Last evening I attended “The British Isles & Christianity: From the Past to the Present” at the Catholic Information Center here in the Nation’s Capital – a city which, yes, is still rather basically functioning today despite the government shutdown. The presenters on behalf of the Christian Heritage Center in Lancashire, including Royal Patron The Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke of Kent and 1st cousin to Queen Elizabeth II; Chairman The Lord Alton of Liverpool; and Curator Janet Graffius gave an excellent overview presentation on how Christianity had changed in Britain over the last 500 years. During the course of the evening they discussed what happened to Catholic heritage during the violent iconoclasm of the Reformation, and the story of the remarkable survival of a number of important objects closely tied to both the history and the devotional practices of centuries of Catholics in Britain and beyond, which are now housed at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.
Lord Nicholas began by noting that the iconoclasm of artistic culture and craftsmanship which took place during the Reformation left the British people with their cathedrals and parish churches in most cases stripped bare of everything which had been a part of Christian life in local communities for centuries. The process left bare structures with little or no art left to fill them. What he described as a “thorough attempt by the state to change a culture” was an effort that went on for centuries. The state wanted to ensure that as little as possible of the historical memory of what Britain was before the Reformation would survive.
With British Catholic families smuggling out much of what was left of their heritage to the Low Countries and France for preservation, when anti-Catholicism became particularly violent in Britain, many remarkable objects were saved. Rare things like St. Thomas More’s hat, likely embroidered by one of his daughters, to original vestments made for use in Westminster Abbey on order from the Crown, eventually found their way into Jesuit hands, and thereby into what became the nucleus of the collections of Stonyhurst. Once Catholics were able to come back into public life in Britain in a limited way in the late 18th century, and more so with the Catholic Revival that began to take shape there in the 19th century, these objects became better-known, and yet are still comparatively unknown to many in the UK and elsewhere. The hope of the Christian Heritage Center is to change all of that by bringing these amazing objects to a wider audience, and creating a place where people can not only come to see them, but also to study, to go on retreat, and to pray with others interested in the history and legacies of Christianity in Britain and throughout the world.
Thus the presenters brought with them several objects for the audience to examine, including a crucifix owned by St. Thomas More, which were an excellent sampling of some of the remarkable items in the school’s collection. As an American and a Georgetown alumnus, one of the pieces I most enjoyed seeing was a book owned first by John Carroll, the first Catholic Archbishop of the United States, and then by his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Both were sent as boys from America to study at Stonyhurst, and the school retains one of the textbooks which they used.
The frontispiece to the book of poetry in question features the signatures of both Carrolls, and the dates when each was using this particular book at the school. It also features an engraving of the muses, gesticulating in semi-undress as muses are wont to do. One of the Carroll boys – whether the Archbishop or the Founding Father, we do not know – decided to deface the illustration by drawing tobacco pipes in the muses’ mouths. This is going off on a slightly different and more destructive sort of tangent from my blog post yesterday about writing in books, of course, but there you are.
Curator Graffius explained how these are not museum objects per se, but rather living, speaking objects, which the Center hopes to allow more people the chance to communicate with. They are things which allow the viewer to understand how as Catholic Christians, they come from centuries of Christians before them, including oftentimes many examples of those who had to suffer great persecutions to hold on to their faith. As Lord Alton added, they remind us of the sacrifices that were made, not only in Britain but indeed in America, for the privileges of religious and personal freedom which we enjoy today. “Knowing who you are matters,” Lord Alton pointed out, “and people are forgetting who they are. We need to convey these stories to those who come after us.”
Those of my readers who will be able to attend these presentations as the group makes their way through DC, Baltimore, and Boston, should be certain to let others know of the good work being done here, particularly in the face of a secular society which is becoming more and more increasingly militant in its opposition to the worship and practice of faith. In the end, the Christian Heritage Center at Stonyhurst in the UK is not simply a museum complex waiting to be built. Rather it is really a place for all Christians to look more deeply into our heritage of 2,000 years of faith.
Attendees at the CIC examining some of the objects brought by Curator Jan Graffius