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President 1905-1919: J.W. Cavanaugh

Identifier: PWC

Scope and Contents

The first part of the collection (boxes 134-215) consists of three series: Student Employment, 1906-07 & 1909-11 (boxes 152,153,209,212) Concerts, Lectures, Films, & Movies, ca.1911-20 (boxes 213-215) General Correspondence, ca.1905-1911 (boxes 134-211)

Scattered Cavanaugh correspondence for 1905-06 may be found in in UPEL 115-133/. The bulk of the correspondence in this part of the collection dates 1906-11, though there are some runs as early as 1904 and as late as 1912, and a few documents date as early as 1895 and as late as 1915.

This part of the collection has item lists identical to UPEL (Early Presidents' Letters) and has been refoldered according to those lists.

The other half of the collection (boxes A-H) is currently being processed. It has so far been divided into four series: Boxes A-F: General Correspondence, ca.1916-1920, Boxes F-G: Subject Files, ca.1910-1920, Box H: Lectures, Concerts, Films, Movies, etc., ca. 1912-18, Box H: Diamond Jubilee, 1917. There is correspondence in this part of the collection that belongs in, and will be transfered to, the Burns Presidential Papers.

The Cavanaugh Presidential Papers contain personal papers that one would expect to find in the Cavanaugh Personal Papers; and the Cavanaugh Personal Papers contains official presidential letters that one would expect to find among his presidential records.


  • Creation: 1895-1922


Language of Materials


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Biographical / Historical

President, 1905-1919, University of Notre Dame.

John W. Cavanaugh was born in Leetonia, Ohio, May 21, 1870, the son of Patrick and Elizabeth Cavanaugh. He had five siblings: Hugh, Patrick, Jr., James, Charles and Mary. Patrick Cavanaugh and all of his sons worked in the coal mines of Ohio. John Cavanaugh was not interested, however, in becoming a miner. His mother -- according to Arthur J. Hope, CSC -- wanted at least one of her sons to get an education, so John Cavanaugh attended the parochial school of Leetonia and in 1886 went to the University of Notre Dame to study at Holy Cross Seminary. On August 15, 1889, John Cavanaugh received the habit and worked during his Novitiate for Notre Dame English professor Maurice Francis Egan. On August 15, 1891, Cavanaugh made his final vows. After his profession Cavanaugh left Notre Dame and his position as assistant prefect to teach at St. Joseph's College in Cincinnati. In Cincinnati he taught English, prepared Dramas and Musicals, and studied Theology. He often visited the family of Thomas Crumley, who lived in the city. After the end of the 1891-1892 school year Cavanaugh returned to Notre Dame and received minor orders. At Notre Dame Cavanaugh taught classes in English composition and appreciation of literature. On April 20, 1894, Cavanaugh was ordained a priest by Bishop Joseph Rademacher of Fort Wayne. The following Sunday Cavanaugh celebrated his first solemn Mass and Father Morrissey preached.

At his return Cavanaugh became assistant editor of the Ave Maria . He was Father Hudson's assistant at that magazine for approximately 15 years. He also continued to teach and his career as an orator evolved. He was in charge of a student debating club, the Philodemics. On August 20, 1898, Father Cavanaugh was appointed superior of Holy Cross Seminary as successor to Father Linneborn, who was appointed Procurator General for the Holy Cross order in Rome. While Cavanaugh was superior of the seminary the numbers of seminarians rose steadily from 64 in 1900 to 84 in 1904. While superior of the seminary he still taught at the University and became dean of the English Department in 1902.

After the resignation of Father Morrissey as President of Notre Dame in the Summer of 1905, Father Zahm (the Provincial) appointed Cavanaugh president of Notre Dame and Father Thomas Crumley vice-president. Both of these appointment, as superior of the seminary and as president of Notre Dame, are connected with the rivalry between the Fathers Zahm and Morrissey. While Zahm stood for the more progressive and scholarly priests who wanted to improve the quality of the education of the Holy Cross Priests, expand the University program, and eliminate the brothers from teaching students, Morrissey represented the traditional faction of the order which was content with the ways things were conducted. Cavanaugh stood more on Zahm's side and profited considerably from Zahm's appointment as provincial. But in 1906 Father Zahm lost his position as Provincial and Morrissey became his successor.

Under the Cavanaugh presidency the University experienced an array of improvements and changes. Cavanaugh's first major project as President was a questionnaire in which he tried to find out how religious exercises at a college should be conducted. In 1905 he sent this questionnaire to a broad group of priests, bishops, and prominent Catholic laymen in the United States. Another task he had to face was the complaints by students and alumni that some of the professors of Notre Dame were considered incompetent. In general Cavanaugh loosened the tight regimen of the former president. In his first year as President, Cavanaugh also received a honorary degree from the University of Ottawa. It was during his presidency that in 1906 the remains of Father Badin, who had bought the ground on which Notre Dame had been founded, were re-interred in their final resting place in the log chapel. That same year the statue of Father Sorin was unveiled.

In 1908 Cavanaugh made an effort to revive the lifeless Alumni Association which had been created in 1868, in the hopes of raising funds for urgently needed expansions of the campus. The Alumni met in June of 1908 and a new Alumni Association was set up. In December of that year Cavanaugh mentioned for the first time that he wanted Notre Dame to adopt military training again. But it was difficult for the University to obtain a military officer from the U.S. Government for the training. Only in 1910 was the University able to get a military instructor.

