The Gift of Our Lady

The following story originally appeared on August 11, 2023 in the Alumni & Friends newsletter of the University of Notre Dame. It is reprinted here with permission from the University. 

by Bob Quakenbush (ND '76)

Perhaps the most precious gift the University of Notre Dame ever received was a gift from the women of Saint Mary’s. 

To begin the story, let’s take a brief detour to one of the most famous squares in Rome, the Piazza di Spagna.

Notre Dame Golden DomeRising from the plaza of the Piazza di Spagna (also known as the Spanish Square) is the Colonna dell'Immacolata Concezione (Column of the Immaculate Conception), designed by the architect Luigi Poletti. The column was erected on December 8, 1857, with the help of 220 Roman firefighters to celebrate the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which had been proclaimed ex cathedra by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

Standing atop the marble column is a lovely statue of the Virgin Mary fashioned by Giuseppi Obici .

According to tradition, each year on the eighth of December, when the Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope visits the Piazza di Spagna in the afternoon and, with the help of Roman firefighters equipped with a very long ladder or crane, places a wreath of flowers on the statue to indicate the love and devotion of the Pope, the Church, and the people of the city of Rome for the Virgin Mary.

Now, let’s return to Indiana, and Notre Dame.

In April 1879, a great and terrible fire nearly destroyed Notre Dame. The University boldly decided to rebuild. Within four months, more than 300 laborers working sixteen-hour-days used manpower and willpower to help Notre Dame rise from the ashes, completing the central part of the building just in time for the opening of the fall semester. The east wing, west wing, and dome would be added in the months and years to come (the dome itself was not completed until four years later).

Nevertheless, by July 1879, a plan to raise the money needed for a new statue to adorn the top of the dome was taking shape one mile west of Notre Dame at St. Mary’s Academy (now Saint Mary’s College), inspired in part by the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.

According to an issue of The Notre Dame Scholastic from 1879:

“We have received a description of the proposed statue of our Lady which is to adorn the new University, and which the young lady graduates of St. Mary's Academy generously proposed themselves to contribute as their crowning gift to Notre Dame. The model of the statue is that adopted by our late Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, in 1854, on the occasion of the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (erected by Pius IX in front of the Propaganda College in Piazza di Spagna in Rome). The material will be of highly polished bronze, sixteen feet in height, the crescent with the serpent beneath, and a starry crown above. Nine of the stars will be seen over and on either side of the head. By day the statue itself and its circle of stars will glitter in the sunlight, an object of beauty for miles around; and by night the nine stars will be lit with the electric light, and thus be a beacon of beauty from a still further distance.”

The women of Saint Mary’s set about the task of raising funds for the new statue, and Giovanni Meli, a sculptor in Chicago, was commissioned to create it. Meli’s statue was delivered to Notre Dame in July 1880, and was placed on the front porch of the Main Building -- where it would remain for more than three years before its ascension.

Work continued on the Main Building, and the construction of the dome was finally completed in September 1883. A few weeks later, the statue was carefully—and joyously—raised to the top of the dome using block and tackle.

The October 13, 1883, edition of The Notre Dame Scholastic described the process of placing of the statue on the dome on Wednesday, October 10, and Thursday, October 11:

“The great event of the past week was the placing of the colossal statue of the Blessed Virgin on the Dome of the University. As is well-known, since it was first brought to Notre Dame in the summer of 1880, the statue has been adorning the front porch of the main building, and awaiting the time when its pedestal—the Dome—would be completed. As announced in the Scholastic, a short time ago, the exterior work of the Dome was finished, and everything was ready for the statue. On last Monday afternoon, the statue was lowered from the front porch and brought to the rear of the College. There it was allowed to remain until the apparatus necessary for raising it to the summit of the Dome could be prepared. Everything was ready by Wednesday noon and that afternoon, slowly but surely, the grand figure ascended to the roof of the College. On Thursday work was resumed, and at length, at five o'clock p.m., amid the ringing of bells, the statue was seen to rest firmly and securely on its grand pedestal.

“The statue is the work of the late Mr. Giovanni Meli, of Chicago, and is the largest of its kind in the United States. It stands sixteen feet in height and weighs 4,400 lbs. The work of raising it to its present position was skillfully accomplished under the direction of Mr. Alexander Staples, of South Bend.

"To-day this grand statue, so familiar to the visitor and student at Notre Dame, stands upon her magnificent throne, and, with extended arms, gives the assurance of the continued protection of her whom it represents.”

Our Lady had to wait a few more years before she would be covered with gold, but that’s another story.

But now you know one of the best gifts Notre Dame ever received—the statue of the Mary, the Mother of God, that stands on the Golden Dome—was bought and paid for by gifts from the Sisters of the Holy Cross, students, and alumnae of Saint Mary's.

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