Since my first day as a freshman at Notre Dame, my Italian grandmother has peppered me with questions about Luigi Gregori, the artist whose paintings beautify the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Main Building. Born in Naples, my Nona has a cultural radar always on the alert for the Italian needle in the multicultural haystack. At Notre Dame she would not have far to look.
In 1874, Notre Dame’s French founder, Father Edward Sorin, invited Gregori, an Italian, to a freshly minted American university to be its artist-in-residence. Transplanted from Rome to the American Midwest, Gregori was inspired to tell the story of the Catholic Church in America, culminating with a series of classic paintings of Christopher Columbus that captured the Italian explorer’s boldness as well as Notre Dame’s sense of destiny in those early years.
But Gregori’s contributions did not stop there. Besides his magnificent painting of the nave, the transept, the ceilings, and the apse in the Basilica, Gregori’s Father Edward Sorin Performing a Wedding for the Potawatomi is a must-see, and his Saint Bernadette and the Lady of Lourdes appears to have been the model used in the design of our Grotto.
At the end of freshman year, when my father announced that he would be toting my 86-year-old Nona from Baltimore to South Bend to pick me up after final exams, I knew it was my grandmother’s chance to see just how Italian the Fighting Irish could be. But first impressions are tricky things. When I was a high school senior, I remember my dad’s first reaction after visiting Notre Dame and meeting with faculty, students, and administration. “I’m sold on the people,” he said. “The ones in the dining hall, the bookstore, housekeeping, and security.” It was not the endorsement I had expected.
On May 6, my father and his mother left Baltimore at 6 a.m. on an improbable journey. My dad called the road trip a pilgrimage. “Notre Dame is far from everywhere,” he said. “Things change on a cross country trip like this—the people, the landscape, the weather—but if you’re lucky, the journey changes you.”
During the 10-hour drive mother and son listened to Neapolitan folk songs, Willie Nelson, Italian opera, and Johnny Cash singing gospel hymns. When they finally arrived on campus after a long drive, they were greeted by a white-haired security officer. “Welcome to Notre Dame,” were the first words they heard as they caught sight of the golden dome. My grandmother announced to the officer that the first thing she wanted to do was attend Mass. Out of nowhere, a man in a golf cart volunteered to drive her to the Basilica so that she would not be late. So it came to pass that my Nona was introduced to Luigi Gregori without me. But that night at dinner, Gregori scarcely entered the conversation. All Nona could talk about was the kindness of the security guard who had welcomed her, the staff at the Basilica, and the man who gave her the ride in the golf cart to get her to Mass on time.
The next morning I was determined to impress Nona with the art and gothic architecture of South Dining Hall. Before we could sit down the staff manager on duty recognized my grandmother’s need for assistance and offered her a shortcut to a prime seat under The Last Supper. By the time I fetched her an omelet, the staff had already brought her a cup of coffee. She hardly noticed the towering painting as she praised the kindness of the people at Notre Dame.
After my last exam on Thursday morning, it was time for my dad and me to pack boxes and climb stairs. Nona would be sitting this one out. Instead, she wanted to wait for us in the car with the cool South Bend breeze blowing through the windows. When we were done hauling boxes to the curb, Nona was nowhere to be found. The Notre Dame staff had taken notice of her and brought her inside the lobby of the Morris Inn for water and refreshment. When we found her she was delighting in all the attention.
On the 10-hour ride home you would expect an 86-year old grandmother to take at least one nap. Nona was too busy talking. But Luigi Gregori never came up, because she had been changed by the journey. Nona had come to Notre Dame looking for affirmation from a fellow Italian. Instead she had been transformed by the kindness and hospitality of the people of Indiana, the unsung heroes who have been hosting our university and shaping its American destiny from the beginning.
Michael Singleton is sophomore living in Alumni Hall, majoring in finance and ACMS. He is a poet, philosopher, and fine arts enthusiast. Contact him at email@example.com.
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