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Congregation of Holy Cross Mourns Death of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.

Published: February 27, 2015

Author: Angela Knight

Father Theodore Hesburgh 2006

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., was born May 25, 1917, in Syracuse, N.Y, to Theodore and Anne Marie Murphy Hesburgh. Young Ted didn’t have the classic dreams of a six-year-old: He didn’t want to be a farmer or a policeman. “I just wanted to be a priest, not necessarily knowing what I would do as a priest, except that I knew I wanted to be a priest,” he said as he prepared for the 70th anniversary of his Ordination in 2013.

When Fr. Hesburgh was an eighth grader and an altar boy at Most Holy Rosary Parish, Rev. Tom Duffy, C.S.C., and three other Holy Cross missionaries visited Fr. Hesburgh’s parish.  That visit was his inspiration to join Holy Cross.

Fr. Hesburgh graduated from Most Holy Rosary High School in 1934 and was received into the Congregation on Aug. 15, 1935. He made his First Profession of Vows on Aug. 16, 1936. He professed his Final Vows on Aug. 16, 1939, and was Ordained on June 24, 1943.

The Ordination Class of 1943 including Father Theodore Hesburgh

Fr. Hesburgh attended the University of Notre Dame from 1934 to 1937 and then was sent to Rome to study theology at the Gregorian University. He graduated from the Gregorian with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1939. Fr. Hesburgh earned a doctorate in sacred theology from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1945. This became the first of many degrees Fr. Hesburgh would receive: He has the distinction of having received 150 honorary degrees, a Guinness World Record.

Fr. Hesburgh wanted to serve as a Navy Chaplain, but his Holy Cross Superiors had other plans. His next assignment was the beginning of a long – and legendary – career at Notre Dame. He was a teacher, Chaplain to veterans and their families, Rector, Chairman of the Religion Department and Executive Vice President. Finally, from 1952 to 1987, he was the longest-serving President of Our Lady’s University, which he affectionately referred to as “the greatest Catholic university of all time.” He was also Notre Dame's youngest president, having been appointed at age 35.

GPHS 3/:  Rev

His commitment to stand by others led Fr. Hesburgh to serve on the Civil Rights Commission – one of 16 presidential appointments – and he is seen as a principal proponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fr. Hesburgh knew Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. well and worked with him in advancing the cause of integration in the United States. For his role in the civil rights movement, Fr. Hesburgh was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1964 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. He also was given the inaugural Gerald R. Ford Award for leadership in intercollegiate athletics by the NCAA in 2004.

In his assignment as President of Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh brought that same dedication to equality by increasing financial aid for students and opening the University to female students in 1972. He is credited with making the University the nation and world’s most renowned Catholic higher education institution. Fr. Hesburgh also chaired the International Federation of Catholic Universities, which redefined the nature of the contemporary Catholic university.

Father Theodore Hesburgh says Mass in his office chapel

“I’ve enjoyed being part of it, but I don’t take the credit so much as Our Lady. I was smart enough to put it in Our Lady’s hands and I have a great devotion to the Holy Spirit,” he said.

In 2006, Fr. Hesburgh was given the Sachem Award, Indiana’s highest honor, in recognition of a lifetime of excellence and moral virtue that brought credit and honor to the state. In 2010, he was one of 100 recipients of a Centennial Medal from Catholic Charities USA for his work on behalf of the poor.

Fr. Hesburgh founded the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame with Philanthropist Joan Kroc, wife of the late founder of McDonald’s Corp. Fr. Hesburgh also served as honorary chairman of the fundraising campaign for the South Bend Salvation Army’s Kroc Community Center, which opened in 2012 and was built by securing a grant from the Kroc Foundation and monies left by Mrs. Kroc to Salvation Army locations across the nation upon her death.

Pope Paul VI meeting with Rev

Fr. Hesburgh has received several Papal appointments, including:

  • Permanent Vatican City representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, from 1956 to 1970;
  • Head of the Vatican representatives attending the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ human rights declaration in Tehran, Iran, in 1968;
  • At the request of Pope Paul VI, Fr. Hesburgh spearheaded the construction of the Tantur Institute for Ecumenical Studies in Jerusalem in 1972;
  • Member of the Holy See’s United Nations delegation in 1974; and
  • Pontifical Council for Culture, 1983.

Until his death, Fr. Hesburgh was passionate about fishing. He lived at Holy Cross House and worked daily in his office in the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library on campus.


Father Theodore Hesburgh in his office May 2013

Fr. Hesburgh's life

Read more about Fr. Hesburgh's life and his life's work in his Obituary and in a 2013 profile published in Pillars for his 70th Jubilee.


Holy Cross, Cross & anchors (thumbnail)

Funeral Arrangements

There will be a public visitation at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart from 12-6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3, and again from 9 p.m. Tuesday to 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 4. A wake (by invitation only) will be held Tuesday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. A Holy Cross funeral Mass (by invitation only) will be held in the Basilica Wednesday, March 4, at 2 p.m. The public is invited for the procession to the cemetery following the funeral. There will also be a tribute in Purcell Pavilion Wednesday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m. Burial will be in the community cemetery at Notre Dame. Kaniewski Funeral Home, South Bend, is in charge of the arrangements.


Father Hesburgh receives Naval honor

Video, Photo Gallery

See Fr. Hesburgh's life and ministry in pictures and video.