Marked with the Sign of Faith
Michael Ambrose Mathis was born October 6, 1885, in South Bend, Indiana, on the very doorstep of the University of Notre Dame. His parents, recent immigrants from Germany, lived in nearby St. Joseph Parish, staffed then, as now, by priests of Holy Cross. His early education was divided between Catholic school in South Bend, public school in Fitzgerald, Georgia, and St. Joseph's Orphanage in Lafayette, Indiana, where he was sent after his mother's untimely death.
With the encouragement of the orphanage chaplain, Michael entered the Holy Cross preparatory seminary at Notre Dame in 1901, at the age of 16. After making his final profession of vows in the congregation of Holy Cross in 1907, and obtaining his bachelor's degree from Notre Dame in 1910, Mathis was offered an opportunity to study theology in Rome, but he confessed to his provincial superior that his heart lay elsewhere: he wanted to join the missions in Bengal. "Father," he said, "I've got the mission bug bad." And he would never get over it.
Since he showed so little interest in Rome, he was sent to Holy Cross College in Washington, DC to study theology in preparation for his ordination to the priesthood in 1914. But even after ordination, the outbreak of World War I kept young Father Mathis from the missions after all. Still nourishing the hope that his chance would come, he agreed to stay in Washington, first studying architecture at The Catholic University of America, and then, when he confessed that he could not get excited about bricks and mortar, pursuing a doctorate in sacred scripture, which he completed in 1920 at Catholic University, Washington, DC.