Review: The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross

The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross, James T. Connelly, C.S.C. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.

Summary: A history of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, describing its beginnings, its focus on education and missions, its approval in Rome, the succession of Superiors General, and the growth of the Congregation until Vatican II and decline in more recent years.

Growing up in a midwestern heavily Catholic town, I had friends who aspired to attend the University of Notre Dame, either to play football, or to get a Catholic education at one of the top universities in the country. What I came to understand in reading this history was that the University of Notre Dame is only the most prominent of a global commitment to education of the Congregation of Holy Cross, from which Notre Dame arose.

It all began at a clergy retreat in 1818 in the French village of Le Mans, at a diocesan retreat where the need for school masters to lead schools in the parishes. They envisioned an order of brothers and priests and entrusted the work to Jacques-Francois Dujarie’ and what became the Brothers of St. Joseph. Rev. Basile Moreau preached the 1831 and 1832 retreats for the brothers and assumed the office of superior in 1835 when Dujarie retired. James T. Connelly traces the history of the development of the Congregation from these humble beginnings.

Moreau was the leader responsible for the Order’s recognition by Rome, having agreed to send priests and brothers on mission to Bengal. Already, he has sent priests and brothers to Canada and the U.S., including Father Edward Sorin, who went to northwestern Indiana, training priests and brothers, starting schools, and a college in South Bend that became Notre Dame.

The history is one of courageous missions, often ending in the early death of those who went. It is one of tension between leaders and provinces–priests, brothers, and sisters. In the U.S., the divisions of the Civil War became reflected divisions between north and south. One of the most notable tensions was between the founding province in France and Edward Sorin and the US. When Sorin succeeded Moreau, the focus of power shifted from France to the U.S., even while the formal center remained in France.

Gilbert Francais followed Sorin and oversaw expansion of the Order throughout the world, even as it was legally persecuted in France and decimated in 1903. Connolly traces the growth of the Order up until Vatican II, which seemed to be a watershed. From then on, the numbers declined by half by 2000, most dramatically in North America, replaced by vocations from Africa, India, Bangladesh and Haiti. The structures changed, reflecting this shift in demographics.

Connelly’s history is granular in detail, and traces developments country by country during each period. Especially in the early years he focuses extensively on the Superiors General, especially Basile Moreau, a deeply spiritual man who failed to administer the growing order well, engendering growing dissatisfaction. Only later was his reputation rehabilitated and he was beatified in 2007. As in many situations, ambition and pride was not absent among his rivals.

At the same time, there is the less prominent but significant work of priests and brothers who founded or took over schools, of which the University of Notre Dame was the epitome. There were the saintly priests like Andre Bessette who established a notable healing ministry at the Oratory of St. Joseph and was canonized in 2010.

I’ve read many evangelical histories of global mission. This is a valuable work to read, to learn of Catholic efforts during roughly the same time frame to evangelize the world, to establish educational institutions, and develop indigenous leaders. In both, there is a period of American ascendancy, a growing struggle with modernity, and a shift of dominance from the West to countries that once were the objects of mission but now are evangelizing the west. Lastly, it is the lesson of the mustard seed writ large in this history–a humble beginning in a French village spreads to much of the world in 150 years.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

2 thoughts on “Review: The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2021 | Bob on Books

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