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.