Maggie Duncan, Staff Writer
It has been said before, but I will say it again: there is something about the Grotto. If you are like most Notre Dame students, you have probably sought the Grotto in times of peace, in times of stress and in times of GPA debacles. You are quiet on the near-frozen kneelers, and you gaze upon the statue of Our Lady, saying words to Her or saying nothing at all. Then, without warning, the bells begin to chime from the top of the Basilica, and the familiar opening notes of the Alma Mater begin to sound. As snow or leaves inevitably fall picturesquely around you, you wonder if God had a part in setting you here today. Maybe, but perhaps there is another person you should thank: John Zack, a long-time worker at the Basilica.
John Zack has helped maintain the Basilica and services at Notre Dame for nearly 27 years. He became head Sacristan of the Basilica 9 years ago.
Zack’s duties entail “[t]aking care of the building maintenance-wise, setting up for all the services we have in the Basilica. I’m in charge of the staff as well as the budget.” His responsibilities also include overseeing the recent renovation of the Basilica’s flooring.
Zack is married with children; usually, the Sacristan of the Basilica is a brother (or, once, a nun). I asked Zack how he got involved with running the Basilica.
“I’m originally from South Bend. I started working for Brother Dennis when I would come home from school for the summers—working at the Grotto, helping out if they needed a hand. When I was getting ready to get out of school [at Indiana University], they said they had a full time job for me, if I was interested.”
Zack laughed and concluded, “Who wouldn’t be interested in working at this place?”
With the amount of events that happen at the Basilica, I wondered what Zack’s favorite part was. His response was immediate—meeting people from all over and all walks of life is the best part of his job. When asked about a favorite memory, Zack was not able to pick so easily.
“There have been so many,” he noted. “To narrow down to one, I don’t know if I could. We’ve had so many things happen, people I’ve met, ceremonies. Definitely my favorite is the Easter Vigil. Well, between that and ordination. I don’t know if I could choose, truthfully. They’re both beautiful and both joyful.”
I asked Zack about one of the most prominent features of the Basilica: the bells. I questioned how they are run, and unfortunately, it seems there is no hunchback to ring the bells of this Notre Dame.
“Well, right now it’s run by a computer that is controlled. We can set times, build in what songs it plays. It plays songs at 9 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.”
The bells begin and end with the Alma Mater, and then rotates songs of the Blessed Mother. During Christmas and Advent, Christmas songs play before Masses.
Besides the Christmas season, the Basilica has myriad special services. One of Zack’s favorites is the Easter Triduum.
“I know certain people who come from quite a distance to come to the Easter Triduum, and they’ll come to everything. They come to morning prayer, they’ll come to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. They come for Good Friday and the Passion Service and stay through Stations of the Cross. They come for everything. It’s a pilgrimage, and there are a lot of people who do that.”
I asked Zack if, as an employee, he felt the force of the community aspect of the university as vividly as students do.
“Yes, I definitely feel the strength of the family,” he responded. “I think the university makes a special effort to include worker’s families in things. Even in something as simple as allowing the staff to have two parking passes to get on campus.”
Finally, I wanted to know how Zack has seen students have evolve over the years.
“There’s been a change in students,” he replied. “If you look at confessions, three quarters of the penitents are students. When I started here that wasn’t the case. Our student attendance here at our Masses has gone up.”
When questioned about students of Notre Dame in general, Zack had a flattering response: “Students are great, oh yes. We have student Eucharistic ministers, readers, sacristans. They’re great.”
John Zack has contributed a lot to our campus through taking care of the beautiful Basilica and ringing the familiar sound of the bells throughout the campus. One more thing he can contribute to us? A word of advice.
“Don’t miss out on the Basilica. Come to Mass at least once, try to get involved in it. Appreciate what you have here.”
Maggie Duncan’s favorite snack is raisins on peanut butter spread along pieces of celery. Some call this treat “ants on a log,” but there is room for discussion. Debate her on this topic at firstname.lastname@example.org.