NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, who led the University of Notre Dame through a period of dramatic growth during his 35 years as president and held sway with political and civil rights leaders, died Feb. 26 at the age of 97.

As the longest serving president of Notre Dame, from 1952 to 1987, Father Hesburgh built the university from a small college primarily known for its prowess on the football field into one of the nation’s premier higher education institutions.

“We mourn today a great man and faithful priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame and touched the lives of many,” Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s current president, said in a statement. “With his leadership, charism and vision, he turned a relatively small Catholic college known for football into one of the nation’s great institutions for higher learning.

“In his historic service to the nation, the church and the world, he was a steadfast champion for human rights, the cause of peace and care for the poor,” he said.

Father Hesburgh was born May 25, 1917, in Syracuse, New York, to Anne Murphy Hesburgh and Theodore B. Hesburgh, an executive of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.

He was educated at Notre Dame and Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. He was ordained a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1943 in Sacred Heart Church, today the basilica, on the Notre Dame campus. He received a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in 1945.