Jacqueline Kennedy’s Private Letters to Priest to be Auctioned

I started not to write about this. It’s one of those stories that I don’t like one bit.

Evidently a very young Jacqueline Bouvier met Father Joseph Leonard when she was in Dublin in 1950. This was three years before she married Senator and future President John F Kennedy.

She and the priest became friends and she corresponded with him at key points in her life — when she suffered a miscarriage in 1956 and later after the assassination of President Kennedy in early 1964. The letters were based on friendship, but they were also part of a pastoral relationship in which she discussed her faith.

Jacqueline Kennedy would not be the first public person who confided in a priest because she believed the priest wouldn’t gossip about her. Sadly, she’s also not the first person to be disappointed in this belief.

Now, these personal letters are on the auction block and their contents are being published everywhere.

Does no one but me see that this is wrong?

Kennedy big 2015

Father Joseph Leonard and Jacqueline Bouvier, 1950. Photo Source: Boston Globe

Why did Father Leonard keep these letters? I wrote earlier today that I will never talk about the private things that my constituents have shared with me through the years. I didn’t say, but it is true that I am also going to destroy any records of these conversations as soon as I leave office, such as phone calls or follow-ups related to them. Those are all I have, since I do not write down the personal things people tell me, and I do not keep their letters in which they confide deep things from their lives.

Not one word my constituents told me will ever surface.

I do not understand priests who gossip about their parishioners, especially when they talk about the gut wrenching things that people share with them. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s letters were clearly written not just to a friend, but to a friend who was a priest, because he was a priest. No one but the priest should ever have seen or heard about them. They certainly should not be on the auction block to make money.

From Catholic News Service:

DUBLIN (CNS) — Newly released letters between former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and a Dublin-based priest reveal Kennedy’s struggles to keep her faith after her husband’s assassination.

The letters exchanged by Kennedy and Vincentian Father Joseph Leonard, who died in 1964, are set to be auctioned in Dublin in June. Excerpts were published in The Irish Times newspaper.

Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as U.S. president as former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, right, watches in this Nov. 22, 1963, file photo. (CNS/courtesy LBJ Library)

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  • Sus_1

    Gross! She would hate this.

  • pagansister

    When a person is a public person as Mrs. Kennedy was, I guess one shouldn’t be surprised that this happens. Obviously the priest kept the letters all these years and now at his death, where would they go? Since a priest doesn’t have a family, who is responsible for the letters and other private possessions after his death? Who will get the money for this? Would it go to the Catholic Church? This turned to be mostly questions. I guess her daughter, Caroline, the only person left of that immediate family (of Jack, John Jr. and Mrs. Kennedy) could ask for them if indeed she even knew they existed before the announcement came out about the auction. I would have thought that whoever was responsible for the priest’s private things might have thought to contact Caroline and offer them to her. But then there would be no money for someone to make, huh? It is sad.

    • vox borealis

      But the priest didn’t really keep the letters “all these years”—as the article notes, the priest died 50 years ago, in 1964. It seems the two corresponded regularly between about 1950 and 1964, during which time (at least some of it) she was not really famous. So the letters have been out of his (and the Kennedy’s) possession for half a century.

      • pagansister

        Obviously someone kept them.

  • AnneG

    I understand what you are saying, Rebecca. I don’t know who found the letters and decided to auction them. One thing about records, though. There is a lot I have questions about re my maternal grandparents who died when my mother was 6 or so. I wish there were records from that.

  • kenofken

    I don’t necessarily see a problem with this. These are not matters that were disclosed within confession, and it’s not clear that the priest either made an explicit promise to destroy the letters or that he had anything to do with having them auctioned. He died 50 years ago. Why did he retain them? Any of several reasons. People in those days did all of their correspondence by snail mail, so the only way to keep track of ongoing conversations was a razor-sharp memory or by saving the letter. They didn’t have the convenience (or pitfalls) of email and being able to pull up letters from 5 years ago with the click of a mouse. Just as likely, he kept them because he cherished her friendship and probably felt quite privileged to be getting mail from a Kennedy. The achievement of this family brought an enormous sense of pride to many in Ireland who had watched that nation’s sons and daughters toil and die in America while being treated as an alien second class.

    Finally, I don’t know that it’s practicable or even desirable to afford historically important public figures absolute privacy in their affairs, especially posthumously. Our entire understanding of history would be very poor if we did not have access to the personal papers of those who witnessed and made that history.

    Biography is what makes history worth learning. The official dates and speeches and memos are all important too, but the personal stuff humanizes these figures. It’s easy for a young person today to fob off the Kennedy assassination as an unfortunate dry fact that happened to some guy who probably would have died by now anyway.

    It’s also easy for many people to see the Kennedies in two-dimensional terms. When you bring it down to the scale of what a grieving wife is going through makes it real, and brings a value that far outweighs the exploitative aspect of it. I do think a decent interval should pass before the most personal stuff is made public, and certainly until after the deaths of the persons whose most intimate details are to be revealed.

    • hamiltonr

      Anytime someone confides in a priest this way, it should be considered confidential. The reason I mentioned me and my constituents is that I honestly feel that if I — and for that matter, just about all elected officials do this, and if they don’t other elected officials shun them — can do it, then a priest should certainly do it.

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        It was not confession, and confidence is not a sacrament.

        • hamiltonr

          It was a violation of trust.

