"What madman would exchange present gifts for those unseen? You fly from real blessings, blessings unreal you chase. Purge, I pray, these vain dreams from your fevered mind, and drive the hope deep-embedded far from your heart."
Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote these lines in 1753, while at St. Omer’s College, in a poem recently discovered at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst College in England.
This discovery came from the oldest surviving museum collection in the English-speaking world, and its directors are eager to make its riches more available through digitizing and expansion.
On a visit to the United States, Lord David Alton, a prominent British Catholic and pro-life leader and an advocate for religious freedom, and Lord Nicholas Windsor, cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and a Catholic convert, said they see this collection of artifacts, relics and art as a critical reminder of what religious freedom costs, namely the blood of martyrs.
Meanwhile, the Carroll poem underscores the connection between America’s founding and the Jesuit school that formed not only Charles, but his cousin, John Carroll, who became the first bishop of Baltimore. For them, faith was not a "vain dream," but the light that guided them in striving for religious freedom for Catholics in America. Catholics were disenfranchised until the Declaration of Independence.
Both Charles and John Carroll, inspired by their knowledge of English Catholic history, fought for the right of Catholics to practice their religion at a time of strong anti-Catholic sentiment.
Knowing more about the history of the English Catholic struggle can better prepare us for the work of re-evangelization and defending our own religious freedom. Remembering our past will give us hope for the future.
Curator Jan Graffius said that Charles Carroll was 17 when he wrote this poem in Latin for a recitation on the feast of St. Cecilia. The tyrant Amachius, having sentenced Cecilia to death, pressured her to worship Roman gods in order to save her life, her youth and her beauty. The poem shows that young Charles saw clearly the corrosiveness of compromise.
Recitation formed an important part of the Jesuit education that started in the school, originally called St. Omer’s, which was founded in 1593 by Father Robert Persons during the persecution of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth I. There were no Catholic schools allowed in England, so the boys were smuggled out of their country to the school outside of Calais in France, then under Spanish rule. If they were caught leaving England, the penalty was imprisonment or death.
The school’s brave mission is engraved above the door: "Jesus, Jesus, convert England; may it be, may it be." Many students became priests and went back to England to preach the faith.
How did Stonyhurst come to have such a collection? English Catholics lived under severe restrictions after Henry VIII outlawed the practice of Catholicism in 1535 and destroyed churches, smashed altars and confiscated monasteries and property. Many Catholics hid sacred vessels, vestments, monstrances, prayerbooks and relics in their homes or buried them in their back yards, while threatened with death or imprisonment. Slowly, these sacred items found their way to St. Omer’s, where they were carefully kept and venerated, inculcating in the students deep respect for the sacrifices of martyrs like Edmund Campion, a young eloquent Jesuit priest, and Robert Southwell, a young Jesuit poet.
The school moved several times, as political power shifted. Finally, in 1753, when the Jesuit order was suppressed, the school moved to Liege. In 1774, during the French Revolution, it finally moved to Stonyhurst in Lancashire, northeast of Liverpool.
Stonyhurst was founded in response to religious persecution in the 16th century and is the oldest surviving Jesuit school in England.
When he walks through Westminster Hall, where Sts. Thomas More and Edmund Campion were tried, Lord Alton recalls how "a faith worth dying for is a faith worth living for." He sees the establishment of a Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst as an inspiring and intelligent way to present and safeguard the richness of the Church for future generations, because "our Christian heritage is being eroded particularly by aggressive forms of secularism and atheism."
The church on the grounds has already been restored, and now there are plans to build a new library that will give digital access to Stonyhurst’s remarkable collection. The third phase of the project is to build a retreat and study center. The final phase is to develop the College Mill into a full-fledged museum to house the collection.
The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst stands as a call to know our history, and the many examples of heroism and holiness preserved there are a call to witness to strengthen and encourage us to work for religious freedom.
As American Catholics, we can be grateful again to our English cousins for their careful attention to their own precious and difficult history. Now, it is our turn to defend the freedom we have inherited with the same faith they showed.
Mary Ellen Bork is the widow
of Judge Robert Bork.