By Katie Quandt
NOTRE DAME — When The University of Notre Dame contacted Nell Jessup Newton last year about an opening for dean of the Law School, she initially turned down the offer. Content with her position as dean at Hastings College of the Law at the University of California, she had no intention of leaving the school, her alma mater, which she describes as “a public school with a great mission.”
However, Notre Dame’s Catholic tradition enticed Newton, a Catholic who had served all three of her prior deanships at secular universities.
“I finally realized that it was almost like a calling,” she said. She asked herself, “Wouldn’t it be great to live a more integrated life?”
In March, Newton accepted the offer, becoming the law school’s 10th dean on July 1.
A new dean is one of several major changes the University of Notre Dame Law School has undergone in the past year. The Eck Hall of Law, an extensive addition housing faculty offices, administrative space, and 13 new classrooms, was dedicated May 1. The addition also includes the 76-seat St. Thomas More Chapel.
The chapel, which is named for the patron saint of politicians and lawyers, replaced the building’s original chapel, which seated only 18. The bright chapel, which is easily accessible from the school’s new archway, features three large stained glass windows depicting Mary, the Eucharist and St. Thomas More.
“It’s just absolutely gorgeous,” said Dean Newton.
Mass is offered daily in the new chapel. Weekday Mass attendance ranges from 15 to 40, and the chapel often fills to the point of overflow on Sundays.
“Our new chapel affords a sacred space where ND law students can pray either at Mass and other communal liturgical prayers as well as in private prayer or meditation,” said Franciscan Father John J. Coughlin, in an e-mail. Father Coughlin serves the weekday Mass in the chapel and is a professor of law at Notre Dame.
The beautiful new worship space is only a physical manifestation of the deep underlying Catholic tradition that makes a Notre Dame Law School education unique.
“We say we educate a different kind of lawyer, and I really think we do,” said Newton. The law school requires students to take courses in ethics, and encourages moral and religious discussion in the classroom.
“For students who live a faith-filled life, this is a very good place to be, since we can ask the really difficult questions,” explained Newton. At many law schools, “students who want to ask moral questions in class are often told ‘that is not your profession.’”
“We welcome talking about the moral questions in class,” she said.
Dean Newton added that Notre Dame Law School is also “really great for the kids who have not lived a faith-filled life. It provides great potential for them to open up to thinking about religion.”
A dedication Mass for the St. Thomas More Chapel was celebrated by Bishop John M. D’Arcy on Sept. 9. Over 150 attended, and despite the incense setting off a smoke alarm mid-Mass, Dean Newton said, “It was a very beautiful event.”
“Bishop D’Arcy was completely unflapped by (the smoke alarm),” she added. “He was just great. He is a lovely guy.”
The bishop will return to the Notre Dame campus on Sunday, Oct. 11, to celebrate a Red Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Red Masses are celebrated for public officials and those in the legal profession.
Dean Newton said she is looking forward to her first Red Mass at Notre Dame. She loves the Red Mass tradition recognizing and praying for all lawyers, not only those who are Catholic. “One great thing about our faith is we love everyone, we pray for everyone,” she said.
The Notre Dame Law School strives to live up to its Catholic mission. It boasts the unique Center for Civil and Human Rights, which was founded in 1973 by Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, former university president and longtime member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The yearlong program brings together young lawyers from around the world to study international human rights. Students return home equipped with the knowledge and ability to teach and promote human rights in their own countries. The majority of students enrolled in the program are international, often coming from Africa and Central and South America.
“It trains people from all over the world who want to do good work in the world in the human rights area,” said Newton.
Although Dean Newton is new to Notre Dame, her connection to the school began long before the July commencement of her deanship. Her older brother attended the school as an undergrad, and she said Notre Dame “meant the world to him.” She flew to South Bend once, for his 1965 graduation ceremony, and happened to meet Father Hesburgh on the plane.
“He was so kind and really wonderful,” she remembered.
“To a Catholic kid from the Midwest, Notre Dame is a special place,” she explained. “I always had very fond feelings for it.”
Newton’s feelings about the university have not changed.
“There is something very wonderful about being at a school where you can be openly Catholic,” she said. “We pray before faculty meetings. We care about everyone, we love our students… It is a wonderful community, a faith-based community.”
“I can’t imagine any situation that would pull me away from here.”
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