Tag Archives: presidents

Mystery of George Washington’s missing (and recovered) letter to Catholics

Part of a 1790 letter to Catholics written by President George Washington is shown in this photograph. The letter is housed in the archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Baltimore)

In honor of President’s Day, tomorrow’s issue of The Catholic Review will feature an article on a very valuable letter housed in the archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Written to Catholics of the United States by President George Washington, the March 12, 1790 note was in response to an earlier message sent to the new president by Baltimore Bishop John Carroll on behalf of American Catholics. The bishop had congratulated the new leader on his election and asked him to promote religious freedom.

“I hope ever to see America among the foremost Nations in examples of Justice and Liberality,” Washington wrote in reply.

In researching the historic letter, I was surprised to learn that the precious artifact had gone missing for an unknown period of time early in the 20th century. Neither the current archivist nor her predecessor knew the circumstances of the departure. Not even Father Michael Roach, an esteemed professor of Church history at Mount St. Mary’s University Seminary in Emmitsburg, knew of the mystery.

According to a 1922 biography of Carroll, written by Peter Guilday, the letter had been housed until 1865 in the archives of what then was the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. It  was loaned to John Gilmary Shea, a layman, that same year before it was returned  Sept. 7, 1866.

Guilday wrote that the letter went missing in 1908. It’s not clear how long it was gone or when it was returned.

According to a 1916 article in the New York Times, the letter had last been kept in a “fireproof vault beneath the sanctuary of the cathedral.” Archdiocesan leaders realized it had vanished as they were indexing the many thousands of historic documents at the time.

“The envelope which contained it, marked ‘Original Letter of G. Washington to Catholics U. States,’” is in its usual place,” the New York Times reported. “But it is empty. A thorough search is being made, for the loss is a matter of great concern.”

If anyone  knows more about the history of the missing and recovered letter, let me know.  I’d love to be able to unravel the mystery.

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John Philip Sousa couldn’t say no

A tapestry at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore commemorates a performance by John Philip Sousa benefiting a new Baltimore hospital built by the Sisters of Mercy. (Mercy Medical Center Photo/Kevin Parks)

A tapestry at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore commemorates a performance by John Philip Sousa in the 1880s. The concert benefitted a new Baltimore hospital built by the Sisters of Mercy. (Mercy Medical Center Photo/Kevin Parks)

Nuns with a good cause are generally unstoppable.

Consider this fascinating story I learned Dec. 9 while on a media tour of Mercy Medical Center’s new $400 million Mary Catherine Bunting Center in Baltimore.

Back in the 1880s, when the Sisters of Mercy were building a new hospital in Baltimore, someone suggested they book John Philip Sousa and his U.S. Marine Band for a fundraising fair. The famed composer and “master of the march” was the Bono of his day, drawing huge crowds across the country for concerts.

The nuns hatched a plan to travel to Washington, D.C., where they intended to meet President Grover Cleveland and ask his permission for Sousa and his band to appear at the fair.

Sister Mary Borgia Leonard, one of the nuns who traveled to the capital, wrote in a letter that the sisters departed from Calvert Station in Baltimore without a clue as to how they would secure a meeting with the president.

The sisters somehow managed to get into the White House, where Sister Mary Borgia reported that a “liveried brass-buttoned official” informed them that the president was “out riding” and that it would be impossible to see him. Another official later suggested they consult the Secretary of the Navy, helping them set up the meeting.

Sister Mary Borgia wrote that the secretary “listened attentively to our story and responded to our request without the least hesitation.”

Sousa performed on the opening night of the Baltimore fair, helping the sisters raise an astounding sum of $20,000 – the equivalent of about $440,000 in today’s dollars.

Sousa once said that “sincere composers believe in God.” Sounds like they also believe in God’s nuns.


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