While most Notre Dame enthusiasts are aware of the “Touchdown Jesus” mural on the Hesburgh Memorial Library, plus the mammoth “We’re No. 1 Moses” statue on the west side of the library, the history behind the “Fair Catch Corby” statue is not as well known.
Father William Corby was a 29-year-old priest (ordained in 1860) who graduated from Notre Dame and served as the chaplain of the famous Irish Brigade that fought Civil War (1861-65) battles from the First Bull Run to Appomattox.
It was during the bloody July 1-3, 1863 battle in Gettysburg, Pa., where more than 46,000 troops from the Union and Confederacy were killed, wounded, captured or ended up missing, that Corby led his men in a solemn moment of prayer on July 2 and pronounced general absolution. This year marks the 150th anniversary of those tragic days in American history.
A picture of the dramatic event, with the battle raging in the background, was taken with Corby delivering the absolution with his right hand raised — similar to a fair catch in football, hence the “Fair Catch Corby” moniker.
In 1910, 47 years later, sculptor Samuel Murray shaped a bronze statue of Corby that was placed at the spot in Gettysburg where Corby delivered the absolution. A duplicate was placed in 1911 outside Corby Hall, just west of Sacred Heart Church, on the Notre Dame campus.
After the war, Corby served as Notre Dame’s president from 1866-72 and 1877-1881, prior to his 1897 death.
Seven other Notre Dame priests joined Corby as chaplains in the War Between the States, and 89 Holy Cross sisters left Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College to serve as nurses during the Civil War. Two generals for the Northern Army came from Notre Dame — Williams F. Lynch and Robert W. Healy.
Healy would work with General William T. Sherman, whose march through Georgia rivaled Gettysburg as the most devastating campaign of the war. What is not as well known is that while Sherman was marching through the South, his wife and children were living at Notre Dame. Two of his boys were also enrolled at the minim department of the university.
A third son, a baby, died during the course of the war and was buried in Notre Dame’s community cemetery, according to Don Heltzel in the Feb. 28, 1941 Notre Dame Scholastic.