The Basilica of the Sacred Heart: From Empty Pockets to Stained Glass

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame holds one of the largest collections of nineteenth-century French stained glass outside of France. The windows, made between 1873 and 1884, are the work of the Carmel du Mans Glassworks of Le Mans, France. The surprising story of how the windows came to be at Notre Dame begins with the creation of stained glass windows by priests and brothers in the early years of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and the daring and unprecedented foundation of a stained-glass business by the strictly cloistered Carmelite nuns who were their neighbors.

The Holy Cross Glassworks

In the two years after Fr. Edward Sorin (1814–1893) joined the newly formed Congregation of Holy Cross in Le Mans in 1839, but before he departed Le Mans for Indiana in 1841 to found the University of Notre Dame, he served as a fill-in chaplain for the Le Mans Carmelites. He would walk down rue de Notre-Dame from the Congregation’s house in the Le Mans suburb of Saint-Croix to the Carmelite monastery around the corner on rue de la Mariette. A real and deep affection existed between these two neighboring communities, formalized in a “union of prayer.” This friendship followed the members of Holy Cross to Indiana and was then nourished by an exchange of letters and by the many visits of Fr. Sorin on his return trips to Europe.

In 1842, seven months after Fr. Sorin left for Indiana, the penniless Congregation of Holy Cross began to build their church in Le Mans. Made by the priests and brothers with their own hands, Notre-Dame-de-Sainte-Croix took fifteen “long and punishing” years to build. Too poor to purchase stained glass, they hired a Le Mans window glazier named Drouet to close their window bays with white glass. When Drouet suggested the creation and installation of stained glass, to be executed by him, Holy Cross agreed to pay him eighteen francs for each square meter of completed glass.

So began the Holy Cross Glassworks, “one of the most exceptional and most radical adventures in the art of stained glass in the nineteenth century.” The Congregation built the special furnace needed for the creation of stained glass, and Fr. Moreau, the founder of the Congregation, blessed it. To Drouet’s surprise, his workers were not paid laborers but members of the Congregation who had no experience in the creation of stained glass. Fr. Philibert, the Holy Cross treasurer, became the glassworks director and managed the purchase of the most expensive material: the colored glass they would paint and fire.

As the priests and brothers became more skilled in the technical details of the work, the assistance of Drouet, the only professional in their workshop, seemed costly and unnecessary. He was let go. To reduce their expenses further, they also decided that instead of paying the high price for manufactured colored glass, they would make their own. With the help of a chemist, they even succeeded in making red glass, the most difficult to produce. The Holy Cross Glassworks existed from 1845 to 1852, and made nineteen stained glass windows.

The Carmel du Mans Glassworks

In 1851, the Carmelites down the street from Holy Cross, also penniless, took out a large loan of 21,678 francs and began to build a chapel. Even with their loan, they could not afford stained glass windows. Encouraged to make their own windows by Fr. Jean-François Lottin (1793–1868), a friend of both Holy Cross and the Carmelites, they decided to follow the example of the Congregation of Holy Cross. They asked permission to use the Holy Cross tools, supplies, and glass furnace. Fr. Moreau gave permission “on the condition that the said furnace is maintained and kept in good repair.”

It is not known exactly how the Carmelites were able to make their windows. They lived a life of strict enclosure, separated from the world. They did not leave their monastery or have regular contact with the outside world. When they did have visitors, they used an internal parlor separated from the external parlor by a grill and a curtain. The Carmelite’s eight windows, which featured the history of the Carmelites, were executed “with more skill than anyone had hoped” and were “the most successful attempt [at stained glass window making] that has been made in a long time.” Their windows revealed a greater artistic sensibility than those of the priests and brothers of Holy Cross.

Fr. Lottin, who taught at Le Mans seminary and also served as the bishop’s secretary, encouraged the Carmelites to establish a glassworks. The nineteenth-century Gothic Revival in architecture and art had brought an immense demand for stained glass windows. In 1835, there were only three glassworks in France; twenty years later, in 1855, there were more than one hundred. The great cathedral of St. Julian in Le Mans, containing stained glass older than the cathedral at Chartres, made Le Mans a center for the restoration and production of stained glass. The Carmelites could pay off their crippling debt and, at the same time, promote the revival of the Catholic faith in post-Revolutionary France. The windows of the Carmelite glassworks, unlike those of the many other glassworks, would be made with hands that prayed. The bishop consented to their unusual project, provided they maintained their rules of strict enclosure.

Creating a glassworks that would guarantee their enclosure in the monastery while providing a tandem workshop outside their walls was therefore necessary. The Carmelite records state that “one night, a woman of the people who refused to give her name came to the [external] parlour” and spoke to the Mother Prioress through the curtained grill. It was, the Carmelites later said, the first indication of the providence of God in their venture. The woman and her husband had worked at a local glassworks. The owner had died, and she and her husband were without work. Her husband, she said, could build them a workshop. Madame Meunier and her husband were hired that night.

