for Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University of America
with CUA Basilica dome visible in the distance
CUA- Founded in 1887 for seminarians and opened up to lay students in 1895 and 1904
The Catholic University of America, founded in 1887 by the U.S. Catholic bishops with the support of Pope Leo XIII, is the national and pontifical university of the Catholic Church in the U.S. On this ride I stopped by to see their campus, which is located in northeast D.C., and is bound by Michigan Avenue to the south, North Capitol Street to the west, Hawaii Avenue to the north, and John McCormick Road to the east. The campus’ main entrance is located at 620 Michigan Avenue (MAP) in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood. Brookland is also sometimes known as “Little Rome”, because in addition to the Catholic University, the neighborhood also contains 59 other Catholic institutions and organizations, including Trinity Washington University, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.
The earliest origins of the Catholic University of America dates back to a discussion about the church’s need for a national university during the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866. Bishop John Lancaster Spalding then persuaded family friend Mary Gwendoline Caldwell to pledge $300,000 to establish it. In 1882 Bishop Spalding went to Rome to obtain Pope Leo XIII’s support for the University. And on April 10, 1887, Pope Leo sent James Cardinal Gibbons a letter granting permission to begin the university. It was incorporated later that year on 66 acres of land next to the Old Soldiers Home. President Grover Cleveland was in attendance for the laying of the cornerstone of Divinity Hall, now known as Caldwell Hall, on May 24, 1888, as were members of Congress and the U.S. Cabinet.
A decision was made for a main church structure for this Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Initially it was to be Gothic- the style seen throughout western Europe. But then a decision was made to adopt instead an architectural style blending western and eastern styles.
At this early stage, the church is Gothic. That soon changed. Why? There were a number of reasons, but primarily because the National Cathedral across town at Mount Saint Alban was already being built in the Gothic style. Charles Maginnis, the architect chosen to build the Shrine, saw no reason to simply do a Catholic version of the same thing, and neither did the CUA trustees. Instead, a Byzantine Romanesque style was approved.
Of course, the major obstacle in getting the church built was money. Originally in the hands of some powerful Catholic women, in 1915 fund-raising was put under the control of Father Bernard McKenna (left), who went about his assignment with great zeal. Rector Shahan also started a little magazine called Salve Regina to tout the progress of fund-raising efforts and encourage more donations. As money began to come in, Shahan’s vision for the Shrine became more grandiose. Somewhere along the line, instead of just a university church, he began to imagine a “splendid basilica to the Blessed Virgin."
The original intention of the Shrine’s founder, Bishop Thomas Shahan, was for the church to be Gothic, French Gothic to be precise. There was even a model that toured the country to draw interest in the Shrine project. But then the concept for the church was changed to Romanesque Byzantine. According to Dr. Rohling, that wasn’t only because Gothic would have been too similar to the National Cathedral being built across town, but for more personal reasons as well:
"God'? Or rather satan pretending to be God?!One of the most influential people in the change from Gothic to Romanesque-Byzantine was John J. Cardinal Glennon (1862-1946), Archbishop of St. Louis, member of the CUA Board of Trustees and a close, personal friend of Shahan: “While the Gothic ... appears ... to lift the people to God, the Roman style or the Byzantine ... endeavors to bring God down to earth ... [God] lives with us
Archbishop Glennon had been responsible for the building of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a stunning Romanesque Byzantine church, with obvious similarities to the Shrine:Caldwell, who died weeks before the age of 46, had left the Roman Catholic Church shortly before her death:
Bishop Shahan’s friendship with Archbishop Glennon coincided with his desire to have the church stand apart from the National Cathedral across town, making the choice of a Romanesque Byzantine design a logical one.
One final note - Dr. Rohling says that when she spoke with the grandson of the architect chosen to design the Shrine, Charles Maginnis, he said his grandfather was not very enthusiastic about a Romanesque-Byzantine structure. He preferred Gothic, but learned to like Byzantine. I think that’s true for many of us.
Mary Gwendoline Caldwell bestowed the first donation to the Third Plenary Council of American Bishops that initiated the founding of The Catholic University of America. Although she was born in Louisville, Kentucky on October 5, 1863 to William Shakespeare Caldwell and Mary Eliza Breckinridge, Mary Gwendoline grew up in New York City, where she attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville as a teenager. Her family became Catholic converts in the 1870’s when William Shakespeare sparked interest in the faith. He remained an active Catholic until his death in 1874, leaving both Mary Gwendoline and her younger sister Mary Elizabeth orphans in the care of Roman Catholic Friends with an inheritance of several million dollars. In his will, William Shakespeare stated that his daughters should use 1/3 of their inheritance to assist the Catholic Church in becoming a prominent part of American society.
When she heard that John Lancaster Spalding, a friend she had acquainted at Sacred Heart, was trying to open a Catholic university, she donated $300,000 to fulfill her duties to her father’s will. Mary Gwendoline required that the university be founded within the United States, controlled by the U.S. Bishops, affiliated with other faculties, remain separate from all other institutions, educate only ecclesiastics intelligible in Philosophy and Theology, and never be controlled by one religious order, before she would provide the donation. She also requested that the donation only be used in its founding and Mary herself be considered the founder. She claimed $200,000 could be used for buildings and the surrounding grounds and $100,000 could endow professorships. She was only 21 at the time of her donation and was awarded with many honors because of her charitable contribution. On May24, 1888, at the cornerstone ceremony for Caldwell Hall, the first building on campus which subsequently was named in her honor, Mary Gwendoline received a gold medal from Pope Leo XIII. She also received the Laetare Medal of Notre Dame in 1899 for achieving such distinction for the American Catholic Church.After a brief engagement to the European prince Murat in 1889, she married German Marquis des Montiers-Mermville on October 19, 1896. She resided in Europe for the remainder of her life; Mary Gwendoline renounced the Church after spending time in Protestant Europe and no longer connected herself to the University. She died of Bright’s Disease in 1905. [sic- the other sources have the death at October 5,1909] Today, Caldwell Hall still stands as a reminder of her contribution to The Catholic University of America.