The world is a different place every morning when a new day dawns, but last Thursday night, February 26, it felt as though the world had been significantly altered. Father Ted’s passing did not come truly as a shock, he was 97 years old after all, but its impact rippled through campus. Our beloved former president had gone to meet God. It was a beautiful moment, but it was tinged with loss.
It was nearly 1:00 am when I heard the news and after spending some time texting back and forth, my roommate and I decided around 1:30 am that we needed to go to the Grotto to light a candle in prayer. There’s something about spending nearly five years at Notre Dame that teaches you when you need something, go to the Grotto.
That night, clad in a Notre Dame hoodie thrown over my pajamas and my big winter coat, we drove onto campus to pay our respects. The name “Ted” glowed in candles and despite the wind biting my fingers, I knelt and prayed to God in thanks for the life of the man who gave me a place at Notre Dame.
I lit my candle and for a few minutes, my roommate and I stood there in silence, comforted by the steady stream of students making their pilgrimage to the grotto to pay their respects.
The next morning The Observer released a 12-page special issue, no small feat as the staff changeover had been in progress when they news broke. We waited to hear when Father Ted’s funeral would take place and how we would be able to participate. The plan slowly trickled out and Sunday afternoon I found myself standing out Stepan at 4:15pm to get tickets for Father Ted’s memorial service. By 4:30pm we were mostly inside, waiting for the 5:00pm distribution to begin.
I have seen a lot of things on campus that are quintessentially Notre Dame, but praying before ticket distribution was high up on my list of “Only at Notre Dame” moments. My roommate and I received some of the 800 floor seats. I was excited to be able to celebrate Father Ted’s life. I expected it to be like baccalaureate mass, though the actual service far outstripped that.
The Visitor’s Center, where I am a tour guide and help staff the desk, increased our operating hours over the weekend and through Wednesday of this week. Tuesday night I watched Monk speak at the wake while we streamed it for anyone who wished to see it. I laughed as Monk celebrated his incredible mentor.
Father Ted’s 97 years on earth were full of accomplishments and spirit and faith and joy. His passing was a celebration of the full life he lived, far more than mourning his death. I found myself recounting the two times I met Father Ted and listening eagerly to hear how he had touched other’s lives.
My dorm had visited him in a small group my sophomore year and I continually hung back as we were being ushered out, hoping I might be able to get my own picture with the man I had heard so many stories about growing up. That patience and boldness was rewarded and Father Ted promised me he’d sign the photo if I brought it back. He did: one copy remains in my photo album, and the other sits framed on my father’s desk next to his signed copy of the MLK-Father Ted photo.
My other meeting with Father Ted was last year, as a senior. I was an editor for Scholastic and back in August I had pitched a cover story idea to interview all three living presidents to see what it was like to be the man in charge at Notre Dame. “Presidential Days” remains one of my proudest writing accomplishments. The day after Father Ted’s passing I re-listened to the interview recordings on my computer. It was good to hear his voice speaking such wisdom once again.
Wednesday morning came early as I set out to pick up one of my friends so we could catch a campus shuttle to Main Building to go to the visitation. Luckily, shortly before 9:00am it was a short wait. We marveled the efficient system and I felt somehow inadequate walking through the dome with my backpack to pay my last respects to Father Ted. I’m sure he didn’t mind the pile of books in my bag, he would be happy I was attending diligently to my studies.
I signed the guest book, along with over 12,000 other students, faculty, staff, visitors, alumni, family members and friends. With a prayer card clutched in my hand I approached the open casket. It seemed as though the two students at the front always knew when to move on and would move on together.
I prayed my thanks for Father Ted and with a wry smile I hoped he was enjoying his time fishing and smoking cigars in heaven. He certainly earned his eternal rest, though somehow I couldn’t help but picture him stirring things up, with a certain buoyancy in his spirit that his body lacked in recent years and a clarity of vision that had never wavered despite his failing eyesight. God called one of his great servants home and I was sure they had lots to talk about. I also hoped that Father Ted would be able to spend many hours talking to Our Lady, his great guiding force throughout his life, presidency and retirement.
I moved on, eager to be done with class. I helped distribute tickets at the Alumni Association and then went to LaFun to watch the funeral. It was beautiful, once again a celebration of the life he lived, more than a sad affair on his passing. Jenkin’s eulogy was touching and a little after 3:00pm we made our way to Bond Quad to line up for the procession.
I lamented no longer living in the dorms as I took my place alongside my friends at the top of the hill in front of Corby Hall. The three of us all have Notre Dame degrees and are seeking our second and were happy to be able to share these events with others who understood the magnitude of Father Ted’s life and passing.
To say it was cold, is simply to state that it is winter in South Bend. The breeze coming off the lake was certainly chilly, but there was no where else I wanted to be. We huddled together as our toes went numb, marveling in the students, faculty and staff lining the road from the basilica to the Holy Cross Cemetery. There were people beyond my line of sight. We watched the procession somberly, paying our silent respects.
We grabbed a leisurely dinner and Starbucks before we caught the shuttle from Eddy Street and headed into the JACC for the memorial service. Since floor seating was unassigned, I had insisted we get there around 6:00pm, a little after the doors opened. Our seats were probably five rows back on the left hand side. Better seats than I’d had for baccalaureate and probably on par with where I’d sat to receive my Notre Dame diploma.
Purcell slowly filled up, as spectators and members of various choirs filed in, along with the orchestra and the band. The beginning video tribute to Father Ted was moving and I fought back tears as I watched images of a great life pass before my eyes.
The speakers were incredible and the speeches better than any I have ever had the privilege to witness. Anne Thompson (NBC and ND alum) was a lively emcee providing seamless transitions and warm introductions. Father Jenkins cracked a joke about God wanting to be Father Ted and we all got to witness the softer and more human side of our university president.
Every speech had a theme and was representative of the many facets of life that Father Hesburgh touched. Speakers included: Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, former president of Princeton William Bowen, Senator Joe Donelly, Dillon rector Rev. Paul Doyle, C.S.C., former football coach Lou Holtz, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Senator Harris Wofford, board of trustees member Martin W. Rodgers, former Senator Alan Simpson, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the former First Lady and President Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter. There was also a special video message from Obama.
The memorial service, along with the wake and funeral, was streamed live. The former two are available online at hesburgh.nd.edu and the memorial service should be up shortly. If you were unable to attend it, watch it online. I cannot possibly hope to do it justice.
The speakers talked of football, civil rights, the admission of women, equality, diversity, leadership, love, service, flying and Father Ted’s indomitable presence. Among my favorite speakers were Rice, Jimmy Carter, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. They made the audience laugh and smile and I was aware in that moment that I was a witness to an incredible moment of history.
The service concluded with a benediction and the of singing the alma mater. I’ll admit I never understood growing up what the big deal was when it came to singing the alma mater. But after five seasons of freezing, wet, snowing, hot, blustery football wins and losses in the Student Section, I understand. It’s about being together, being part of something that is bigger than yourself, partaking in a tradition that has meaning in both the past and the future, but also in the present.
The band played a beautiful new arrangement of the alma mater and I felt my heart swell as we swayed. We may have lost a legend, a great man and a great priest, but we have his legacy and so long as we remember him, he will never truly be gone.
Rest in peace, Father Ted. We love you and we miss you, but we will never forget you. Enjoy your cigars and time with Our Lady. We will continue trying to live out your mission as we seek to become compassionate, fearless leaders, making the world a more tolerant and just place.
Images: Provided by author