Cave of Candles
A Cave of Candles / by Dorothy V. Corson

Chapter 22a

An Archival Treasure Surfaces

Peter Lysy, the archivist, walked up to me one day holding a folder in his hand. "I ran across this while I was doing some cataloging," he said, I thought it might interest you. I thanked him, tucked it under the folder I was working on and made a mental note to check it out before leaving for the day. Several hours later, I opened the folder, read two pages of it and went looking for Peter. "Where did you find this gem," I asked him! He grinned at me and commented, "I thought you'd dig it!"

For almost a year, I had been searching every available source looking for early references to Indians on campus to confirm the legend. Now, when I thought I had exhausted all avenues open to me, the unexpected, once again, landed in my lap. The transcribed journal of a German missionary priest who visited the mission of St. Marie des Lacs. He describes in detail the log chapel, the Indians camped by the lake, and the events that transpired during his stay.

I had events concerning Indians after Sorin's arrival, now I had my first on-the-spot impression of the Badin mission before Sorin arrived. It was a word picture that begged to be included. The journal was published in 1845. It is believed to have been written sometime around 1840 or 1841 before Sorin's arrival in November of 1842. It begins with a very detailed description of the log chapel and the Indians through the eyes of a visiting missionary priest very impressed with his surroundings. In part:

A Visit with Mme. Coquillard

The missionary priest goes on to mention a visit to the nearby home of Mme. Coquillard. He describes his admiration for the young Indian he meets there.

It is after this description -- in recording a sad story of another young Indian told to him by Mrs. Coquillard -- that he touches on the very subject I had been wondering about, the explanation of the Indian belief in revenge which in turn explained why the landmark sycamore was called, The Vengeance Tree. In relating the story to him, she also explains the Indian belief in justice. Mme. Coquillard, who was reputed to be part Indian, was an interpreter for Badin, DeSeille and Sorin.

The incident she related to him was reminiscent of the legend of the sycamore tree:

The visiting priest explains how Christianity was transforming the Indians' attitude toward vengeance:

A striking example of the influence of the early missionaries in this regard is the description of such an incident related by Badin himself when he first came to St. Marie des Lacs and which he sent by letter, as requested, to the Bishop:

Following is the speech on the evils of whiskey and the futility of killing Topinabee which Badin delivered to those assembled at Carey Mission, Niles MI on June 29, 1832:

This impressive document, the original of the above letter, is preserved among Father Stephen T. Badin's papers in the University of Notre Dame Archives. A testament to the early French missionaries' care and concern for the welfare of the Native American Indians who relied on their revered Blackrobes for Christian counsel.

Father Badin wrote of his interpreter, Angelique, whose actions saved the life of Chief Tobinabee: ". . . I do not know of a priest more industrious, more penitent, more patient, more learned, more genuinely pious then she is in all this country" [Quoted in Buechner, The Pokagons, page 302].

An Indian Baptism

The visiting German priest goes on to describe an Indian baptism he performed at St. Mary's Lake during his visit there:

One line in the German missionary's interesting narrative refers to the tree of deliverance in which the baptized sons of the wilderness participate. These words could have been written about the legendary sycamore itself, which would have been but a stone's throw away from the little tree on the hilltop he is describing. In its own way, it has also become a witness to and a symbol of the participation of the sons of the wilderness in the history of Notre Dame's founding over one hundred and fifty years ago.

This venerable old tree, already judged to be the oldest and largest sycamore in St. Joseph County, is more than worthy of homage whether the Indian legend attributed to it is fact or fiction. If the legend draws attention to that fact, it deserves to be associated with the stately old sycamore on the Grotto lawn. Thus far the story holds up very well. Nothing contradicts it being the truth.

One thing is certain. The legendary sycamore is definitely alive and well, as real now as it was on a day in the life of a Black Robe missionary; when Little Crane's son was born and baptized, Anthony, at Ste. Marie des Lacs -- now the University of Notre Dame.



I felt "Providence smiling on my sincere searching" and that campus "God Loop" energy working in the unexpected confirmation of the possible age of the legendary sycamore. It surfaced in a local newspaper article recently, long after I'd about given up ever finding it and just in time to be included as another postscript to this narrative.

