Nov 2020 - Looking Back...The Day of Rockne's Wedding

Looking Back…The Day of Rockne’s Wedding   

by Jim Pauer, ‘74

July 15, 1914. The sun climbed above its Lake Erie horizon at 7:06 AM Eastern Standard Time. Daylight Savings time would not exist until four years hence. This Wednesday, a little rain would come later as the temperature climbed to hover around 90 along Ohio’s lakeshore. Bestirred grey waters of dawn soon became shimmering blue swells in a moderate lake breeze. Jutting into the Lake, the forested Cedar Point peninsula had been home to the amusement park bearing its name since 1870. The resort attracted Ohioans and many from surrounding states, visitors for a day or for extended vacations.

Breakers Hotel
Breakers Hotel

In their rooms in the park’s Breakers Hotel, guests were awaking. Some were hay farmers attending their convention. The previous evening, heavy rains had dampened the fireworks display

originally planned.  At least for the farmers, rain would have been as welcome as fireworks. The massive 8-wing hotel, built nine years earlier in French country-chateau style, contained 600 guest rooms. It was one example of a trend for large summer-resort hotels in the Great Lakes, including the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, and the Victory Hotel on South Bass Island, a few miles from Cedar Point.

Many guests had a fine view of the mile-long sandy beach that extended south along the east shoreline from the imposing hotel. In addition to serving swimmers and loungers, it had been a practice field for Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais as they perfected football’s forward pass the previous summer of 1913. The two Notre Dame teammates had graduated this year. Instead of miscellaneous jobs including lifeguarding on that beach, they were now coaching college ball, Dorais in Iowa, and Rockne at Notre Dame. Most guests were unaware of the history that had been created on the beach before them, but in 1914 they had heard about Notre Dame football. Many park workers could remember last summer’s purposeful antics as the pair spent hours of many days throwing a football in arcs of varying length. Few if any would have been aware that Fr. Edward Sorin, CSC, and companions had sailed past these shores on a steamboat 73 years earlier on a course a few miles away, heading west, bound for Toledo and the next phase of a circuitous journey to South Bend. 

Park workers were already beginning their daily tasks. Many were college students from Ohio and surrounding states. They were emerging from their dormitory on the park’s west side and reporting to their posts: booths on the midway, the restaurants, the amusement rides, and the beach. In a few hours, the place would be bustling with visitors: families with children and couples enjoying a day of fun. Many would look for thrills on the park rides, especially the roller coaster, the Dip the Dips, with its tallest hill reaching a dizzying height of 33 feet.

Saints Peter and Paul Church and Rectory

In the nearby bayside city of Sandusky, Fr. William F. Murphy stood at the vesting table in the sacristy of Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Columbus Avenue. The gothic revival church had been

designed by architect Patrick Charles Keely, the recipient of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 1884. In his career, he designed more than 600 Catholic churches in the United States including several cathedrals. Founded in 1866, this English-speaking parish served alongside two other parishes in the growing city. Fr. Murphy was in his ninth year as “irremovable” pastor or pastor-for-life. In a few minutes, he would begin the 7:30 AM Mass. He set the ribbon markers in the Missal at the appropriate pages for today, celebrating St. Henry, a ninth-century Holy-Roman Emperor. Perhaps he compared the saint’s quieter era to events being reported in international news. The assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke had taken place a couple weeks earlier. Days from now, there would be declarations, and World War I would begin. Among his intentions for prayer, the priest possibly included a petition for peace in an unsettled world. The reigning pope, Pius X, would undergo his transitus the following month. Earlier in the year, the future saint had predicted the beginning of the Great War.

Satisfied that the book was ready, the pastor beckoned an altar boy who carried it into the sanctuary and placed it on the epistle side of the high altar. Father Murphy read the Latin vesting prayers from the card on the table. As he concluded, he considered his agenda for the day. In addition to routine business and perhaps some hastily arranged sick calls, he would officiate in the rectory at the wedding of Bonnie Skiles to one Knute Kenneth Rockne. Bonnie had converted to Catholicism and attended Mass at the parish during her time working at Cedar Point as a waitress. It would be a mixed marriage, something very much frowned upon and actively discouraged in the Church at the time.

Dispensations were very rarely granted, and only in particular situations that satisfied certain conditions. Banns of Marriage were not permitted to be published. Sacred rites, such as a nuptial Mass and blessing, were prohibited; but some ceremonial was tolerated, with permission of the bishop. In later years, the parish would be in the newly formed Diocese of Toledo; but for now, it was Bishop John P. Farrelly of Cleveland who had granted permission. Most certainly he had heard about the Notre Dame football titan who had achieved fame and glory for the notable Catholic university. Rockne had a reputation for clean living and sportsmanship, values he instilled in the players he coached. This virtuous behavior would have been a factor in allowing a union otherwise not able to be recognized as a legal marriage. The situation was made more serious by the fact that Knute Rockne was not even baptized. This was the more extreme kind of mixed marriage, not mere mixed religion between the baptized, but a disparity of cult. Father Murphy’s excellent relationship with his bishop didn’t hurt. He submitted the petition promptly after Bonnie had approached him weeks earlier. Now he said a quick prayer for the couple, adjusted the maniple on his left sleeve, picked up the veiled chalice, and directed the altar boy to ring the bell at the sacristy door. He followed the cassock-and-surplice-clad boy into the sanctuary for Mass. 

