Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
Every summer, American families become road warriors, heading out for day trips, weekend excursions, or longer vacations to explore our vast, fascinating nation. There are plenty of significant sites across the United States that have unexpected Catholic links.
The East Room of the White House, Washington, D.C.
When you think “the White House,” you probably do not think “Catholic shrine.” But it is — particularly the East Room.
This is one of the original rooms of the White House, designed by architect James Hoban (a nice Irish Catholic boy) in 1792. Over the centuries it has served a variety of purposes, as a setting for state dinners, for concerts, for awards ceremonies, and for one-of-a-kind moments in American history.
John F. Kennedy lay in state here after his assassination. And it was here that Richard Nixon announced to his staff that he was resigning the presidency. When Andrew Jackson was office, two other historic events took place in the East Room that Catholics will find especially significant.
In 1832, Jackson’s ward, Mary Ann Lewis, was united in marriage to Joseph Pageot, a French diplomat. Mary Ann and Joseph were Catholics, so they invited Father William Matthews of St. Patrick’s Church to preside at their wedding. It was the first Catholic ceremony held in the White House.
Erecting a Catholic altar, even a temporary one, in the White House was a daring decision on Jackson’s part, given the intense anti-Catholic sentiment in America at the time. But he loved his ward, and his ward loved her faith, so the president ran the risk of offending the electorate.
A year later Father Matthews returned to the White House to officiate at another sacrament—the baptism of the couple’s first child. They named the baby boy Andrew Jackson Pageot. When Father Matthews asked the child’s godparents the ritual question, “Andrew Jackson, do you renounce Satan?” the President, thinking the priest was speaking to him, declared in a loud voice, “I do, most indubitably!”
The Alamo and the Tomb of Fallen, San Antonio, Texas
Every American has heard of the Battle of the Alamo, the heroic-but-hopeless defense put up by a few dozen Americans against an army from Mexico that numbered in the thousands. Through the sacrifice of their lives for the cause of Texas’ independence, the defenders made the Alamo holy ground in the historical sense. But it was already holy ground as a mission founded by a Franciscan priest to bring the local Indian tribe into the Catholic faith.
The Alamo’s story begins long before the battle, in 1718 when Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares blessed the site of a mission he named San Antonio de Valero. Six years later he moved his mission to a more promising location, and this is where visitors find the Alamo today. It remained an outpost of Catholicism in Texas until 1792 when the Mexican government seized the property. In the years since 1836, when Lt. Col. William Travis and his men made their last stand at the Alamo, the mission has suffered a great deal of damage. The chapel survives and so does the priest’s residence, known as the convent, but the rest of the mission compound has been lost.
For some visitors, the appearance of the Alamo comes as a disappointment. In the movies about the battle, the church looks grand, even monumental. In fact, it is very small. And of course, the Alamo is no longer located on the dusty outskirts of a sleepy frontier town, but in the noisy heart of downtown San Antonio. Visitors who brace themselves for these realities about the shrine will probably enjoy their experience more than someone whose ideas about the Alamo are based on the 1960 John Wayne movie.
There is another site in San Antonio associated closely with the Alamo that most visitors miss. Head over to the Cathedral of San Fernando. In the vestibule you’ll find a white marble sarcophagus. Inside are enshrined the remains of the fallen defenders of the Alamo.
The Mexican government regarded the defenders of the makeshift fort as rebels, so after the battle the dead were not given a decent burial. Instead, Santa Ana’s troops piled up the corpses and burned them. After the Mexican army had moved on, Texans gathered up the remains, sealed them in a chest, and buried it beneath the sanctuary floor of San Fernando. In 1936 the chest was rediscovered and the remains moved to the handsome tomb you see today.
Father William Corby Monument, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
There are a lot of monuments and memorials on the Gettysburg battlefield, but this one is unique. It is a life-size bronze sculpture of a man with a long beard, his eyes raised to heaven, his left hand over his heart, and his right hand raised. Around his shoulders is draped a stole. The man is Father William Corby, who was a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and a member of the faculty at Notre Dame in Indiana. In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, he left the college to serve as a chaplain to the Union’s renowned Irish Brigade. The sculpture depicts the most memorable event in Father Corby’s military career.
It was almost noon, July 2, 1863, and the 530 men of the Irish Brigade were resting on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge when the order came for them to prepare to go into battle. As the men assembled, Father Corby climbed on top of largish rock and called for the men’s attention. Under the circumstances, there was no time for him to hear the confession of every man of the brigade individually, he explained, but in such an emergency the Catholic Church permitted a priest to grant general absolution.
He instructed the men to recall their sins, beg God’s pardon, and recite silently the Act of Contrition, just as they would if they were in a confessional. Then Father Corby drew from a pocket of his black frock coat a violet stole. As he hung it around his neck, the men of the Irish Brigade—Catholics and non-Catholics alike—removed their caps and knelt on the grass. Raising his right hand he made the sign of the cross over the brigade as he recited the words of absolution: “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and I, by His authority, absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, insofar as it lies within my power and you require; therefore, I absolve you from your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Granting general absolution to soldiers who were about to go into battle was common in the Catholic countries of Europe, but this was the first time it had ever occurred in the United States. When Father Corby had finished, the men rose from their knees and marched down the slope of Cemetery Ridge toward farmer John Rose’s wheat field. The Irish would lose about 200 men that afternoon.
