Backstory: Story of Basilica's stained glass captured in new guidebook

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Editor’s note: Most faculty and staff are working remotely as part of the University’s response to the pandemic. We’ll be back on campus soon, but in the meantime NDWorks brings a bit of Notre Dame to you. Backstory is a series offering the stories behind some of the University’s most recognizable landmarks, new and old. Is there something you'd like to see featured? Email ideas to

There’s an unforgettable feeling one gets the first time you walk into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Your eyes are drawn in and up and then all around you. There, before you, is sacred art to be taken in at once, yet its beauty forces you to slow down to take it in bit by bit, in both reverence and awe.  

The 44 stained glass windows and their 222 scenes take center stage in “Stories in Light, A Guide to the Stained Glass of the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame” by Nancy Cavadini and Cecilia Davis Cunningham. The softcover book presents beautiful photographs of the windows, the story of each window, and where there is Latin script, a translation. The guide opens with the history of how the windows came to be crafted in France 150 years ago, and how they made their way to Notre Dame. As a collection, it is one of the largest assemblages of stained glass from that era outside of France. The guide, at 220 pages, is a glossy print homage meant as a reference to the Basilica and its stained glass windows. This is not the book where one might skip the front matter; much like a treasure map, the preface presents a detailed floor plan of the Basilica, with each window numbered in the way one should approach them, allowing a story to unfold. 

The book includes the backstory around the “strictly cloistered” Carmelite nuns in France and their role in the stained glass window business. And much like the lore behind a treasure map, the original letters between Notre Dame and the Carmelites concerning the choices for the windows were lost in a fire at the Carmelite archives.

What does remain is our hope that someday soon we will all be able to return to the beauty of the Basilica. Until then, the authors and some of our Notre Dame family have shared their first and favorite impressions of the windows of the Basilica. 

Bill Gangluff photo
Bill Gangluff

As a lifelong communications professional, I see the Basilica glass as a storyteller’s paradise with each piece painstakingly telling a beautiful narrative — whether it be a story of hope, sorrow or joy. The tilt of a head, an expression shared, the vibrancy of a scene … all of these join to create a story. The creative in me loves the meaning of the subtleties from the placement of a hand, patterning used or the symbolism in a color choice. 

I have always been drawn to the Relics Chapel. The collection of relics from Catholic saints and martyrs are such treasures to be present on campus. Pieces of our Catholic tradition remain with us. The windows in the chapel tell the stories of the relics’ discovery and journey.

Bill Gangluff
Senior Director, Marketing Communications
University of Notre Dame Alumni Association

Chuck Lamphier photo
Chuck Lamphier

When entering the Basilica, I often feel like I’m walking through a large crowd of people, looking for one friend. It’s always rewarding to focus on one window and to “encounter” that person.

My favorite window in the Basilica depicts Pentecost, with Mary at the center, and the apostles and other disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. I don’t know the names of some of the figures and I like it that way: I imagine that they represent all of us who, through the Holy Spirit and accompanied by Mary, are the Church today.

Chuck Lamphier
Executive Director for Ecumenical and Church Affairs

Cec Cunningham Web Small
Cecilia Davis Cunningham

We, the Lawrence Cunningham family, arrived at Notre Dame in August of 1988. We first saw the Basilica in November of 1987 during rather dramatic and stormy rainy days. The windows are quite glorious at a time like that. Dark days such as those are a great time to see stained glass. On bright days the windows cast quite colorful light about the church. It was all visually exciting.

My favorite window is “The Dormition of the Virgin,” the large transept window on the west side. The DORMITION (the going to sleep or Death of the Virgin) is the subject matter. It is a dramatic scene of Mary’s bedroom in which the young St. John the Evangelist embraces Mary as she dies. They are surrounded by apostles, but the one kneeling at the lower left, who holds scripture, looks out at the viewers and invites us into the scene. That is called the “sacred conversation” in art. The Virgin’s skin tones are quite a grayish white suggesting death. The lavish colors of glass, the composition, all the elements of art force our eyes to “Notre Dame, Our Lady.”

Such a glorious scene. I love every inch of it. Stained glass at its best.

Cecilia Cunningham
Co-author of “Stories in Light, A Guide to the Stained Glass of the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame”

Photo of Father Peter Rocca
Father Peter Rocca

Immediately upon entering Sacred Heart Church, Father Sorin wished to have two French saints in stained glass — St. Genevieve (†512), Patroness of Paris, on the east wall, and St. Louis IX (†1270), King of France, on the west wall, greet visitors and worshippers. While Father Sorin considered himself an “Americanist,” and loved the United States for the opportunities it afforded for independence, creativity and expansion, he was, at heart, very much a Francophile — a man who loved French culture, the French language and French Catholicism. It was not, then, by accident, that two French saints — one, the Patroness of Paris, the other, the most famous of French kings, set a particular tone for his new “American” church in northern Indiana. 

Father Peter Rocca
Rector, Basilica of the Sacred Heart

Susan Montalbano photo
Sue Montalbano

The “Death or Dormition of Mary” located in the west transept above the entrance to the sacristy is one window that speaks to me. The large scene shows the apostles and disciples mourning Mary’s moment of passing from this earthly life to the next heavenly life. The crowd, all of whom mourned in some way with Mary at the passing of her Son, are present. You can see in each face their concern and love for the mother of Jesus. They are inviting us into this scene. For me, this depiction underscores the movement of Mary as a witness or participant in Jesus’ earthly life to now the center of attention for all. I see the earthly journey of Our Blessed Mother coming to completion.

Sue Montalbano, Coordinator, Basilica Tours and Hospitality
Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Office of Campus Ministry

Nancy Cavadini
Nancy Cavadini

My memories of Notre Dame’s Basilica stained glass go back to 1990, when John first began working at Notre Dame. I am always surprised to find that each time I see them, the light plays differently on them.

As for my favorite window, there are several! But, to choose but one, I am fond of St. Martha, in the nave, the patron saint of housewives. She’s sprinkling the dragon Tarasque with holy water! I have yet to imitate this in my housework, but her window does succeed in teaching me that holiness can be found in such seemingly insignificant chores.

Nancy Cavadini, co-author of “Stories in Light, A Guide to the Stained Glass of the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame.” Her husband is John C. Cavadini, professor of theology at the University.


Book Cover Web

"Stories in Light, A Guide to the Stained Glass of the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame" by Nancy Cavadini and Cecilia Davis Cunningham is available in paperback from the University of Notre Dame Press.