    • Peggy M

      Your first paragraph makes a lot of sense to me—letter writers in the past kept their correspondence so as to continue a conversation, as it were. I frequently read the letters of the (in)famous Mitford sisters, Evelyn Waugh, and many lesser but entertaining lights who wrote in the 19th and 20th centuries. They carefully kept and catalogued their voluminous correspondence and this was obviously not an unusual practice. I knew an Augustinian friar who told me that one of the disciplines of his order was to keep all of their letters (to and from). He certainly had no intention to divulge the contents of his desk to anyone. It was to keep track of his “conversations”. Poor Father Leonard—he seems blameless to me, 60 years dead. Maybe he died before he could toss out the letters. As for Jackie, she left instructions in her will to release private conversations, etc. after a certain time. Her daughter is releasing them accordingly, such as the sensitive 1964 conversations with Arthur Schlesinger.

      • kenofken

        If if was Jackie’s will that personal conversations be released after her death, then there really is no cause for grievance on anyone’s part. The nuts and bolts of how priests distinguish the personal from the pastoral and what steps they have to take to safeguard such material are really a matter for canon law or the rules a bishop imposes on his priests. I think there are probably some distinctions to be made in determining whether someone has a “pastoral relationship” with a priest. It’s obvious if he’s your confessor, but beyond that, are you confiding something in him or asking questions about life’s meaning in relationship to your faith, or are you talking to him as a guy who happens to be a priest? It would be interesting to see if canon law experts or ethicists like Jimmy Akin or someone has any light to shed on this.

        • Kristen

          I’m currently reading Dorothy Day’s personal letters (published as All the Way to Heaven). Her instructions were explicit that her personal papers should be sealed for 25 years after her death. They were, and then after that twenty-five years the editor got to work and her diaries and letters have been recently published. It sounds like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis left similar sorts of instructions and her daughter is following them.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “Does no one but me see that this is wrong?

    Yes the fact that it’s a priest does push it into a different catagory. Normally one should preserve letters for history’s sake, though I doubt there is anything there that’s going to enlighten us historically. But I could be wrong. The fact that they are being published well after her death does mitigate the wrong.

  • Mary E.

    About the ownership of the letters from Jackie to Father Leonard–I noticed that a correction at the end of the Boston Globe article states that “they are the property of All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland.” Jackie also seems to have kept some of Father Leonard’s letters to her, since the Globe got permission from the JFK Library to quote from them. He ends one letter referring to himself as “her affectionate and devoted old friend.” I would expect him to destroy the letters if they were truly pastoral in nature–but perhaps these are not pastoral letters, despite his identity as a priest, but letters of friendship.

  • Bill S

    I’m not surprised that the desire to cash in on such an opportunity would outweigh the decency of keeping the correspondences between a woman and priest confidential. Perhaps they will be purchased by someone who intends to read them but keep them from public dissemination. That’s probably naive and idealistic thinking. There always is the possibility that Father Leonard’s words might prove comforting and edifying to others who read them. That’s just trying to put a positive spin on what appears to be inherently wrong.

  • AnneG

    Apparently the Kennedy’s gave permission for this auction. Helps perpetuate their mythology.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    I have to take a different view. These people are history in every sense of the word: they are important, and they are past. There is not likely to be anyone alive today who is apt to be hurt or damaged by the publication of these letters. And the fact is that we historians routinely curse the memories of devoted friends and relatives who burned the private papers of important figures of the past. Confidentiality may be a duty in your generation, but in two hundred years your correspondence as a representative would be a wonderful resource to historians not yet born, and I would urge you to keep it.

    • hamiltonr

      In 200 years nobody will know that I was ever alive. Which is fine with me, btw.

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        Not If I can help it.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    The priest died in 1964. Perhaps he simply hadn’t had time to destroy the letters, and there is some indication they were letters about a trusted relationship between close friends, not merely pastoral.

  • Nick_from_Detroit

    “It was a violation of trust.”
    Isn’t that a supposition on your part, Mrs. Hamilton?
    Father Leonard died in 1964. Mrs. Kennedy Onassis died in 1994. So, she had 30 years to get those letters back, if she had wished. Did she even try?

    • hamiltonr

      Yes. I have the supposition that priests should not violate the confidentiality of the things people tell them.

      If you disagree, fine.

      • Nick_from_Detroit

        Mrs. Hamilton,
        I just don’t understand how Father Leonard violated anyone’s confidentiality. Not without more information, anyway.
        I don’t want to be guilty of rash judgement. God Bless!

  • Mrshopey

    I don’t like this either. Even the letters we have published by Saints (St. Francis de Sales) on giving spiritual direction, it didn’t reveal the identity of the person.
    I don’t like that St. JPII’s notes weren’t burned/destroyed as asked let alone letters.

  • Diana Calliou

    I am disturbed by this as well. I don’t beleive this content should have been published or that the letters are now being sold.

  • FW Ken

    Jackie Kennedy seems to me a uniquely tragic figure, not because she was a helpless victim of tragic circumstances, but because so much of the American promise is shown to be lies by her life. The promise of a debutante life of privilege, seemingly advanced by marriage to an equally beautiful person, then the White House, and universal adoration by the women of my mother’s generation. But inside are all the things we know now: Jack the womanizer, the corruption of the Kennedy family, internal dissent within the administration. Then there are the tragedies: a miscarriage and a premature child’s death, and, of course the assassination. Then the bizarre marriage to Onassis, and she becomes an object of tabloid scorn. Finally, she finishes this strange life as a book editor, living quietly in New York.

    What was her inner life like? These letters certainly give a clue, but I’m not sure it matters. My point is that all that beautiful youth and wealth finally ends quietly. Not badly, I hope, but it ought to give us pause about the things we often value in this culture. Youth and money? The entertainment media certainly want us to idolize those. But they aren’t happiness.

  • ProLife Mom of 6

    I learned that the hard way too.