The University of Notre Dame has one of the most successful and popular programs in college football. The Fighting Irish football team has a palpable Catholic culture—the famous mural of Christ as the Word of Life on the facade of the university library nicknamed “Touchdown Jesus” looms over the stadium, a priest-chaplain can always be seen on the sidelines, and game days on campus begin with the Rosary and end with Mass.
An example of the invested interest the wider American Catholic culture has in Notre Dame football comes from a charming scene in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” the highest-grossing film of 1945, starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Father O’Malley, played by Crosby, notices a commotion being made outside the rectory and asks: “What’s all the excitement? Did Notre Dame win another one?”
As the college football season unfolds, it’s as good a time as any to recall a very interesting connection between this iconic football program and our own Archdiocese of New York.
Perhaps the most iconic element of Notre Dame athletics is its fight song, “Notre Dame Victory March.” It is, without a doubt, the most recognizable collegiate fight song in the nation. Given what we know about the Catholic culture of this university’s football team, we should not be surprised to know that the music to the famous song was written by a priest. It may be surprising for us to learn, however, that it was written by one of our own, Father Michael J. Shea, of the Archdiocese of New York.
“Notre Dame Victory March” is considered the greatest of all university fight songs. With its energetic rhythm, tempo and lyrics, it is the most recognized, performed and borrowed of them all. William Studwell was an expert on American carols, and in his book, “College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology,” he ranks the “Victory March” as number one among his top 25.
The Shea brothers, who both graduated from Notre Dame, Michael in 1905 and John in 1906, set out to provide their beloved alma mater with a fight song that could rival the University of Michigan’s famed “The Victors” composed by Louis Elbel in 1898. Michael went to work writing the music while John came up with the lyrics. Their composition was completed and copyrighted in 1908. It debuted, of all places, in a Protestant church in the brother’s hometown of Holyoke, Mass. Michael had met his old teacher who was an organist at the Second Congregational Church and told him about the new song. Michael was invited to play it on the organ of the church where its energetic rhythm and tempo rang out for the first of countless times. The “Victory March” was first performed publicly on Notre Dame’s campus on Easter Sunday morning 1909 in the rotunda of the main administrative building beneath the famous Golden Dome—the centerpiece of Notre Dame’s campus. Atop the dome is a 19-foot-tall, 4,000-pound statue of Mary, the Mother of God—Notre Dame, that is, Our Lady.
John Shea would return to his hometown in Massachusetts to become a state senator before his death in 1965. His brother Michael, however, after resigning from his teaching position at Notre Dame, which he held for five years after his graduation, came to New York in 1909 to study for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie. He was ordained on June 1, 1912, and served as an assistant at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a year and a half after his ordination. His knowledge of music was noticed and put to good use in the formation of the future priests of the Archdiocese of New York. Before his assignment to Dunwoodie to teach junior philosophy and direct plain chant, he was sent for further studies in Europe.
He took special courses in chant under the Benedictines on the Isle of Wight in England and at the Pontifical School of Plain Chant in Rome. Father Shea returned to New York in the summer of 1915 to take up his teaching position at the seminary. In addition to teaching philosophy and plain chant, he was later appointed professor of dogmatic theology.
Father Shea’s 33-year tenure as professor at the seminary ended on June 4, 1938, when he was appointed to the pastorate of St. Augustine’s parish in Ossining, which happens to be the home parish of this writer. He was a prison chaplain at Sing Sing and was also given the responsibility of heading the archdiocesan commission of church music.
His full life ended too quickly when he died of a sudden heart attack at 56 years old in the rectory of his parish on August 19, 1940. Father Shea’s mortal remains were interred at Holy Cross Cemetery on the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
What is Father Michael J. Shea most remembered for? It is, of course, for authoring Notre Dame’s famed “Victory March.” Indeed, there would be much for him to take pride in, composing what is among the most recognizable pieces of American music. But if we could ask him, we can be sure he would rather be most remembered for his devotion to our cherished Catholic faith and the service he gave to souls as a priest here in New York. As the fight song says, through the intercession of Notre Dame, that is, Our Lady, may this “loyal son march onward to victory” in the glory of heaven.
Father Connolly is parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception and Assumption parish in Tuckahoe.
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