The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
This year the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down. But the splendid art museum built by John and Mabel Ringling is still open. And in this exceptional collection you’ll discover one of the treasures of Catholic art—four massive oil paintings by Peter Paul Rubens in praise of the Blessed Sacrament.
The paintings were the first step in an ambitious commission Rubens accepted in 1625 from the Spanish princess, Clara, for a series of 20 tapestries for a convent of Poor Clare nuns. The museum’s glorious painting are four of the 20 “cartoons” Rubens created as models for the tapestries that would be woven later. And trust me, there is nothing cartoonish about them.
The paintings are displayed in a grand gallery, the very first one a visitor sees on entering the Ringling Museum. They show Rubens at his best—dramatic movement, swirling draperies, and vivid colors, especially bright red (Rubens loved red).
The four paintings depict the meeting of Abraham and the priest Melchizedek, who offered the patriarch bread and wine; the Israelites collecting manna, the bread that God dropped down from Heaven to feed His people; a group portrait of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and a procession of saints who were devoted to the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
If you go to see these paintings, don’t just admire their beauty and Rubens’ skill, but let yourself be moved—as Princess Clara intended—to renew your love for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Clement’s Island, Maryland
It will take a little effort to visit St. Clement’s Island. There is no bridge from the mainland, however, the island’s museum runs a water taxi—call in advance for days and times of operation.
St. Clement’s is uninhabited, but its significance is not lost on lovers of Catholic history. On March 25, 1634, the Feast of the Annunciation, about 140 English colonists, Catholics and non-Catholics, disembarked from two ships and came ashore on this island. The Catholic colonists chose to name the place in honor of St. Clement because they had set sail from England on November 23, St. Clement’s feast day, and because he is the patron saint of seafarers.
Once ashore, the colonists erected a large log cross and a rough-hewn altar where Father Andrew White, S.J., celebrated Mass. Marylanders trace their origins to the arrival of these colonists and March 25 is still observed as Maryland Day.
The Catholic settlers had come armed with a charter from King Charles I guaranteeing them liberty to practice their religion freely in the colony—something denied them back home in England. In this spirit of toleration, the colonists, acting on their own initiative, issued a decree that granted freedom of religion in Maryland to Christians of any denomination.
Exhibits in the St. Clement’s Island Museum chronicle the religious and political tensions in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, the settlement of Maryland, and the English settlers’ negotiations for land with the Native Americans. The museum also displays a 20-foot-long mural of the early history of colonial Maryland.
Boston Common is America’s oldest public park, a 50-acre, oddly shaped five-sided polygon in the heart of the historic city. Near the center of the Common is a plaque that marks the spot where the Great Elm stood, a landmark in old Boston that natives used to describe as the city’s oldest inhabitant. Among its other uses, the Common was the site of public hangings, and there is a tradition that the Great Elm was used as a gallows. One of the most notorious executions at the elm was the hanging of Ann Glover in 1688.
Glover was an Irish Catholic who, with her husband, had been rounded up by Oliver Cromwell’s troops and shipped off to the Caribbean where they became indentured servants or perhaps slaves. At some point Glover was brought to Boston by a well-to-do gentleman, John Goodwin, who may have purchased her outright or purchased her indenture. There are a lot of gaps in this story.
At the Goodwin home Glover cared for the five Goodwin children and did the family laundry. One day Martha Goodwin, age 13, accused Glover of stealing. The accusation led to a nasty argument between Ann and Martha and ended with the Goodwin children accusing Glover of bewitching them.
Glover was arrested and put on trial. She must have had a defiant streak, because although she spoke and understood English, she would only answer the court’s questions in her native Irish. All the evidence suggests that Ann’s real crime was her Catholicism: Catholic priests and Catholic churches were banned from Massachusetts, and Ann not only refused to attend the Puritan church, she had been seen saying her rosary which, apparently, was enough to enrage the town’s authorities. The notorious witch-hunter, Cotton Mather, denounced Ann at her trial as "a scandalous old Irishwoman... a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry." Ann Glover was found guilty and sentenced to hang. She was executed on Boston Common, and it is said that she lies buried in an unmarked grave in the Granary Burying Ground across the street.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana
Most visitors who make the trek out to the Little Bighorn Battlefield come to see Custer’s Last Stand, the spot where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 273 cavalrymen fell during a fierce and hopeless battle against thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. While you’re exploring this famous site, go looking for the white marble marker—much like a headstone—that identifies the place where Captain Myles Keogh was killed.
In 1860, when Blessed Pope Pius IX called for Catholic volunteers to come and fight in defense of the Papal States against the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, Keogh, then twenty years old, was one of 1,400 Irishmen who left their homeland to fight for the Holy Father. In 1862 Keogh, still in Italy, met New York’s Archbishop John Hughes, who encouraged Keogh to emigrate to America and fight as an officer in the Union Army. After the Civil War, Keogh continued his career in the U.S. military, and was sent out west where he was assigned to the famous Seventh Cavalry under Custer.
It is said that at the Battle of the Little Bighorn Captain Keogh, then 36 years old, was the last cavalryman to die. (It is impossible to say if that tradition is accurate). Three days after the battle, a burial party arrived at the site and interred each soldier where he had fallen. In 1877, some of Keogh’s friends in Auburn, New York, paid to have his remains exhumed and reburied in their family plot in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.