Caption
Theodore M. Hesburgh, (second from left), as a seminary student, with other students in front of Holy Cross Seminary in winter of 1934-1935.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

The Seminary: In the Midwest

Freshman Year

In September of 1934, Father Hesburgh, along with his parents and his sister Mary, arrived at Holy Cross Seminary. Father Hesburgh later recalled, “A world apart from what I had known before, the campus of Notre Dame was shaded by giant oaks, quiet, lovely, and awe-inspiring in a medieval sort of way.”

Father Hesburgh recalled being quite homesick his first month away from home, but he soon became acclimated to life on campus.

He, as well as his fellow seminarians, took most courses at the seminary and just a few with the rest of the students, such as chemistry and life science. Father Hesburgh recalled that they were able to attend any basketball or football games they wanted. “In fact, the first Notre Dame game I saw we lost to the University of Texas.” He also recalled his first Christmas away from home, “when the regular University students cheerfully left to spend the holidays with their families, and we seminarians were left behind, lonely and cold.” But he remembered having a great break, during which the seminarians skated on one of the lakes and put on a Christmas play for the local community.

The following summer, after a successful freshman year, Father Hesburgh was able to go home for six weeks. At the end of his visit, he, “along with twenty-nine other novice Notre Dame seminarians and twenty other brother postulants who came from elsewhere to be Holy Cross brothers” left to spend the next year in Rolling Prairie, Indiana.

Rolling Prairie

Twenty-two miles west of Notre Dame, in Rolling Prairie, a town of about six hundred, the Congregation of Holy Cross purchased a farm and built the Saint Joseph’s Novitiate. Father Hesburgh explained, “Its purpose, we learned much later, was to indoctrinate the incoming class of seminarians to the discipline and rigors of priesthood by exposing them to hard physical labor.” It was a means of weeding out those who “did not have the stamina and will to stay the course.”

As the second class to live and work there, they were to help get the run-down, 600-acre farm into working order. After a week-long retreat, they received their black habits. Then they met Brother Seraphim, the former German soldier who “seemed to delight in finding ways to make hard work even more difficult,” and Father Healy, a Harvard graduate and gentleman, but tough priest who “considered it his sacred duty to bear down hard during the novitiate.” They built a barn and silo “cement block by cement block, about fifty-five pounds apiece,” cut down trees and split wood to keep the furnace going in the winter, cleared sumac and brush, collected honey from beehives without protective clothing, put in a sewer line and road, planted and harvested corn and wheat, and butchered pigs. And except for two short breaks a day, one after lunch and one after dinner, the young men spent their days in complete silence.

Despite their household chores, prayer, and studies, Father Hesburgh still had plenty of time to read. He later recalled, “I would guess I read over a hundred books in this period, most of which were on spiritual subjects, including a lot of Cardinal Newman and other classics.”

Sophomore Year

Only nine of the original twenty-nine seminarians returned to Notre Dame after the year at Rolling Prairie. On August 16, 1936, Father Ted and his eight classmates made their temporary vows. They moved into Moreau Seminary on St. Joseph’s Lake and continued their regular course work. Father Hesburgh later said, “Most of our time was devoted to our spiritual and intellectual development, but we also had a substantial amount of grunt work to do.” Father Hesburgh was a waiter and dishwasher. “I waited tables so much during my three years at Moreau that I developed a healthy respect for the job.”

Father Hesburgh also recalled many, many bells.

I rather like church bells and altar bells and musical bells of any kind. But at Moreau Seminary there were bells for starting class and ending class, bells for calling you to choir practice and to work details, bells for recreation periods, different bells for different activities from study periods to playing baseball. I grew to hate those bells as much as I disliked the amount of time we had to put in waiting tables and washing dishes, time that I thought then (and now) could have been better used for our intellectual studies. I never gave voice to those thoughts, you can be sure, because I had taken a vow of obedience, and mine was not to question my superiors.

In July following his sophomore year, Father Hesburgh, along with one of his best friends, Tom McDonagh, were told they would be studying in Rome for their doctorates in theology and philosophy for the next eight years. “When you’re twenty years old, eight years is almost half your life. The thought of being away from our families that long gave both of us considerable pause.” Father Hesburgh had not been home in two years. Thankfully, the young men were allowed two weeks at home.

Theodore M. Hesburgh with his family on the beach, mid-1930s
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

Freshman Year

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his first year in seminary at Notre Dame

Transcript

Tell me about the circumstances, before I mention some other names here. You were a student at Notre Dame, but yet in the Holy Cross order. Where would you live and take your classes? How did it work out in those—

Well, what we did, we—you checked into the Order at what is now Holy Cross Hall, was then Holy Cross Seminary. There were high school kids there, and we were called college men. We pretty much filled one section of the dorm. We had a study hall, as the high school kids did, but the difference was we enrolled at the university. And we took some classes there and some classes right at the seminary. We had classrooms in the seminary. Some profs found it a lot easier, like Jack Turley, Lord rest him, found it easier to come over to the seminary and teach there than to have class at the top of the main building. I think he kind of liked coming to the seminary, and so he came over there to teach a Latin class. On the other hand, Doc Hinton had to teach us in the lab because we also—he'd want to demonstrate some stuff in chemistry. We had that in the old science building. The same with the fellow, the priest who taught, Wenniger, a famous old character at that time who had his doctorate from Vienna. He taught biology, zoology, botany, etc. And he taught that also in the old science building, as they had things to demonstrate, and we had to do some lab work. But others like Father Norm Johnson, Lord rest him, taught us English, and he found it just as easy to teach in the seminary, so we had that class in the seminary.

