My Notre Dame wasn’t your Notre Dame

A friend once asked me, “How do you know when someone went to Notre Dame?” I said I didn’t know. He responded: “They’ll tell you.”

Such is the pride, sometimes obnoxious, of the Notre Dame graduate. I’m one of them. And when people learn I’m a Notre Dame alumnus, most “ohh” and “ahh” about how lucky, how smart, how well off I must have been to go there.

The reality was quite the opposite. My experience of Notre Dame was different — very different — from that of 99.9 percent of my classmates. My Notre Dame wasn’t hanging out in the dorm, football Saturdays, mixers with Saint Mary’s girls or dates with townies, playing pickup basketball at the Rock, or anything close. Saturdays were for work — pumping gas in downtown South Bend, selling clothes at a chain store on Lincoln Way West, checking coats at the dances. Other days of the week were pretty much the same, sans the coat-checking. I took courses at Notre Dame; except for freshman year, I wasn’t part of the life at Notre Dame, to my regret.

I am the oldest of 10 children, born and raised in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The city is on the Connecticut River. It became the center of the country’s paper industry in the 19th century and was a magnet for immigrants — Irish first, French Canadians next, Polish last. My grandparents all came from Ireland. Jobs in the mills were plentiful, and though we stuck close to our ethnic neighborhoods, almost all of us were Catholic. Holyoke was safe, family-oriented, lower middle class. It signaled solidarity. Everyone was a Notre Dame fan. Everyone.

The only thing we, and many other big families, lacked was money.

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Originally published by Notre Dame Magazine at in its Winter 2023-24 issue.