Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Collection Tells Early American Religious History: Catholic Objects Are Important Part of Smithsonian Catalog, Exhibit

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Collection Tells Early American Religious History: Catholic Objects Are Important Part of Smithsonian Catalog, Exhibit

Article excerpt


By Peter Manseau

Published by Smithsonian Books, 260 pages, $29.95

As a religion doctoral student at Georgetown University, Peter Manseau was struck by the simple iron cross in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel. "It's an amazing object," he said.

The object lacked a label, so Manseau, who was curious, did some research. Soon he was reading press coverage from nearly 30 years ago about Jesuit Fr. G. Ronald Murphy, a German professor, literally tripping over it in a university tower. It turns out that the first Catholics to come to the English colonies in Baltimore made the cross in 1634. According to legend, they fashioned it of materials from their ships, the Ark and the Dove.

Inscriptions in Latin and English on the cross testify to that. "It tells its own story, in a way," said Manseau, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's first curator of American religious history

Since its rediscovery in 1989, the cross' star has risen considerably. Pope Francis used it during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on his 2015 visit to Washington. Murphy called that an "immense honor," and added, "The cross was more than likely the one used in the first Catholic Mass on English-speaking American soil, and so represents the freedom of religion upon which this country was built."

Later this June, the cross will be part of American History's exhibition "Religion in Early America," which Manseau curated. It also adorns one of the first pages of the catalog, Objects of Devotion.

"Once forgotten even by archivists, this cross is, in fact, a vital piece of American history," Manseau writes.



In an interview with NCR prior to the show's opening, Manseau said he knew he wanted a significant cross, with a surprising story, for the show. "It just happened to be that there was one here in Washington, and the university was perfectly willing to share it," he said.

The arrival of those settlers was an important moment for U.S. Catholic history, as well as for American religious history more broadly.

"Until then, settlement of the regions that would soon become home to the 13 colonies had been overwhelmingly Protestant," Manseau writes in the book. "These new settlers hoped to create a safe haven for religious difference in an age when theological disputes were often settled with violence."

They would have gotten a good head start at sea. The voyage, in which Catholics and Protestants were packed in tight quarters for four months, was a sort-of anticipation of "interfaith dialogue," Manseau writes.

That relates to the exhibition's three themes: religious diversity, religious freedom and religious growth.

"We think that people will come into the show and be surprised how diverse religion in early America was, and we try to explain that that diversity created the practical need for religious freedom," Manseau told NCR.

The catalog, he said, includes more objects than the exhibition does, but both are arranged by geographic regions: New England, mid-Atlantic, South and "beyond the borders" (which isn't in the show). …

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