‘Hesburgh’ Documentary Captures the Faith and Influence of Priest & Notre Dame President ‘Father Ted’, Who Worked Extensively With the Civil Rights Movement

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, center left, holds hands with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while singing “We Shall Overcome” during a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago on June 21, 1964. Photo courtesy of OCP Media

Kathleen Cummings, who is the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, walked into her last class of the 2019 school year with a sense of sadness about her seniors.

Theirs is the first Notre Dame class in more than 65 years to graduate without having the chance to know the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the school from 1952 to 1987, who died the year they entered as freshmen in 2015.

“They have no living experience of him,” Cummings said. “And this is just the beginning.”

A new documentary titled simply “Hesburgh,” which opens nationwide today (May 3), may be the closest Cummings’ seniors will get to understanding this legendary but sometimes overlooked figure.

“Hesburgh” is only the most recent vehicle aimed at keeping Hesburgh’s memory alive.

In 2016, Robert Schmuhl wrote “Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record,” which was re-released in 2018 with new information. In March 2019, the Rev. Wilson Miscamble released a more measured portrait, “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh.”

A poster for the new film
“Hesburgh.” Courtesy of OCP

But putting Hesburgh on the screen will expose more people to the disarming combination of humility and authority that made the man known as “Father Ted” a force in a troubled time for the United States.

“The number one thing I wanted to find out was, what was it about him that made him such a highly sought-after advisor and leader?” said Patrick Creadon, the director of “Hesburgh.” “That was really the fundamental question.”

Ordained into Notre Dames’ founding order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, in 1943, Hesburgh began teaching in South Bend two years later. It took him just nine years to become president, at the age of 35. His outspoken intelligence, his activism and the unassailable position of his school in the 1950s and ’60s made him a resource for Presidents Eisenhower through Nixon, who together drafted him to serve on 16 presidential committees. Under Eisenhower, he began serving on the Civil Rights Commission; under Nixon, he became chair.

Along the way, he picked up 150 honorary degrees — more, according to Guinness World Records, than any other person in history. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received the Congressional Gold Medal.

“He did enough, one would almost expect it to be done by 10 people,” said Schmuhl, who also appears in the film.

The documentary examines Hesburgh’s dedication to furthering Catholic higher education. He worked hard to pull Notre Dame out of the stereotype of a football powerhouse, making it an intellectual bastion as well. In this he had to balance the loyalty he owed the Vatican and his responsibility to the university, two things that sometimes conflicted.

But the focus of the film is Hesburgh’s life off campus, particularly his political dealings, the majority of which had to do with civil rights.

He was no pawn of power. Nixon praised Hesburgh in naming him to head the Civil Rights Commission, but the two men soon fell out, as Hesburgh began to criticize the administration for its policies on both civil rights and the Vietnam War.

Schmuhl credits Hesburgh for putting his morality at the center of everything he did. “He was just a person who would look at the world and the problems in the world and would do what he could to try to ameliorate them,” Schmuhl said. “We don’t see that as much today.” (Then again, Schmuhl, points out, he never had to worry about reelection.)

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Source: Religion News Service