Before what is arguably the world’s most recognized college landmark—the University of Notre Dame’s iconic Golden Dome atop its Main Building—could be regilded this summer and fall for the 12th time, it first had to be gilded.
That was easier said than done in the 1880s, not because of construction limitations, but rather due to a standoff between Notre Dame’s visionary yet headstrong founder and his confrères.
After the Great Fire of April 23, 1879, the monumental task of rebuilding the Main Building accomplished enough in four months for the students to return in September. But it would not be complete in Father Sorin’s view until a majestic dome with a statue of Our Lady (Notre Dame) was erected.
While work on an iron-framed, wood-clad dome continued, the Giovanni Meli statue of Mary stood on the front porch of the new Main Building. Once the dome was completed—for the most part—in October 1883, the statue was placed atop it.
“For the most part” are the operative words here. As noted, the dome was made of wood on an iron frame, and thus not in any way complete, from Father Sorin’s perspective. He insisted on gilding the dome in actual gold. The Holy Cross Council of Administration thought that was much too expensive, especially in light of the costs to construct the Main Building and other structures on campus, and refused to appropriate the necessary funds.
And so it was that Father Sorin, a remarkable and stubborn visionary, and his colleagues argued over the matter for several years. One member of the council suggested painting the dome and statue yellow or gold. Father Sorin would have none of that.
In 1886, with the standoff at a standstill, Father Sorin, as superior general of the congregation, appointed himself chair of the Council of Administration, moved his residence to Saint Mary’s and refused to hold meetings until he got his way.
“When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. ” –Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C.
The University’s president, Rev. Thomas E. Walsh, C.S.C., a Sorin protégé, persuaded the other members of the council to relent and approve gilding the dome. Father Sorin ended his boycott and the dome was gilded.
The entire episode was not some spur-of-the-moment fit of pique by Father Sorin. As headstrong as he was, a statue of Our Lady on a golden dome was his vision from the very beginning.
In 1844, two years after arriving in South Bend and establishing L’Université de Notre Dame du Lac (the University of Our Lady of the Lake in his native tongue), Father Sorin wrote: “When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a Golden Dome, men may look and find the answer.”
Sources: A Dome of Learning by Thomas J. Schlereth, professor of American studies, University of Notre Dame; and The University of Notre Dame: A History, by Rev. Thomas E. Blantz, C.S.C., professor emeritus of history, University of Notre Dame