The article, which appeared in the South Bend Tribune, featured a picture of Michigan's largest sycamore. I skimmed the article with interest and set it aside to file with my research materials. Its evidential content did not register on me until the next day when something moved me to pick it up and read it again. Whereupon, I discovered that this particular tree had been core-sampled -- a risk that would never be taken with the campus landmark sycamore. Its circumference is 256" and its age has been determined to be 250 to 260 years old. It was the comparison tree I'd been hoping to find and it had almost eluded me. Earlier, I had heard of huge sycamores of comparable size being taken down at the Culver Military Academy but my inquiry came too late, the stumps had been removed without counting the rings to age them.

I compared the measurements and the ring count of the core-sample of this Champion Michigan tree with the one at Notre Dame which is 244" in circumference. Using the formula given me by Purdue, I have calculated that Notre Dame's sycamore could be, as I had earlier thought it might be, from 200 to 240 years old. Using the conservative 200 year figure would mean it was present on campus in the late 1700's. A time when there was much hostility between the early white settlers and the Indians when the Indian legend was said to have taken root. Which means it could have been a fanciful tale, fiction based on fact, or in the category of an "urban" or "rural" legend attached to the tree.

I made a special trip to visit the Michigan tree and it is a massive kingly specimen. However, it is without a place to perch nor is it as friendly and inviting as Notre Dame's Landmark Sycamore which seems to beckon people to lounge in its sheltering arms, as the children of Tish and Patrick Holmes -- Mary Kate, Christopher, Patrick, Kelly, and Kielty -- are doing in this photograph.

In February 1997, in the first Big Trees Contest of St. Joseph County, Notre Dame's Legendary Sycamore -- the oldest tree on campus -- was awarded the title "St. Joseph County's Largest Sycamore". In the summer of 1997, a film company from Chicago spent a whole day filming Notre Dame's Family Tree for a special segment aired during the half-time of the first football game played in the newly opened University of Notre Dame stadium.

Throughout its long life, this majestic sycamore has been immortalized by countless student pictures taken up in it, and in front of it, and published in The Dome from the early part of the century. Recently, the wife of a Notre Dame administrator, Jim Murphy, now retired, told me they had pictures of each of their six children taken in it at various times when they took them to the campus.

In sharing my latest finds with Father George Schidel, who first put me on the path of The Domes, he smiled warmly and excused himself from our conversation. Minutes later he returned, placed in front of me a 1931 copy of The Dome, and opened it to the first identified photograph of the sycamore I have ever seen. Under it were the words Father Cavanaugh had used to describe it -- The Vengeance Tree.

Smiling at my pleased expression, Father Schidel, also produced a photo album of his early days on campus. In it, was another 1931 snapshot of the sycamore. Three students stood in front of the tree and one was standing up in it. When I asked who was in the tree, he grinned and said, "It was me."

As Tom Dooley's cherished letter has been placed at the Notre Dame Grotto, in my mind's eye, I can envision a special stepping stone or bench placed in front of the huge old sycamore so that photographs could more easily be taken up in it. A copy of the legend could then be placed beside it, for all who visit it to reflect upon.

It is comforting to know that in its long life this magnificent Sycamore has seen it all. It has become a witness tree -- a silent sentinel standing guard over the campus and the Grotto -- watching not only the heartaches and the sorrow, but also the joys, of an endless parade of people passing by -- to and from the Grotto. It has endured -- as life endures, generation after generation -- as one of the last of the antique lords of the Indian hunting grounds. More and more I wonder how many years its graceful limbs and lovely foliage have embraced the campus; how many photographs(270) have been taken in front of it; and how many, from little on up, have been cradled in its sturdy branches.

How providential, that two such historic and legendary spots on campus -- The Grotto and The Legendary Sycamore -- share the same scenic lakeside setting. Perhaps it is best that no positive proof of this story ever be found and it remain the legend that it is. If it were proven beyond a shadow of doubt then it would no longer be a legend. It would be history and not nearly as fascinating a tale to tell.

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