Rev. John A. Zahm, C.S.C. (1851-1922)

In 1867, John Zahm, then 15 years old, wrote a letter to his aunt, a Holy Cross Sister at Saint Mary’s College, expressing his desire to continue discerning a vocation to the priesthood. He asked that his aunt deliver the letter to Fr. Sorin. She did. Fr. Sorin, sensing Zahm’s anxiousness to discover his vocation, enthusiastically accepted Zahm’s request for admission to the college. Though he struggled with his studies (one time failing both mathematics and German!), Zahm would persevere to graduate with honors in 1871 and would one day become one of the most recognized professors and scholars that Notre Dame has ever produced.

At Notre Dame, Zahm was a “jack-of-all-trades.” When the college suffered from a shortage of instructors in 1871, the same year Zahm entered the seminary, he was asked to assist in teaching classes. There was a particular want in the Science Department for apt instructors. Zahm, having worked closely with the Director of the Science Department, Fr. Joseph Carrier, during his undergraduate studies, was asked to assist in that department. In 1872, he was listed in Notre Dame’s Twenty-ninth Annual Catalogue as being Assistant Librarian, Curator of the museum and Assistant in Chemistry, Physics and Natural Science. Zahm willingly embraced each of these responsibilities. In spite of all the duties given to him in addition to his seminary studies, Zahm earned his Master of Arts degree in that same year.

When Fr. Carrier received an appointment at another university, Zahm, at the age of 23 and then only a subdeacon, was named Professor of Chemistry and Physics and became Co-Director of the Science Department. In addition, he became Director of the College Library, Curator of the Museum and a member of the Board of Trustees. At the age of 25, Zahm was appointed Vice-President of the university, a post in which he would serve for 9 years. Ordained on June 4, 1875, Zahm looked forward to serving the Congregation and Notre Dame as a priest.

In the years immediately following his ordination, Fr. Zahm began an educational crusade to transform Notre Dame into a recognized institution of Catholic higher-education, especially in the sciences. From Notre Dame, Fr. Zahm’s lecturing and teaching ability earned great attention. In Notre Dame’s classrooms and in lecture halls throughout the United States, he combined his profound scholarship with popular exposition. From the acclaim his lectures received, Fr. Zahm saw that he might lend his talents to a new mission.

Fr. Zahm recognized the growing influence of modern science on the world; he saw that modern science was a force leading to atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism among scholars and students, a force changing the place of faith in modern culture. Fr. Zahm wanted to work to show academia, and the world at-large, “that there is nothing in evolution, properly understood, which is contrary to Church Doctrine.” He would spend his energy defending the Church’s understanding of the relationship between faith and reason: “[T]his is surely a fertile field to labor in, and I trust that I may be given the health and the strength necessary for the work.” Fr. Zahm truly understood the Church—with her intellectual and moral tradition—to be the greatest source of progress in the world:

    “The Church needs not apologists. Her past history is her apology. Her raison d’être is seen in the miraculous transformation she has affected in the moral, social, and intellectual condition of mankind since her advent into this world. All the civilization and enlightenment we now enjoy; all that is great and good and noble in the world; all that is pure, grand and sublime in humanity, is owing to her…. Without her, progress and civilization…would have been impossible.”

From its beginning, Notre Dame had suffered from a shortage of qualified teachers. Brothers and seminarians, like Fr. Zahm himself, were appointed to fill the ranks of the faculty before they had finished their own studies. Worried about the quality of the education seminarians and religious were receiving and the subsequent effects their teaching had on students at Notre Dame, Fr. Zahm secured permission from Superior-General Fr. Gilbert Français to begin a House of Studies to improve the quality of education at Notre Dame among the ranks of the religious faculty and the university’s students. Fr. Français appointed Fr. Zahm to the position of Prefect of Studies. At this post, he developed the curriculum for the House of Studies as well as curriculum for the whole Congregation. The House of Studies, named Holy Cross College, was established adjacent to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in 1895.

Fr. Zahm’s apologetic work was interrupted by a series of appointments, first in 1896 with his appointment as Procurator-General of the Congregation and in 1897 to the post of Provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the highest administrative position for the Congregation in the United States. With this latter appointment, Fr. Zahm was responsible for a whole host of churches, schools, and orphanages throughout the U.S. The colleges run by the Congregation received most his attention. Fr. Zahm’s efforts to reform the Congregation’s educational institutions set the standards for scholars teaching at the Congregation’s schools and for scholarship among the students. Under his direction, Notre Dame became one of the leading universities in America.

So many and great are the achievements and contributions of Fr. Zahm that all of them cannot be recounted here. Some, however, may be of particular interest. Under his leadership, Notre Dame became the first college campus in the United States to be lit by electricity. In addition to his scholarly works in the sciences, Fr. Zahm was an accomplished historian and naturalist. He traveled all over the world and, especially to South America, documenting history and culture. Sharing his interest in natural history, Fr. Zahm became a good friend and travel companion of Theodore Roosevelt. The two traveled the western hemisphere together, pursuing their studies in natural history. Zahm was also a scholar of Dante and provided Notre Dame with one of the leading library collections on Dante in the United States known as the Zahm Dante Collection.

Fr. John A. Zahm is one of the most distinguished scholars and leaders Notre Dame has ever produced. From his work trying to reconcile faith and reason in the face of modern skepticism, to his scholarship on Dante and his studies in natural history, to his zeal for Catholic education, Fr. Zahm’s legacy lives on at Notre Dame, contributing to the school’s tradition of excellence as a Catholic institution of higher-learning.


“No, the man of science is not intellectually hampered because he happens to be a man of faith and of strong religious persuasions. His acceptance of the Bible does not handicap him in research nor preclude him from enjoying the completest mental liberty of which moral man is capable. His faith shields him from danger as the beacon-light protects the mariner from harm, but it in no wise restricts his freedom of thought and action. By hearkening to the gentle voice of religion he escapes the errors of Atheism, Pantheism, Materialism, and Monism, which are at present so rampant, and which have more than anything else obstructed research and retarded the progress of true science.
“One may indeed reject the truths of the Bible and discard the teachings of faith, as the mariner may ignore the saving bell or the friendly pharos, but he does so at his peril. Far from gaining anything by this mad assertion of independence—an independence which means not liberty and life, but rashness and destruction—he inevitability loses, and his loss carries with it the loss and death, it may be, of others besides. There is too much fog and darkness enveloping many of the problems of philosophy for us to close our eyes to the sun of Truth or for us to make naught of the light of God’s inspired word.”

    -- Bible, Science, and Faith by John Zahm, C.S.C


Web Resources

Fr. Zahm by John Cavanaugh, C.S.C.

History of the Zahm Dante Collection and Biography of Fr. Zahm


Weber, Ralph E. Notre Dame’s John Zahm: American Catholic Apologist and Educator. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961.

Zahm, C.S.C., John A. The Catholic Church and Modern Science: A Lecture. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1886.