History of the Zahm Dante Collection

A Biography of John A. Zahm, C.S.C.

John Augustine Zahm was born on June 11, 1851 in New Lexington, Ohio, where he began his formal education in a one-room log schoolhouse. His mother was a grandniece of Major General Edward Braddock, military instructor of George Washington. With roots struck deep in American soil, Zahm would later distinguish himself in the company of James Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishops John Ireland and John J. Keane as an Americanist, an enthusiast in the cause of Americanizing the Catholic Church in the United States.

Yet Zahm never excluded the Old World from his vision for the New. From an early age he devoted himself to studying the classics. When he came to Notre Dame in 1867, he enrolled in the Classical Course, the normal formation for aspiring priests.

Most people, however, knew Zahm as a scientist. At Notre Dame Zahm came under the influence of Joseph Carrier, C.S.C., who was Director of the Science Museum and the Library and Professor of Chemistry and Physics. Carrier showed Zahm that scientific research and its promise for progress were not antagonistic to the ideals of intellectual and moral culture endorsed by the Church. Zahm graduated and entered the novitiate of the Congregatio a Sancta Cruce (Congregation of Holy Cross) in 1871. The next fall Carrier took Zahm on as his associate and assigned him the duties of Curator of the Museum, Librarian, and Assistant in Chemistry, Physics and Natural Sciences. When Carrier left Notre Dame three years later, Zahm was made Professor and Co-Director of the Science Department. That same year, on June 4, 1875, he was ordained to the priesthood--a ripe 23 years of age.

Zahm expanded the science department and museum at Notre Dame. He purchased the latest equipment and used it to great effect in lecture demonstrations. He spent the summers travelling throughout the United States and Europe, recruiting students and taking note of recent inventions. In 1884, thanks to Zahm's aggressive campaigning, the University built a modernly equipped Science Building. Still greater responsibilities came the following year, when on top of all his other duties he was named University Vice President.

In 1892, Andrew Morrissey, C.S.C., replaced Zahm as Vice President, leaving him freer to lecture and to write. That year his first book, Sound and Musicappeared in print. It would be his only work in physics. His subsequent publications took up a different theme: the relation of science and religion.

During the next four years, Zahm participated in the emerging Catholic Summer School movement, which aimed to introduce Catholic laity to contemporary intellectual issues. His stunning lectures, for which he was dubbed the "St. George Mivart of America," brought him national fame. Zahm compiled his notes into book form and published them under the title Evolution and Dogma in 1896. In the volume, Zahm defended certain aspects of evolutionary theory as true, and argued, moreover, that even the great Church teachers Thomas Aquinas and Augustine taught the theory in germ.

In April, 1896, the Congregation of Holy Cross needed a new Procurator General in Rome, and Zahm was the preferred choice. His keen interest in Dante would develop during these years abroad.

Zahm's first act as Procurator was to secure approval for the proposed Holy Cross College in Washington, D.C., a new Catholic center for higher learning that he invested with great personal devotion. If Notre Dame would revert to its origins as a boarding school under Morrissey, who had succeeded to its presidency in 1893, then Zahm could at least pursue his educational crusade through Holy Cross College.

A progressive Pope Leo XIII had awarded Zahm the degree of Doctor Philosophy in 1895 to encourage his work as a Christian scientist (Photo of Zahm in Rome, 1895). But that was before the publication of Evolution and Dogma and the appointment to Rome. Now Zahm faced opposition and possible censure by the Holy See. Only the politically astute interventions of well placed American clergy, most notably Denis O'Connell, spared Zahm and his order humiliation.

The timing of the rescue was crucial, for at the height of conflict Zahm was recalled to Notre Dame to serve as the Holy Cross Provincial for the United States. As Provincial, Zahm tried once again to transform Notre Dame into a great university like Heidelberg or Bologna. He erected buildings and added to the campus art gallery and library. During these years he purchased about 200 volumes a year on Dante, amassing a significant collection which included most of the Renaissance editions.

In 1906, however, these opportunities came to an end. Fr. Morrissey successfully campaigned against Zahm's renewal as Provincial, arguing that he had tried to expand Notre Dame too quickly and had run the order into serious debt.

Zahm was crushed. But after a few months he resumed writing and travelling. He displayed an appetite for adventure, and if there were a single epithet that could sum up his activities during the last several years of his life it would have to be explorer. Zahm's book titles document his itineraries: Up the Orinoco and Down the Magdelena, Along the Andes and Down the Amazon. The travel monographs, all concerning South America, were published under the pen name H. J. Mozans, an a pseudonym derivved from the way he signed his name as a youth: Jno. S. (Stanislaus, an abandoned middle name) Zahm.

The author's identity was not long hidden, and some knew the secret all along. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the insiders. Roosevelt knew Zahm from his days in the White House. Their shared love for Dante formed the first basis of their friendship; now South America became their primary topic of discussion. In 1913, Zahm and the Colonel embarked on a major expedition through the interior of the continent. Zahm had hoped to return home to take, in his own words, an honored place among the great missionary explorers, but hardship and danger cut short the journey (Photo of Zahm and Roosevelt).

Zahm returned to Holy Cross College to write. His last projects included two volumes designed to appeal to women. Woman in Science which he sent to press prior to his 1913 expedition, depicted the historical struggle of women to advance intellectually. In 1917, Great Inspirers appeared. In more temperate tones it sketched the lives of four women who inspired St. Jerome and Dante. Two more books were planned: an historical and archaeological study of the Holy Land for biblical scholars and a definitive life of Dante for English speakers. Zahm died in 1921 on route to the Middle East. His manuscripts for the book From Berlin to Baghdad and Babylon were assembled and published posthumously. The Dante biography was never begun.

Cool yet persuasive, sober minded and scrupulously pious, John Zahm was a man of many and varied ambitions, most of which eluded his grasp. But grasp he always did.