Fr. Marvin O’Connell is best known among Notre Dame students and alumni as the acclaimed biographer of Fr. Edward Sorin, Notre Dame’s remarkable founder. Perhaps this is understandable, but Fr. O’Connell’s accomplishments extend far beyond his vivid portrait of Sorin’s life. He stands in the very front rank of distinguished historians who have taught and written at Notre Dame.
Fr. O’Connell first journeyed to Notre Dame in 1956 to study for his doctorate under the direction of the renowned Church historian, Msgr. Philip Hughes. He had been ordained a priest that very year for the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota. His notable talents as a historian were already in evidence as he had published a well-researched book, The Dowling Decade In St. Paul (1955), a version of his Master’s thesis at St. Paul Seminary, which examined the Church in the twin cities in the 1920’s.
It would not be the last time that O’Connell would explore Catholicism in Minnesota, but under the astute guidance of Msgr. Hughes he turned his attention to the history of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. He wrote his dissertation on Thomas Stapleton, a prolific figure of the English Counter Reformation and, when revised, Yale University Press published this in 1964.
By this point Fr. O’Connell had returned to St. Paul and begun his distinguished tenure as priest, teacher and scholar at the (then) College of St. Thomas. His reputation as a brilliant lecturer and demanding teacher were clearly established during his years at St. Thomas. He also wrote his wonderful account of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement – The Oxford Conspirators (1969)—which culminated with Newman’s reception into the Catholic Church in October, 1845.
In 1972, to Notre Dame’s great good fortune, Fr. O’Connell received his archbishop’s permission to return to this university to assume the position previously held by his now-deceased mentor, Philip Hughes. So began well over two decades of exemplary service. His teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels was especially noteworthy and challenging. Indeed, I have had fellow priests in the Congregation of Holy Cross tell me that they worked harder but learned more in his course on the Reformation than in any of their theology classes. His rather intimidating physical presence guaranteed that undergraduate students maintained high standards of decorum and commitment in his classroom. From 1974 to 1980 Fr. O’Connell chaired the history department and proved a capable administrator who recruited talented faculty.
During his first year as chair of the history department Fr. O’Connell published The Counter Reformation,1559-1610, a volume in the prestigious Rise of Modern Europe series edited by William L. Langer. This book was well received and even named as a History Book Club selection. O’Connell took special pride in Langer’s description of the book as so balanced and fair-minded that a reader could not tell whether it was written by a Catholic or a Protestant. Langer rightly noted that this was a “tribute to the author’s depth of understanding and truly unusual objectivity.”
While carrying his administrative responsibilities and leading the history department in a characteristically firm way Fr. O’Connell sought a new vehicle for his always lucid prose and chose to write a novel. He published McElroy in 1980, his fictional account of the trials and tribulations of a postwar Minnesota politician whom some readers thought bore a certain resemblance to Senator Eugene McCarthy, whom O’Connell had known during his years at St. Thomas. Writing history, however, remained his true passion as the remarkable books he published over the following three decades clearly illustrated.
First came his masterful biography of the great American churchman and first archbishop of St. Paul, John Ireland. John Ireland And The American Catholic Church (1988) was not a narrow study but a true “life and times” portrait which cast essential light on the Americanist movement and the place of Roman Catholics in American political life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Upon reading this splendid book Fr. Theodore Hesburgh reached the firm conclusion that he must enlist Fr. O’Connell to write the life of Notre Dame’s founder. He knew that Fr. O’Connell could do justice to the experience and accomplishments of Fr. Sorin.
Father O’Connell found that possibility of interest but knew he had other projects to complete. The first of these he published in 1994, the year he retired from full-time teaching, as Critics On Trial: An Introduction To The Catholic Modernist Crisis. This beautifully written multiple biography offered sympathetic portraits of an array of Catholic modernists and assessed their significance as a “movement.”
