by Nina M. Riccio, M.A. ’90
Being a Resident Assistant and staying on campus over the summer has its privileges. Combine that with a curious mind and a predilection for crawling around dark, dusty corners and you never know what you might unearth.
“Back in 2006, I was a summer resident assistant in Dolan Hall, having just completed a year as an R.A. in Dolan Hall,” recalls Jim Scholl ’ 07. “I was up in the attic storage space where all the linens and old furniture and such are kept, and this big, arched wood carving caught my eye — it had obviously been saved for some reason but no one knew what to do with it.”
With a little sleuthing, Scholl found out that the large oak plaque had once been part of the transom over the double doors of what is now John Dolan Hall back in the days when the building and surrounding property were owned by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a teaching order that originated in Belgium.
From 1957 through the next 30 years, the sisters of Notre Dame de Namur presided over the three buildings that now comprise the northwest edge of Fairfield’s campus. For a couple of decades, it was a thriving novitiate in a busy location, but by the 1980s the number of young women entering the convent had dwindled considerably. When Fairfield University bought the property in 1989, renovations were required to turn the former convent into offices and dormitory space for undergraduates. That’s when the wooden plaque with the Notre Dame crest and motto was removed and replaced with a large window that would flood the interior space with natural light. The plaque was relegated to the attic, where it languished for many years.
“I didn’t think much of it at first,” admitted Scholl, a communication major. “But in talking with Fr. [Charles] Allen, I got the bigger story. I really felt a sense of the history of the building and of this order of nuns, and this crest was so much a part of that.”
“Jim has always had a knack for getting things done,” recalls Assistant Vice President Jim Fitzpatrick ’70 with a laugh. “That plaque grabbed his attention, and he saw to it that it got restored to a place of honor somewhere on campus.”
That coming academic year, Scholl discussed the plaque with the Residence Life staff, who gave him the go-ahead to ask carpenters John Falzone and Chuck DeAngelis in Facilities Management to make the necessary repairs. While heavy, the two-inch thick crest was intact, but weathered and grimy from its years outside and dusty from its time in storage. Plus, the back was damaged.
“We cleaned and patched it, then had to stabilize the back to straighten it out and allow it to be hung,” said DeAngelis. Campus Painter Behnam Ostovarpour gave the piece a couple of coats of varnish. Underneath was a gem, a nicely grained wood that was beautifully carved with lilies and roses, symbolizing purity and charity, and the Notre Dame de Namur motto. (It translates to “Ah, how good is the good God,” a quote attributed to the Order’s foundress, Sr. Julie Billiart, and etched into the cross each of the sisters wear.) Once finished, the plaque was brought back “home” to hang in the study lounge of the Dolan residence hall.
“Our campus crew was fabulous,” said Scholl. “The work they did really brought out the beauty in the piece.”
With the crest hung in its new home in the Dolan study area (once the nuns’ original chapel), those involved decided to hold a small dedication ceremony in April 2007 and invite the former residents of the novitiate, now living in Windsor, Connecticut. Eight or nine of them came to admire the renovations and reminisce about their years there. During the reception, the nuns were told that the room was being renamed the Sr. Julie Billiart Common Room.
The unveiling of the crest was, by all accounts, the highlight of the ceremony.
“They were overjoyed, amazed, and touched that anyone would go out of their way to remember them,” said Fitzpatrick of their reaction.
Last year, the plaque was temporarily removed when Dolan Hall was again renovated as apartments for upperclassman. It was rehung in the study commons just before students returned in September.
“In an age when religious orders are declining it’s important to keep alive the memory of the order, who these women were, and what their mission was,” said Scholl, who will soon enter the New England Province of the Society of Jesus. “That group of sisters gave their lives to this community. In the spirit of remaining true to our history as a university and our commitment to recognizing the good and true, it is critical that we acknowledge the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at Fairfield.”