“The American Catholic Almanac”: Four Centuries of Incredible Stories

I’m honored to be the next stop on the blog tour for the new book, “The American Catholic Almanac” by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, which was just published by Image.  If you’re a Catholic interested in learning about the contributions of your brothers and sisters in the Faith to the building up of this country, you need a copy of this book.  If you’re not a Catholic, but appreciate the huge sweep of American history and cultural life, you also need a copy of this book.  For Catholics, as it turns out, have had a far earlier, deeper, and more lasting impact on this country than many of us were taught in school.

Given that I live in Washington, DC and often write about architecture and design on this blog, I wanted to take one example from the “Almanac” as an example of the wealth of fascinating material in this book.  The name James Hoban may be known to you from pub quiz trivia – or indeed, from the pub named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the Nation’s Capital – as the architect who designed the White House.  What may not be known to you is the fact that Hoban was a devout Catholic.

In the “Almanac” the authors detail how Hoban, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland, managed through talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time to land what even today would still be considered the most prestigious of all home design competitions in America.  His chance meeting with George Washington in South Carolina led to a prosperous career, where Hoban not only built the White House, but was one of the principal architects working on the Capitol, as well as designing homes, churches, banks, and hotels around DC and for other parts of the young country.

Perhaps Hoban’s most famous commission apart from the White House was the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman during the Civil War.  Fortunately, his elegant County Court House in Charleston still stands.  That said, even the White House did not escape the meddling of others, for Thomas Jefferson, who had himself entered the competition to design the President’s House and lost to Hoban, modified a number of Hoban’s designs when he moved into the Executive Mansion. Ironically, as the authors point out in the “Almanac”, Hoban later had a second crack at the White House, which is why their entry about him appears on August 24th.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other buildings on August 24, 1814,  When reconstruction began, then-President James Madison approached the now 64-year-old Hoban and asked if he would supervise the residence’s rebuilding and restoration.  “Proving himself a more gracious loser than Jefferson,” the authors write, “Hoban replicated the third president’s modifications in his restoration.”  Given Jefferson’s tendency toward the experimental, which was not always successful, this was a true mark of respect, indeed.

For Catholics across the Capital City, Hoban’s efforts remain a visible reminder of his legacy to this city and the country, even when the buildings themselves were later replaced.  From Georgetown University to St. Patrick’s in the heart of downtown to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, the communities that still support these institutions owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Hoban for helping to make the Catholic presence in Washington a visible and lasting one.  He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery here in DC, overlooking the city which he helped turn from a dream of the Founding Fathers into a reality.

The entry on James Hoban is just one of the stories contained in the “Almanac”, one for every day of the year.  There is such a wealth of material, that it is hard to imagine the sheer amount of work that went into this volume.  Spanning over 400 years of history, the “Almanac” provides daily reading on the lives of Catholic men and women, both Americans and those with an important tie to America, as well as non-Catholics who made an impact on the lives of American Catholics.  Often, the stories contained in these pages may come as a complete surprise to the reader.

For example, the original Mary “Mother” Jones, after whom the famous left-wing magazine is named, was a devout, pro-life Catholic, who thought mothers ought to stay at home and raise their children rather than work.  Joseph Warren Revere, the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and himself a celebrated hero of the Civil War, converted to Catholicism as an adult, much to the surprise of his New England family.  So too did Fanny Allen, daughter of the very anti-clerical Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen; she actually went one step further and became a nun.

Athletes, criminals, entertainers, politicians, writers, and yes, clergy and religious fill the pages of the “Almanac”.  Some of these individuals were pious believers, and some of them were absolute scoundrels. And yet we would not have the America we know today without them.

Catholics have been part of the story of America from the very beginning.  This book is not only proof of that fact, but provides that proof in an engaging, well-researched, but never heavy style, making it easy to read cover to cover, or to pick up and put down as the mood takes you.  It will also provide, particularly for educators, writers, and politicos, a picture of just how significant the Catholic contribution to this country has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.

Whether for those new to American history, or for those who think they already know it well, there is much to savor and enjoy here, at any level: in fact, I already know which college professor friend I’m giving a copy to for Christmas.

American Catholic Almanac

Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

Art Everywhere: Coming to a Billboard Near You

Beginning next month, many of my readers in the States who live in urban areas will be seeing the work of an initiative known as Art Everywhere US.  On both traditional and digital billboards, on bus shelters and train platforms, among other locations, the organizers will be displaying a selection of images from American art history.  The original pool of 100 of these works, “curated”, if you will, by experts from five of America’s major art museums, was narrowed down to a final fifty by online voters on the Art Everywhere website.  These fifty will be seen on approximately 50,000 different types of displays across the country starting August 4th in Times Square, and then continuing to spread throughout the country until August 31st.

Of the pieces making the final cut, that with the single highest number of votes was Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 Nighthawks, which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I do love the painting, though I must confess it isn’t my favorite work of Hopper’s, being somewhat overexposed both in terms of its fame and indeed the lighting of the piece itself.  Still, it’s nice to know that it will be included, and that it’s so well-regarded by the public.

Other works which will be featured in the campaign include probably my favorite work by James McNeill Whistler, his 1862 portrait titled Symphony in White No. 1; one of my favorite John Singer Sargents, his Repose of 1911, which like the Whistler is in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C.; and Chuck Close’s astounding 1969 painting Phil, a portrait of composer Philip Glass from The Whitney in New York.  The fifty choices are for the most part fairly safe, since apart from photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (clothed, thank goodness) and the overrated Cindy Sherman (yuck), the 20th century pieces tend to stick largely to the easy and familiar: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.

It was disappointing however, to see that the earliest painting which was included in the final cut – and the second earliest in the original 100 voting list – was John Singleton Copley’s 1778 Watson and the Shark. While the piece has its merits as a form of composition, it’s not my favorite Copley by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, in only choosing one pre-Revolutionary portrait for the voting list, one has to question the thinking of the jury with respect to their art history parameters.  If 1776 was not in fact the cut-off year, then why not go back as early as possible into American art history?

Be that as it may, I won’t quibble with the results.  There are some truly great works of art on this list, and I am looking forward to seeing how they pop up around town.  August is always such a dreary time in the Nation’s Capital, with the oppressive heat, humidity, and flocks of tourists.  It will be terrific to be visually refreshed with images like these, and reminded of the great art collections in this city, just a short train or bus ride away.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper (1942) The Art Institute of Chicago

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)
The Art Institute of Chicago