“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

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Venice in America

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, brother of St. Peter and patron saint of many things, including fishermen, Scotland, and Russia.  However he is also the patron saint of one of the greatest and most significant architects of the modern age, Andrea Palladio, who was born on St. Andrew’s Day in 1508.  If you are not hugely interested in architecture, you may not be familiar with his name, but if you live in the Western world there is a reasonably good chance that the home you live in, or the civic buildings that make up the town where you live, were shaped and influenced by the ideas of this 16th century Venetian master.

Just as Jacobo Sansovino, whom I wrote about earlier this week, had a profound influence on the artists of his day, in convincing them that they were equaling or even surpassing the achievements of their ancient Greek and Roman forbearers, so too Palladio was a driving force in convincing architects that they could do the same.  Sansovino was himself a highly accomplished architect, of course, producing many beautiful and monumental structures in Venice between the 1530’s and 1560’s.  Palladio, who was a generation younger, had to bide his time while Sansovino held sway over the public taste of the capital, but eventually he became the head architect of the Venetian Republic after Sansovino’s death.

One of Palladio’s most influential contributions to the development of modern architecture and indeed modern living was in taking advantage of open spaces, rather than being afraid of them.  Keep in mind that in much of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West until the time of the Renaissance, most people lived together for protection, either in closely-packed walled towns, or in castles or other fortified structures in the countryside.  Foreign invaders or marauding neighbors bent on pillaging and destruction could sweep in at any moment, and there was safety in numbers.

What our eyes need to be trained to see is how different the world which Palladio created was from the times that had come immediately before it.  There is nothing of the fortress about a Palladian house.  There are no dark, thick walls designed for defensive purposes, with only interior courtyards to allow light and air.  Instead, his houses sit gracefully inside beautiful parks and gardens, surrounded by trees and flowers, green lawns and splashing fountains.

Nor were these houses gigantic, bloated structures, like the Baroque behemoths that were built to house the egos of absolute monarchs.  Rather, they were comfortable places to enjoy oneself with one’s family and friends by engaging in outdoor activities, reading, entertaining, or the like.  They are of course much larger than the average person’s home, but they are not overwhelmingly so.  The confidence with which these villas were built testifies to a similar spirit of self-confidence of the day that times were getting better, and that the darker ages of constant warfare between rivaling factions were becoming less frequent, at least in the Venetian Republic.

This in itself is a key component to the architecture which Palladio created.  His houses are built for aristocrats, but they are they are the aristocrats of a republic.  There was no hereditary king of Venice: the Republic was ruled by a Doge, an elected official whose powers were limited further and further as the centuries wore on.  While the Venetian Republic was not truly a representative democracy, in the sense that we would understand the term, it had a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that no one single individual or family could come to dominate the entire system.

Palladio’s ideas and methods were not just limited to a bunch of gondola-riding aristocrats half a millenia ago.  For in fact, many of the American Founding Fathers were hugely enamored of the Palladian way of living.  President Thomas Jefferson, for example, built his beloved estate Monticello, as well as the Virginia State Capitol building, and the main building of the University of Virginia, using principles derived from his own study of Palladio’s work.  James Hoban, the Irish-American architect of the White House, took his plans for the Executive Mansion directly from two Palladian-style country houses which had been built a few years earlier in Ireland.

Even today, Palladio’s legacy is all around us, not only as part of our visible history, but in continuing to influence architects who build homes and businesses, offices and churches by taking Palladio’s ideas and applying or re-interpreting them.  As is so often the case in these pages, we have here yet another example of why it is important to understand the cultural history of the West, something which the past forty-odd years of academically entrenched relativism has done such a bang-up job of trying to eradicate.  Over many centuries the ideas of this single Venetian architect have had a positive impact on both the look and livability of our homes, our public buildings, and indeed our cities.

Palladio understood that in order for contemporary society to succeed, it must be interconnected with the best aspects of the society which came before it.  He helped to radically change the way that his contemporaries lived by looking at how people had lived before, how they lived in his day, and figuring out he could bring together the best aspects of each.  In doing so, he succeeded in transforming not only a small Italian republic, but the lives of people in countless cities and towns large and small, all over the world.  His is but one example of why we should both study and try to understand our past, taking the lessons we learn there, and adapting them to the needs of the present.

Fratta

“La Badoera” Villa by Andrea Palladio (built 1556-1563)
Fratta Polesine, Italy