The Carmelites carefully orchestrated a business that employed artists and skilled laborers. A special parlor with a large wooden drawer that opened into an external area allowed the sisters to have the necessary relations with the outside workers. The glassworks was ultimately the responsibility of the Mother Prioress, but the everyday concerns were assigned to two sisters: in the original group, Mother Euphémie took care of the administrative and commercial tasks, and Mother Marie du Sacré Coeur handled the material operations.

In all, only a few names are known of the Carmelites who were involved in the painting and preparation of the glass: Louise de Jésus, Alphonsine, Hélène de Jésus, Soeur du Coeur de Marie, and Marie du Sacré Coeur. A Carmelite circular letter describes work in 1856: “The older sisters remember seeing Sister Alphonsine arrive, at the hour of the recreation, carrying a little table with glass to cut or to scrape.”

The tasks of the external workshop included making preparatory drawings, selecting glass, creating paints and enamels, and firing the glass in the furnace, as well as the assembly, transportation, and installation of the windows. At one point as many as fifty laborers external to the monastery were required, and workers carrying stained glass between the buildings were a regular sight on the rue de Notre-Dame.

Fr. Lottin brought them contracts from French churches in need of stained glass windows and assisted them with sound iconographic programs. He also solicited an acclaimed Le Mans citizen, Eugène Hucher (1814–1889), to be their art director. Hucher, a scholar of stained glass, was well known for the design and restoration of windows and had long desired to be associated with a glassworks. He was interested in the recovery of the glory of French culture and would eventually become the prefect of the Le Mans museum. In exchange for his service as art director, the Carmelites provided a service to Hucher. They applied color to prints of the stained glass windows of Le Mans Cathedral of St. Julien for his publication Calques des vitraux peints de la Cathédrale du Mans, released in folios between 1854 and 1864, which helped make him an international scholar. The one hundred prints found in the folios were each hand painted by the Carmelites.

In order to create theologically correct drawings for their windows, the Carmelites turned to the leading Catholic artists in Europe, those of the Nazarene school, founded in Rome in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Nazarenes believed that “it was art’s primary purpose to visualize the essential truths of the Christian faith and to bring them closer to the devout.” The artist Johann Overbeck (1789–1869), “a great authority throughout Catholic Europe” and a leader of the Nazarene school living in Rome took an interest in the Carmel du Mans Glassworks. Since he was by then elderly, he gave much of the Carmelite work to his pupil Franz von Rohden (1817–1903). Von Rohden, with a few other artists, “formed with Overbeck an artistic circle exclusively committed to the production and dissemination of artistic objects destined for Catholic devotion.”

The Carmelites wanted the windows they produced to be religious art. They did not want to be perceived as a mercantile enterprise. This took precedence over other considerations, including profit. Their prices were modest. They wanted each of their windows to be “an ornament for the house of God and the subject of instruction and edification.” Fr. Lottin, always willing to assist, wrote a brochure in 1855, promoting the unusual venture, explaining that “to represent holy things, we need holy souls. Behind the grill of the Carmel du Mans, we find hands able to use the paintbrush. Why not benefit from this, to hasten the restoration so ardently desired of the imagery of our pious ancestors?”

The Carmelites were so successful that they soon had more orders than they could handle, and so in 1854 they hired Carl and Frédéric Küchelbecker, two brothers trained at the Royal Porcelain Factory in Munich. Carl had studied in Rome with Overbeck and had worked in Paris restoring the windows of the Sainte-Chapelle. The Küchelbeckers gave the Carmelite glassworks a distinct niche in the glassworks market because of their unique painting technique called “carmin,” a word probably derived from the word Carmel. Research has yet to unlock the mystery of this technique, known for its remarkable aesthetic quality that imparted a high degree of expressiveness to faces. Only the Carmel du Mans windows made between 1854 and 1881 employ carmin. It is notably used in the two great windows of the transept of Notre Dame’s basilica, the Pentecost and the Dormition of the Virgin.

Recognition came early for the Carmelite glassworks, with prizes and medals for their windows at exhibitions. The Carmel du Mans Glassworks existed from 1853 to 1903, and exported windows as far away as Japan. They became one of the most well-known glassworks in France and in Europe.

The Carmelites Sell Their Glassworks

Notre Dame’s original church of the Sacred Heart, constructed of wood, was begun in 1848, and contained two round stained glass windows, purchased from the Carmelites in 1863. A third window, a gift to Fr. Sorin from the Carmelites, portrayed “The Divine Face.”

