as it were imperiously, an undelayed satisfaction.  It was on the eve of his death, as your Reverence is already aware that he entreated me not to refuse the Blessed Virgin the fulfillment of a promise he had made her with your consent and mine, viz., to erect here, if he should be restored, a Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes: "For," said he, "although I am not going to be cured, I owe her more for dying as I do, then even for a longer life."[10]

The proposed memorial chapel was described in the Scholastic:

The Lemonnier Memorial Chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes will be 45 feet x 32 feet . . . in keeping with and in the rear of, the new church. It will be decorated with stained glass windows, and ceiling.  It is the intention of the projectors to make it the richest and most beautiful part of the Church of Our Lady of Sacred Heart.  Work to be commenced this season as soon as the old church can be taken down to make room for it.  In all probability, this Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes will be, more than any other, the devotional shrine to which inmates and visitors will hourly repair to pray. [11]

Perhaps the most telling story about the legacy that he left was on his deathbed. His last command to the future President Colovin was to “Be good to the students...”  Father Lemonnier could have given this man any type of advice or imparted some type of deep knowledge, but instead he chose to instruct him on what was the most near and dear to his heart and that was the relationship and love of the students.

Every person at Notre Dame has a story that defines them.  Whether it is Joe Montana in the Cotton Bowl, Father Hesburgh and the Civil Rights movement, or me and the four years that I have spent here, and the same is such with Father Lemonnier.  Not only does this story epitomize the man that he was but it defines what I aspire to be and what most all Notre Dame students should strive for.

"During his term of office occurred one of those incidents which make every Notre Dame executive realize he is more a priest than a president.  Maurice Williams, a student at Notre Dame from 1860 to 1865, had fallen a victim of tuberculosis.  His mother wrote to the authorities at Notre Dame, saying that Maurice, realizing his last days were drawing to a close, longed to return to the scene of his childhood piety to prepare himself for eternity.  She asked if Notre Dame might receive him.  Of course the request was immediately granted.  Father Lemonnier dispatched a letter to Mrs. Williams, and Maurice soon arrived on the campus.  Every day Father Lemonnier visited him, solicitous about his welfare.  When the young man, surrounded by the consolations of religion, finally succumbed on the 17th of December, 1872,   Father Lemonnier was very sad, but very happy.  Notre Dame was, he felt, a success in teaching boys not only how to live a good life, but also in showing them how to die a good death."[12]    Doing the right thing is so often underestimated and taken for granted and it is awesome to see it in action.  Father Lemonnier set the bar high for those to follow in his footsteps both for students and faculty member.  His character and life should be a model for all to live like.

Thank you for taking the time to go back in time with me and learn about a person that you hopefully wont forget.


[1] Scholastic 1873

[2] A Century of Engineering Education. pndp 120-eng2

[3] Civil Engineering pamphlet

[4] Scholastic, April 11, 1874

[5] Arthur Hope, CSC: Notre Dame: One Hundred Years, pp.168

[6] Scholastic Nov. 5, 1874

[7] In Memorium Rev. A. Lemonnier, CSC

[8] collected materials about Lemonnier cple 3/15-18 series

[9] Scholastic. November 8th 1874

[10] Scholastic. V. 8, 1 May 1875, p. 477.

[11] Dorothy V. Corson, A Cave of Candles.

[12] Collected materials about Lemonnier cple 3/15-18 series



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