Did you mix with the other students in other activities likes clubs and such?

Yeah. Not much in the way of clubs because we had a lot going on. In fact we put on a Christmas play, Journey's End, which I played in in the seminary. But that was put on in the seminary mostly for people in the community coming to it because that was during vacation. We saw a lot of students, because after all we were walking around campus all the time when we were in class. But we had very little, I would say, club contact the way they would today, and we were in kind of a "in it" but not "of it". But we went to all of the games we wanted to. I remember going to basketball games and football games. In fact the first Notre Dame football game I saw we lost to the University of Texas, which was then coached by Jack Chevigny, who was a Notre Dame grad who died in Iwo Jima in the Marines. It was a fairly good, typical freshman life, except we didn't have dates and we didn't belong to a lot of clubs. But a lot of those kids didn't belong to a lot of clubs either. It was much smaller place, of course, at the time. But you knew the guys you were in class with.

Rolling Prairie

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his experience in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, when he was 18

Transcript

The first thing we found out—of course we knew some of this from gossip about the place—the first thing we found out was it was a brand new building, and we all had our own room. That was nice. That was something new, because we had lived in a dormitory at Holy Cross Seminary. We got up a little bit earlier. We got up at five o'clock during the novitiate. We found out quickly that we could only talk for an hour after lunch and an hour after dinner in the evening. And even during the meals we had to learn sign language to get—to pass the bread or the pepper and salt or the milk, which we had an appropriate signal for it, the one for milk being milking a cow. I remember that. I think bread was four fingers, platter was holding your hand out flat, potatoes were a fist, etc. So that was the first thing that everybody thought was going to be kind of tough, and indeed it was, at first. The next thing was we were going to have a lot of work that year because here we were in the middle of what had been a six-hundred-acre deserted farm that was completely tangled, overgrown, and had to be brought from nothing back into productivity, so we were intended to grow our own food, other things for selling. We had literally to start from scratch. The place had been opened by the class before ours and they barely got settled in when we arrived. There was in those days an overlap. The group that took their vows, always traditionally on the Feast of the Assumption, the 15th of August, would stay on till school began, to break in the next group. In fact one of them, Father Bill Shriner, was picked to indoctrinate—give us an hour lecture every day. It happened a year later I was picked to give the hour lecture to the incoming class for a month before we went back to Notre Dame to start our sophomore year of college. But that's further on.

I'll never forget the first day. Up at 5 o'clock, we were told. You know the usual thing: one half-hour meditation, then Mass, then thanksgiving, then go in and have a religious book read to us. In the novitiate, it was always a quaint book written about the year 1400. I forget the title at the moment, but it was read to novices for years and years, and it would drive you to frantic laughter today if it were read. But in those days we had to take it rather seriously. It was a very structured church and a very structured community life. So after that and after doing the normal chores around the house, which meant cleaning up your room and cleaning up the corridor and getting the breakfast dishes washed and doing whatever other odd housekeeping details left, we were to show up for work, which now would be, say, about nine o'clock. And we'd have maybe two and a half hours work before we'd have a retreat conference. Also, I should add, we had a retreat conference before we went to work—that was fitted into that period. We had about five conferences a day.

So we all lined up for work. There were about twenty some brother postulants who were novices and as I said the twenty-nine seminarian postulants. So we had close to sixty people lined up for work. We were all given a bucket, and we thought, "That's interesting," and a great assortment of work clothes. And then we were taken out the front door of the novitiate, and we were asked to get in a straight line out that front door. And then squads left. Turn to the left—the whole line. So you had sixty people in line out in front, and then he said, "You will now proceed with this line at right angles to the building, and you will go around the whole building picking up every stone in front of you, in silence." We made that sweep all the way around that building, which was a lot of raw ground. They were getting ready to put in some grass. I was amazed, first of all, how much work you get done when you don't talk. And the sun was very hot and bright out on the prairie. And we literally, in about an hour and a half, had piles of stones six and seven feet high, because everybody had several buckets of stone and at periodic intervals you would dump them on a pile. And those piles got bigger and bigger. And we literally got every stone on that ground policed in a matter of an hour and a half. That was the beginning. When I think of the work I did that year at Rolling Prairie. Well, again, I did a lot of reading. In those days I kept track of the books that I was reading, and I don't know, I suppose I read a hundred books in the course of that year.

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