The George A. Boeckling

On the west side of Cedar Point, the George A. Boeckling had been secured at the dock upon its first of many daily arrivals from Sandusky. This passenger ferry had capacity for 2000 passengers

on two decks, and made trips to the park from morning to evening.  Early visitors clambered down the companionways from the upper deck to disembark with others from the lower deck, excited to step ashore for their day of leisure. Park workers unloaded food and supplies for the hotel and concession stands. A new concrete roadway would open to the public the following Sunday, creating the first link for motor vehicle traffic between Cedar Point and the mainland. Until then, a boat was the only way to the park.

In the Grill Restaurant adjacent to the Breakers, the wait staff was serving breakfast. Some might have commented on today being Bonnie Skiles’ wedding day. She had relinquished her job waiting tables in the dining room and would be making a home for herself and her groom in South Bend. Knute Rockne had enjoyed working in that dining room, one of his jobs at the park. Here he could be near Bonnie, and partake of excellent cuisine. Steak was a personal favorite. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Gus Dorais delivered some good-natured ribbing to his roommate regarding his spending so much time there and being smitten by Bonnie’s charms.

A steam whistle blast signaled departure, and the Boeckling pulled away from the dock for the two-mile crossing to a berth in Sandusky. Knute and Bonnie had used the ferry to travel to and from the park. Rockne’s forceful coaching manner contrasted considerably with his much quieter, taciturn deportment around Bonnie. Bonnie was similarly demure. She and Rockne, a teacher of Chemistry at Notre Dame, shared a remarkable personal chemistry and clearly enjoyed spending time together, no matter the occasion. More talkative couples double dating with them enhanced some afternoons and evenings. Bonnie and Knute had completed their courtship long-distance, exchanging letters during the past year.

Sandusky Bay, a sixty-four-square-mile inlet of Lake Erie, was busy with traffic including dozens of fishing boats headed for the wharf at the Lay Brothers Market with fresh catches of herring and blue pike. Steamships' whistles were signaling to claim right of way as they approached and departed docks at the ends of downtown streets. Settled in 1818, Sandusky’s population had grown beyond 24,000. An ice harvesting industry had developed along the way. Chiseled from the frozen bay during winter, blocks of ice were stored in warehouses, where sawdust packed between double walls provided insulation. Ice blocks could remain frozen here for as long as a year.  Blocks for sale departed daily in dozens of insulated rail cars that were loaded at sidings along the waterfront, even during summer months. In these days before electric refrigeration, ice was put into barrels packed with fish arriving daily at the waterfront and transported by rail near and far. Insulated cars carried ice-refrigerated local produce as far as the western states. Manufacturing was becoming increasingly important. New factories were opening beyond a downtown tightly packed with multi-story brick and stone commercial buildings.

The Boeckling docked at the Jackson Street pier. Alongside the road and rail tracks at the shoreline, people were already waiting to board boats to Cedar Point, the Lake Erie islands, and even Detroit. One block east of Jackson Street, boats crowded the Columbus Avenue pier. Decades earlier, it had been a point of departure for fugitive slaves leaving the United States for Ontario, Canada. Harriet Beecher Stowe had noted this historic terminus of the Underground Railroad in the early pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Charles Dickens had departed from here on a steamship during his mostly discontented visit to America in 1842.

Columbus Avenue stretches south, perpendicular to the shoreline. On this day, it was full of horse and streetcar traffic, and an increasing number of motor cars. Pedestrians moved in and out of

shops and offices. Women wore ankle-length shirt-waist dresses and men sported straw brimmed hats for summertime. The street was festooned with American flags along with red, white, and blue bunting for “Old Home Week,” Sandusky’s homecoming celebration. The decorations coincidentally and appropriately marked the wedding of an all-American. The local newspaper listed the names of dozens of visitors and former residents in town for this event. A front-page headline concerned the revolution continuing in Mexico.

Through an open window in a home down the street, the sound of a Victrola could be heard, playing the top hit of 1914, “By the Beautiful Sea” sung by the Heidelberg Quintet. Radio broadcasts would not happen until the 1920s. On the far west side, police officers were sending unwelcome campers, a band of gypsies, on their way and out of town.

