18 February 2008

Was George Washington a Catholic?

Some food for thought on Presidents Day:
A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of St. John were among the effects found in an inventory of the articles at Mount Vernon at the death of George Washington, first president of the U.S.A. The Rev. W.C. Repetti, S.J., archivist at Georgetown University, reports he has discovered this information in an appendix to a biography of Washington. The book is a Life of George Washington by Edward Everett, published by Sheldon & Co. in New York in 1860. "The fact that he had a picture of the Blessed Virgin is rather unexpected, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not been brought out, " says Fr. Repetti. The long report among slaves of Mount Vernon as to Washington's deathbed conversion would be odd unless based on truth. These were not Catholic Negroes; it is part of the tradition that weeping and wailing occurred in the quarters that Massa Washington had been snared by the Scarlet Woman of Rome, whom they had been taught to fear and hate. Supposedly, Father Neale was rowed across the Piscatawney by Negro oarsmen; and men often talked freely when slaves were nearby, confidently ignoring their presence.
--Denver Register, May 11, 1952
It was a long tradition among both the Maryland Province Jesuit Fathers and the Negro slaves of the Washington plantation and those of the surrounding area that the first President died a Catholic. These and other facts about George Washington are reported in the Paulist Information magazine by Doran Hurley. The story is that Father Leonard Neale, S.J., was called to Mount Vernon from St. Mary's Mission across the Piscatawney River four hours before Washington's death. Washington's body servant, Juba, is authority for the fact that the General made the Sign of the Cross at meals. He may have learned this from his Catholic lieutenants, Stephen Moylan or John Fitzgerald. At Valley Forge, Washington forbade the burning in effigy of the Pontiff on "Pope's Day." Several times as President he is reported to have slipped into a Catholic church to hear Sunday Mass.
--Denver Register, February 24, 1957

And Fr. J comments:
The Notre Dame angle on the story supports it. Fr. Sorin in the 1870's built Washington Hall on the campus. It still stands today. He would not have named the building after a non-Catholic but named it for the first president considering his conversion a providential sign of the eventual conversion of this Protestant nation to the Catholic faith.

The naming of Washington Hall fits with other signs on campus of Sorin's belief that faith would prevail (and that Notre Dame would be at the heart of the Church in America) including the construction of a domed bicammeral main building reminiscent of the state capitols under construction throughout the nation at the time and a series of murals dedicated to the discovery of America by CC under her Catholic Majesty, Isabella.

At any rate, Sorin believed the Jesuit story of a call to Georgetown University for a priest to baptize the president on his deathbed. I have heard from several Jesuits that the story has credence.
Order in Quarters issued by General George Washington, November 5, 1775 pertaining to Guy Fawkes Day ("Pope's Day" in the United States):
As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope–He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.
(hat tip to Vox Nova)