Soon thereafter came Blaise Pascal: Reasons Of The Heart (1997) which tracked not only Pascal’s spiritual journey but also the religious turmoil of seventeenth century France. On completing that book Fr. O’Connell observed correctly that his various works had allowed him to engage “many of the great issues that have confronted the Church during modern times: the English Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Oxford Movement, Modernism, Americanism, and finally, French Jansenism.” His was a truly impressive body of scholarly work that revealed his broad interests and notable breadth covering compelling topics from the sixteenth century forward and on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, especially for those fascinated by the history of Notre Dame, the best was yet to come.
Fr. O’Connell’s magisterial account of the life and times of Edward Sorin, CSC, appeared in 2001. He dedicated the book to Fr. Hesburgh, whom he deemed the “Second Founder of Notre Dame.” Sorin, coming in at a mere 737 pages, made no genuflection in the direction of hagiography. O’Connell was too gifted a historian to succumb to that temptation. The book recounts in riveting detail the deep clash between Edward Sorin and his religious superior, Basil Moreau, the recently beatified founder of the Holy Cross Order. In revealing the contest between these two complex personalities, Fr. O’Connell addressed the larger issue (as the historian Gerald McKevitt noted) of “the struggle of European institutions—in this case, a religious congregation—to adapt to the American environment.”
The book garnered high praise from reviewers, one of whom described its thirty chapters as “thoroughly researched and beautifully crafted with rhapsodic descriptions of place, complex character development, and a fine sense of pacing. It reads like a good novel, partly because Sorin was such a character.” O’Connell surely captured the essence of that character in this memorable description: “Whether sad or happy, however, he simply refused to entertain the possibility of failure. So confident was he in his own powers, so sure of the ultimate righteousness of his goals, and so deep his faith that God and the Virgin Mary had summoned him to America to accomplish a great work, that no obstacle could confound him. He was no saint. He was capable of duplicity and pettiness and even ruthlessness. But for sheer courage and for the serene determination that courage gives birth to, he was hard to match” (p. 182-83).
Fr. O’Connell made clear that Sorin was primarily a priest and missionary rather than an educator. Notre Dame’s founder was determined to establish Catholicism more firmly in this predominantly Protestant nation, and all that he did, especially his building of this university, sought that end. Whatever the setbacks in this undertaking – the struggles, the fires, the deaths – he never gave up. Fr. O’Connell captured all the formidable challenges and the occasional triumphs, and neatly summarized his argument: “the paramount truth remains that Notre Dame survived because Edward Sorin . . . refused to fail” (p. 400). This book remains essential reading for all who would truly understand Notre Dame and seek to guide its present and future.
Fr. O’Connell might have been expected to rest on his laurels after the completion of this major work but his passion to write history remained undimmed. He fulfilled a promise first made to Archbishop John Roach to write a history of his home archdiocese, and so his Pilgrims To The Northland: The Archdiocese Of St. Paul, 1840-1962 was published in 2009.
It allowed him to tell the story of the Church which had received his immigrant ancestors from Ireland and which had helped shape him. Now he is at work on another Notre Dame study – this one an exploration of the presidents of our university from Sorin to Hesburgh. It also will be required reading for all those who truly want to know the Notre Dame story.
Marvin O’Connell utilized his striking talents as a historian as an integral part of his fundamental vocation as a priest. He once described the historian as a veritable “midwife to our faith,” who must capture as best the evidence will allow the truth of the past. His work recognizes both that God revealed himself “in an historical person who, at a particular time and place, went from town to town, doing good, who was like us in all things but sin,” and that “the life of Christ is extended into the life of his people, the Church.”
He made the latter his special subject, and understood “the special role in the life of the Christian people” of history and the historian. He has notably filled this role and contributed much to our understanding of the Church’s journey over the past 5 centuries. His mentor, Monsignor Hughes, quietly observing him from a higher place (and no doubt in the company of such worthies as Matthew Fitzsimons, James Ward and Ralph McInerny) must be deeply proud that the young priest from Minnesota, whom he trained well over a half century ago, developed into the master historian that his colleagues and friends enthusiastically acclaim today.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, is a professor of history at Notre Dame and a member of The Rover’s council of faculty advisors.