In March 1911 it was decided to create a replica of the Corby statue at Gettysburg and erect it at Notre Dame. It was unveiled in May 1911. Also in 1911 Father Matthew Walsh succeeded Thomas Crumley as Vice-President of the University. In the winter of 1912 John Cavanaugh hired Jesse Harper as Athletic Director. He was the 1st Notre Dame coach to stay for a whole year. In 1914 Cavanaugh accepted for the University the sword of General Meagher (Civil War general in the Irish Brigade) from Senator Thomas J. Walsh. In 1914 Cavanaugh appointed Knute Rockne as assistant to Jesse Harper. In the summer of 1916 Notre Dame and Father Cavanaugh started preparations for the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee of Notre Dame. In the fall of 1916 the chemistry hall burned to the ground and Cavanaugh had to look for funds to build a new building.

With the entrance of the United States into World War I in April 1917, Cavanaugh tried everything to stop the enlistment of his students so that they could finish their studies. He had considered the military training at Notre Dame always as a form of athletic exercise and not as preparation for actual military duty. In June 1917 the Diamond Jubilee of the University was celebrated. During the war it was difficult for Cavanaugh to keep the numbers of student at a satisfactory level and he lost the services of quite a few teachers and priests who also went off to war. In the summer of 1918 a summer school was initiated, mainly for nuns, to create extra income for the University. On the day of Cavanaugh's Silver Jubilee as priest, in April of 1919, he announced that he would step down as president of Notre Dame. He wanted Matthew Walsh to be his successor but the latter refused and Father James Burns became the next president.

The awarding of the Laetare Medal was always an important event for the University of Notre Dame and Cavanaugh consequently gave this event his close attention. Many of the recipients of this distinction became his friends. One of them was Katherine Conway, the editor of the Boston Pilot , who received the medal in 1907 in Boston from the hands of Cavanaugh. Others were Maurice Francis Egan and Joseph Scott. In 1907 Cavanaugh also planned a special celebration for the silver jubilee of the Laetare Medal in 1908. He tried to gather at Notre Dame all the living Laetare Medallists for that occasion.

Many individuals who visited or spoke at Notre Dame also became personal friends of Cavanaugh, including John Talbot Smith, William Bourke Cockran, Thomas O'Hagan, Seumas MacManus, and Ellen Ryan Jolly. Cavanaugh also invited many influential people to Notre Dame, such as Vice-President of the United States Charles W. Fairbanks, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Edward D. White, William Howard Taft, and Wilfrid Ward.

During his lifetime Father Cavanaugh was considered one of the best orators in the United States. Proof of this fact are found in the many speeches and sermons which he gave at countless events throughout the United States. One of his most famous speeches was "The Conquest of Life" which he gave at the opening of the Notre Dame school year in the fall of 1906. In November 1908 Cavanaugh gave a speech for the dedication of a pulpit in the memory of Father Denis J. Stafford, an old friend of his from Washington, DC.

During his presidency and later Cavanaugh tried to enlighten the public about American Catholics, and convince them that they were not the enemy of the United States but that they were full supporters of their country. Cavanaugh especially fought against the Ku Klux Klan, the American Protective Association, and the anti-Catholic newspaper The Menace through his sermons speeches, and articles. He also supported Ellen Ryan Jolly in her effort to install a memorial to the sisters involved in the Civil War.

The early 1920s are characterized by Cavanaugh's deep interest in events in Ireland (the struggle for independence). This is manifested in several of his speeches. Other topics of interest to him were family issues and the treatment of the Catholic Church in other countries. Worth to mention is also the dispute he had with Fr. John A. Ryan from the Catholic University in 1924 and 1925 concerning Senator LaFollette and the Supreme Court of the United States.

Besides his travels for speeches and sermons (e.g. for Archbishop Patrick Riordan's silver jubilee in San Francisco and for the installment of Bishop Finnigan in Helena, Montana), Cavanaugh traveled in 1913 with Father James A. Burns to Europe for three months. His wish to travel to the Holy Land in 1927 was denied by the Superior General Wesley J. Donahue. In 1925 he had to travel to Colorado Springs to the Glockner Sanitarium and later to Deming, New Mexico, because he fell ill with tuberculosis. In 1926 he returned to Notre Dame. Towards the end of his life he traveled once again in the South for health reasons and to give speeches.

After he resigned as President of Notre Dame, Cavanaugh kept himself busy with various things. For two years he stayed at Holy Cross College in Washington, DC, to teach English. (His wish to become the representative of the Holy Cross Order at the Holy See was denied by the Superior General Father Fran├žais). After his return to Notre Dame in 1921 Cavanaugh taught English at the University until 1931. At the end of 1922 and the beginning of 1923 Cavanaugh traveled to upstate New York to examine the case of a girl who was supposedly possessed. By August of 1927 Father Cavanaugh had been appointed Curator of the Art Gallery and Museum and the Dante Library. (The exact date of his appointment cannot be verified).

In March 1931 Knute Rockne died in a plane crash and in the following months Cavanaugh worked on Rockne's autobiography. In 1933 Cavanaugh was appointed to the St. Joseph County NRA compliance board and was elected its chairman. In the same year Governor McNutt appointed him to the Commission on Liquor Control. Cavanaugh became chairman of this commission in 1934. Also in 1934 Cavanaugh wrote a series of four articles about his old friend Father Hudson who had died that year.

After several years as President of Notre Dame, Cavanaugh's health started to decline. In 1915 he was diagnosed with diabetes and he was so worn out in 1919 that he had to go to a hospital for a thorough health check. In 1925 he contracted tuberculosis, and in 1934, after his trip to the southern USA, he fell and severely injured his leg. Shortly before his death in 1935 he had to stay for a some days in the hospital because of his declining health, but he didn't recuperate and died on March 22, 1935, in the community infirmary of Notre Dame.


27 boxes

President 1905-1919: J.W. Cavanaugh
University of Notre Dame Archives
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Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Notre Dame Archives Repository

607 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame Indiana 46556 United States
(574) 631-6448