In the rectory kitchen, Fr. Murphy’s housekeeper, his sister Ella, observed the cook’s progress. Ella’s white poodle, a parish celebrity named Cotton, sat contentedly in the hall, watching the goings-on. After Mass, Fr. Murphy strolled a short sidewalk to the house. At the dining room table, conversation with his assistant priest and his sister served to confirm arrangements for the day.

As many as eight passenger trains a day traveled east from Chicago to Buffalo on the Lakeshore and Southern Michigan Railroad. The New York Central System would complete a merger with the line later in the year. Best man Gus Dorais had probably made rail connections in Chicago from Iowa, and could have joined his teammate/roommate in South Bend for the four-and-a-half-hour trip east to Sandusky. A streetcar line connected the L & SM station on the south side of Sandusky to its downtown.

Sandusky streets form a grid, except for some peculiar diagonal streets that cut across it. These were laid out by Masonic city fathers who wanted to represent the square of Masonry in a right angle formed by two diagonals. Catholics were among early settlers. Some Protestants had made significant contributions to the building funds for the city’s Catholic parishes, even donating real estate. In preparation for his nuptials, Rockne had relinquished his Scottish Rite affiliation some days before the wedding.

Ceremonies of this nature typically took place in the early afternoon. At some point, the groom and his best man arrived at the rectory. Church and rectory were built of the same sturdy grey rock known as “blue” limestone from a local quarry. A porch wrapped around the front of the rectory and along the north wall facing the church. A small parlor in this northwest corner of the house was the location for the wedding. It has a door to the outside through the north wall, and connects with the central foyer through another door on the opposite wall. The bride and Marie, the maid of honor, arrived.

Fr. Murphy, by reputation a warm and personable priest, welcomed the wedding party. The pastor had an active interest in sports, often joining the children in their games on the parish school’s playground, especially if baseball was the game. As a pitcher in his youth, he had developed a highly effective curve ball. He most certainly projected a genuine liking toward Rockne, over and above requisite charity as pastor.

The room where the wedding took place is small, perhaps 11 by 13 feet. It stands today almost exactly as it did on that day. Several coats of paint and carpet replacements have preserved it. New heating, lighting, and window treatments have updated it.

After some words of greeting, Fr. Murphy turned to one of the last pages in his pocket-sized Roman Ritual and found the heading Preces Recitandae extra Missam super Conjuges quando Benedictio Nuptialis Non Permittitur (Prayers to Recite over Spouses outside Mass when a Nuptial Blessing is not permitted). There, as everywhere else in the book, rubrics and instructions were in Latin, as were some introductory prayers. Subsequent prayers to be recited for mixed marriage spouses were provided in English, German, French, and Italian. Fr. Murphy likely delivered the English in a clear and kindly pastoral tone, beginning, “My dear friends, you are about to enter upon a union, of which God Himself is the Author, and which our Divine Savior has consecrated in a special manner, giving to it a character of sanctity, which places it among the holiest institutions of religion.” Following some words of warning, including observations concerning “storms of tribulation” that might afflict some unions, were the words, “We have every reason to believe that your anticipations of happiness in this holy state are founded on a solid basis; that you have duly prepared yourselves for this important event, and that your hearts are such, in the sight of God, as to draw down upon you His special favor and blessing.” Vows were exchanged. In all, three paragraphs of admonition and exhortation were read, concluding with the hope that religion would qualify them to support and comfort one another through trials, promote their happiness and prepare them for more permanent joys hereafter.

The witnesses signed the parish register book. Gus Dorais wrote his Christian name Charles, abbreviated Chas. He added a conclusive period after Dorais, perhaps to emphasize his approval. Marie Bohlzarina, Bonnie’s friend probably from Cedar Point, signed, followed by Fr. Murphy. After receiving congratulations, the newlyweds and attendants exited the rectory. The happy couple headed to their new home in South Bend. Except to visit the town a few times—once was in 1925 to speak at a Kiwanis event—Rockne’s days on the lakeshore were over. His lifeguarding career had ended. A fitting conclusion had been marrying the woman he had met and with whom he had fallen in love during his time there.  

Eleven years following his wedding, Knute Rockne would be baptized in the Log Chapel at Notre Dame. He did this unannounced, and surprised Knute K. Rockne, Jr., receiving First Communion together with his son the next day in the chapel of St. Edward Hall.

A plaque at the Breakers Hotel commemorates Rockne’s time there. The restaurant where Bonnie and Knute worked remains, having survived several remodelings and name changes. The rectory room where the wedding took place now serves as a waiting room for the parish office across the hall. A plaque commemorating the wedding stands on a post next to the sidewalk outside the rectory.

Thanks to the following who assisted in preparation of this article: Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Sandusky, Ohio; the Sandusky Library; The Sandusky Register; the Erie County Historical Society; Cedar Point.

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