In 1870, when Notre Dame decided to build a larger, brick church in keeping with Notre Dame’s growing importance, Fr. Sorin again turned to his friends, the Le Mans Carmelites, to provide the windows. It would be an exceptionally large order—450 square meters of stained glass.

But by early 1870, the Carmelites had succeeded in repaying their loan, and had begun to look for a buyer for the glassworks. The search was delayed due to the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870–May 10, 1871). During the Battle of Le Mans (January 10–12, 1871) the glassworks was turned into a field hospital for wounded soldiers and civilians. France’s humiliating defeat to the Prussians ushered in three years of German occupation and very difficult financial times.

The Carmelites, struggling to keep their glassworks solvent, replaced their own chapel windows. They had made their first stained glass windows in the early 1850s, in the silence of their monastery, for themselves. In 1871, they made new chapel windows in the midst of war, to keep their workers employed. Their new windows depicted the saints of their own Carmelite order. The nave windows of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart portray three Carmelite saints, made from the same drawings.

In late 1873, the Carmelites sold their glassworks to an importer from Nantes, Edouard Rathouis, the nephew of their Mother Prioress, Mother Eléonore. Even after the sale, the Carmelites assisted the glassworks and advocated for their artisans and laborers. They intervened when problems arose between owner and workers, and between owner and clients, including a few disagreements with Fr. Sorin. The sale of the Carmelite glassworks came just months after the work on Notre Dame’s windows had begun. Only the first windows to arrive at Notre Dame in 1874 could have been painted by the Carmelites.

Notre Dame had its own worries, including the Long Depression of 1873–1879 and, more locally, the fire that destroyed the Main Building in 1879. Sponsors were solicited to pay for the nave, transept, and sanctuary windows, and included Alexis Coquillard, one of the founders of South Bend and a friend of Fr. Sorin. Sr. M. Germaine of the Passion, CSC, donated her inheritance of seventeen thousand francs to partially fund the sanctuary and chapel windows. In addition, by an agreement with the glassworks, Notre Dame received a ten percent commission on all windows ordered from the Carmel du Mans due to Fr. Sorin’s influence. The Carmel du Mans advertisement, translated into good English, appeared in Notre Dame’s Ave Maria weekly journal. The commissions were applied to the cost of the chapel windows.

The Carmel du Mans did their very best work for Notre Dame’s church because it gave them an opening to a valuable market beyond the constant upheavals of French society, government, and finances. The craftsmen who made Notre Dame’s windows understood their importance and the possible additional contracts that could result from them. “Throughout the windows,” reports Bernard Gruenke, Jr., of Conrad Schmidt Studios, who restored the windows in the 1990s, “the names of the craftsmen are inscribed in the lead and glass.” These signatures have not been found on Carmel du Mans windows made for any other location.

In 1880, Edouard Rathouis sold the Carmel du Mans to Hucher, who had always wanted to own a glassworks. Because the work for Notre Dame extended over eleven years, from 1873 to 1884, the signature of the glassworks’ owner found in the windows reflects the changes in ownership over that time period. “Carmel du Mans, E. Rathouis” can be seen in the nave. The final name, after Hucher’s son Ferdinand joined him in the glasswork business, is found in the Lady Chapel and reads “Fabrique du Carmel du Mans, Hucher et Fils, Successors.”

Though the glassworks changed hands, the skilled craftsmen and Nazarene designs remained consistent. While Fr. Sorin could have selected an American glassworks that was not an ocean away, or a different French glassworks, such as Lorin of Chartres, who sent to Fr. Sorin the gift of a stained glass of Fr. Sorin himself, he chose to remain with the glassworks founded by his Carmelite friends with whom he shared a union of prayer. The affection endured between Holy Cross and the Carmelites, nourished by memories of Fr. Sorin’s frequent visits to the Carmelites and the bond of correspondence that was never broken, even after the glassworks was sold.

Notre Dame’s Order for Windows

Fr. Sorin always insisted that education offered in a religious setting was “the vital question of the day.” The Carmelites saw their windows as indispensable to Holy Cross’s educational mission, for religious art “can make a complex and profound theological notion accessible, persuasive and attractive,” conveying a religious tradition and inviting devotion. Their stained glass provided a pedagogy that would assist on a daily basis to teach the Catholic faith, as Mother Eléonore once explained, at “the distant mission of Notre Dame du Lac.”

Notre Dame’s exceptionally large window order allowed for the development of a significant iconographic program for the church. In a letter dated April 23, 1876, Rathouis, then the owner of the glassworks, noted that, by working with the Carmel du Mans, Notre Dame got “a church [with stained glass] which makes sense, something which commonly occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries and is now so rare, now that everything is done haphazardly.” The program intended the windows to be viewed as distinctly focused groups defined by their location in the church. The narthex windows would provide a meditation on the mercy of God, the nave a meditation on the lives of the saints, the transept a meditation on the Church, and the sanctuary would be reserved for the most august saints of the Church. The chapels would be meditations on particular devotions in the Church, and secondary to the main body of windows.

