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This Day in History: Fire at Notre Dame

On this day in 1879, the “Great Fire” destroys five buildings at the University of Notre Dame. When University founder Father Edward Sorin heard the news, he vowed to rebuild—but bigger and better!


Sorin was a Frenchman who’d come to America when he was just 27 years old. He settled in Indiana where he opened first a missionary school, then a college: The University of Notre Dame du Lac (French for “Our Lady of the Lake”).


The university grew. Soon, the Chicago Times would call Notre Dame the “most flourishing Catholic educational institution in the U.S.”


Wednesday, April 23, 1879, was a beautiful spring day on campus, with a slight breeze blowing in from a nearby lake. The roof of the Main Building was undergoing repairs, but the workers were not present when the first signs of fire were spotted atop the roof at 11:00 a.m.


“Fire, fire! The college is on fire!” some students yelled.


“If, when the fire was first detected, water in any quantity could have been brought to the roof,” Notre Dame historian Arthur Hope writes, “it would have been easily extinguished. But the building was six stories high; the buckets placed for just such an emergency were empty; and in the confusion that ensued, precious time was lost.”


Nevertheless, a bucket brigade was soon working, with a few brave souls staying on the roof as long as they dared. Others worked feverishly inside the building trying to save books and other valuables.


Yet the fire was spreading too fast.


“[T]he flames triumphed,” a South Bend Tribune report concluded, “and the immense statue [of the Virgin Mary], with its golden crown and superb proportions crashed down through the fire-weakened dome in utter ruin.”


A horse-drawn fire truck from South Bend finally showed up—much too late. By then, the Main Building was lost, and the fire had spread. Five buildings would ultimately be lost that day.


The campus is “one great pile of smoking, glowing debris which makes one heartsick,” the South Bend Tribune reported. About $200,000 worth of damage had been done. Insurance would cover only a fraction of the cost.


A messenger was dispatched to Sorin, then in Montreal, to tell him the sad news. The University founder was 65 years old by then. His life’s work had just been decimated. What would he do?


Sorin’s reaction surprised everyone when he returned to campus.


“He walked around the ruins,” Professor Timothy Howard remembered, “and those who followed were confounded by his attitude. Instead of bending, he stiffened.”


He beckoned those with him to walk to the church before turning to address them.


“If it were all gone, I should not give up,” Sorin resolved stoutly. No one could believe it. “The effect was electric,” Howard concluded. “It was the crowning moment in his life. A sad company had gone into the church that day. They were all simple Christian heroes as they came out.”


Notre Dame would rebuild—and she would rebuild quickly. Her sister school pitched in to help, hosting a fundraising gala concert and donating Notre Dame’s new gold dome. The university’s alumni also contributed, as did other locals in South Bend.


Surely few construction projects have moved with as much efficiency as Notre Dame’s did that summer?!? Three hundred workers toiled throughout the long hot months, completing the core of the Main Building by September 1879.

More wings would be added in the years that followed, but, amazingly, Notre Dame was sufficiently rebuilt to serve the 324 students who enrolled that fall.


Yet another AMERICAN story of loyalty, community, faith, perseverance—and the resolve needed to make the impossible, possible.


God Bless this great country of ours!


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