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Starting Point

‘A Notre Dame man’ who sought out problems to solve, people to help


A football cheer in the ’40s, when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame, went like this: “He’s a man, he’s a man, he’s a Notre Dame man!” Today it sounds chauvinistic, but in those days it meant much to young men struggling toward maturity.

The cheer came to mind recently as my wife and I were at the 12:10 Mass at a nearby shrine here in Massachusetts. That’s a strange time for a Mass, but we were there because we could not be at the funeral Mass being celebrated on the same morning at Notre Dame for a great priest.

The Mass was for Holy Cross Fr. Louis Putz, who died almost a year ago on June 24, 1998.

Putz, along with Fr. Jack Egan and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten, brought Catholic Action to the United States in the late 1930s. As a young priest, Putz had worked with Cardinal Joseph Cardijn in Europe. That training led him to help found in the United States the Young Christian Students, the Young Christian Workers and the Christian Family Movement.

Many of us who had Putz for religion class in the fall of 1941 remember him well. He used Karl Adams’ Son of God rather than the Baltimore Catechism, thus taking us on our first steps toward an adult Catholicism.

During my wife’s 50th reunion at St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame, Ind., the first weekend in June, I had gone looking for my old friend, Putz, at Holy Cross House, the priest’s home on campus at Notre Dame. They told me he was temporarily in the hospital in downtown South Bend. But there was a Mass being celebrated at Holy Cross House right now and would I like to attend? I decided I would.

What a scene, so different from the modern, flat churches of today. Holy Cross House has a simple chapel with lovely stained glass windows. The two sets of narrow pews were pushed toward the center aisle to leave room on the sides for wheelchairs. The retired priests who were attending Mass sat, or rather slouched, heads lolling this way or that, but paying strict attention to the Mass. The priest officiating was a younger man, probably around 70, and the server was in his 80s. He shuffled bent-over as he carried the water and wine to the celebrant.

There were no guitars playing, no modern dance in the aisles, only these old, devout men celebrating an ancient ritual. They had trained thousands of Notre Dame men, and now it was time for them to rest.

After the Mass, I was able to visit Louis Putz in the hospital. He was in great spirits except that he was frustrated at not being able to get anything done. Frustrated is not a good enough word -- he was “pissed off” at not being able to attend to his work. He had 500 senior citizens going to a class in South Bend every week in a program called “Forever Learning,” which he had started in 1974. The teachers were unpaid retired professors who taught as few or as many hours as they wished.

He was also working with a bishop in the Midwest, persuading hundreds of laymen to assist the priests by visiting the outlying farms each week, helping to create a sense of community.

His latest project, which he was anxious to get going, was designed to help millionaires’ widows in Arizona. They had money but had never been allowed to handle it, so they didn’t know how. Their friends had been decided on by their husbands. When I told my wife’s classmates about this, they roared with laughter at the “poor millionaire widows.” But it was so typical of Louis Putz, his ability to see a problem that he might be able to solve.

He wanted to get out of bed, this 85-year-old man, and get to work. He had important things to do, more important than lying in a hospital bed.

As I left the hospital that night, I bent over to kiss the forehead of this grand man, and he leaned up to help me. He was always helping someone.

Three weeks later, back at Holy Cross House, he had a stroke and died.

He was a man, he was a man, he was a Notre Dame man.

Gene Moore writes from Attleboro, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999