Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who was once considered the most influential priest in the U.S., died late Thursday. He was 97.
Hesburgh died on Thursday night at the Holy Cross House retirement home, according to a statement released by the university. The cause of his death was not given.
“We mourn today a great man and faithful priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame and touched the lives of many,” said Reverend John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s current president. “With his leadership, charisma and vision, he turned a relatively small Catholic college known for football into one of the nation’s great institutions for higher learning.”
Hesburgh served as the president of the university for 35 years, where he earned a reputation as one of the country’s most influential Catholic educators, before retiring in 1986. A survey carried out the same year named him the most effective college president in the country.
He was also known for his contribution to world affairs, acting on issues including civil rights, immigration, world development and nuclear energy.
"I go back to an old Latin motto, opus justitiae pax: Peace is the work of justice," Hesburgh said in a 2001 interview, The Associated Press reported. "We've known 20 percent of the people in the world have 80 percent of the goodies, which means the other 80 percent have to scrape by on 20 percent."
Hesburgh’s passion for civil rights and justice took him to countries around the world, including Moscow and El Salvador. It also occasionally brought him into conflict with authority figures, including the Vatican and President Richard Nixon, who fired him from the Civil Rights Commission in 1972 after Hesburgh challenged Nixon’s civil rights record.
During his time at Notre Dame, he transformed it from a small school with 4,979 students and an operating budget of $10 million to one with 9,600 students and a $176 million when he retired.
The university said a funeral Mass will be held at the Sacred Heart church, and a tribute will be held on campus at an undisclosed time.