The window’s most important image of God is found in the chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart, “the devotion of the day.” Located centrally at the north end of the sanctuary, the chapel contains the only window that portrays the Crucifixion scene. All the basilica windows, as sacred art, provide a visual statement about where God is found in the world. The presentation of saints in the nave and sanctuary—as reflections of the holiness of God—offer indirect images of God. Even the windows in the transept—dedicated to the Church—argue for Jesus’s abiding presence in history through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The contract for the windows was negotiated by Fr. Sorin and signed by Fr. Auguste Lemonnier, CSC, who served as president of Notre Dame from 1872 to 1874. Notre Dame’s letters to the Carmelites regarding the windows were lost in a fire at the Carmelite archives. No record survives to explain the choices of particular images in the windows, which were selected from the Carmelite’s hand-written catalog. Fr. Sorin’s Circular Letters, however, written to the members of the Congregation while he was Superior General, contain his thoughts on many saints and religious events, and are quoted in our book Stories in Light with appropriate windows to help illuminate nineteenth-century French spirituality.

Notre Dame’s forty-four stained glass windows contain two hundred and twenty scenes. Following the custom of northern France, the stained glass is read left to right, first the lower register and then the upper. There are, in addition, grisaille windows made by the Carmel du Mans in the stairwells to the choir loft, near the church entrances, and in the clerestory.

Notre Dame’s Stained Glass Windows

Many nineteenth-century Catholic churches were dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Fr. Sorin, ever conscious of the Virgin Mary, “who,” he said, “has marked too many days of my life with the indelible imprints of her maternal love,” wanted to honor both the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary. He dedicated Notre Dame’s new neo-Gothic church to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Notre Dame’s windows present the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, both principal devotions of the French School of Spirituality, which was influential from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

Upon opening the southern doors of the basilica, the visitor enters into a consideration of the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints, which holds that those on pilgrimage on Earth, suffering in Purgatory, and triumphant in Heaven are all bound together in Christ. Every window is filled not with just words or designs or symbols but overwhelmingly with people, “a great multitude” (Rev. 7:9). The windows portray saints and angels, as well as the sacraments, the rosary, visions and miracles, relics, pilgrimages, confraternities, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, intercessory prayer, and a love of the papacy.

Notre Dame’s windows reveal the world of its founders in all its richness and complexity. Fr. Sorin was certain that the French Catholic faith he brought with his fellow religious would provide Indiana with the religion, education, and culture it needed. Beginning with Saint Genevieve at the entrance to the nave, French history and faith runs like a golden thread through the windows, and includes, for instance, in the nave, Louis IX and Saint Clotilde, as well as Louis XIII in the Our Lady of Victories Chapel. It is found in the penultimate window, The Homage of France to the Sacred Heart, with its portrayal of the church of Sacré Coeur in Paris, still under construction when the window was installed at Notre Dame in 1884.

The importance given to royal images in the windows reflects France’s traditional royal role as the defender of the papacy. The recall of French troops from Rome in 1871—to defend France in the Franco-Prussian War—brought about the end of the Papal States. It was Fr. Sorin’s conviction, as well as the conviction of many members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, that the royal form of government had been the best for France. He saw no good in the French Revolution or in the century of struggle between government and religion that followed it. “La povera Francia! . . . let us pray for her,” Fr. Sorin said, echoing Pope Pius IX. “May the Blessed Mary, whose kingdom France always was—Regnum Galliae, Regnum Mariae,—save her from ruin!”

Fr. Sorin’s decisive and strong leadership in forming Notre Dame and his insight into the benefits of an iconographic program for its church continue even now to offer an education in faith. His lively interest in art and faith gave us, today, a heritage that is an astonishing pedagogy written in light.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is taken from the introduction to Stories in Light A Guide to the Stained Glass of the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our extensive list of excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

You can hear an interview with co-author Nancy Cavadini on Church Life Today here

Featured Image: Saint Margaret Mary's Vision in the Filbert Grove taken from Stories in Light, all rights reserved.


Nancy Cavadini & Cecilia Davis Cunningham

Cecilia Davis Cunningham (Florida State University, M.A. in Art History) became a tour guide at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in 1999. Her years of teaching have allowed her to introduce numerous visitors to the art and history of the basilica.

Nancy Cavadini (Marquette University, M.A. in Theology) has served in religious formation for the Congregation of Holy Cross and as an ecumenical and interfaith officer.

Read more by Nancy Cavadini & Cecilia Davis Cunningham