Since 1883, the University of Notre Dame has bestowed its Laetare Medal on an outstanding American Catholic. (The medal is so-called because it is traditionally announced on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.) Recipients have included scholars and activists, religious and laity, politicians and generals, artists and architects. During the 1890’s, when anti-Catholicism was particularly strong nationwide, the university honored one of the heroes of the Civil War, Major General William Starke Rosecrans (1819-1898), partly as a way to refute widespread charges that Catholics were unpatriotic and un-American.
In addition to being one of the leading commanders in the war’s Western Theater, Rosecrans was also a devout Catholic who converted while teaching at West Point. “We have heard awful things of these Papists,” he told a friend at the time. “Let us see what they have to say for themselves.” While stationed in Rhode Island, he helped design St. Mary’s Church (where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married in 1953). In 1868, Rosecrans’ brother, also a convert, became the first Catholic bishop of Columbus, Ohio. Three of the general’s eight children entered religious life. (His son-in-law, Joseph K. Toole, was Montana’s first governor.) The address accompanying the Medal reads:
Providence has granted you length of days in which to enjoy the fullness of honor. You are the last, as you are one of the greatest, of those noble chiefs who led our hosts to victory. Your name is set among the brightest traditions of the republic; your services are writ in letters of imperishable glory upon our Country’s tablet of honor; and unborn generations, children of these States whose union you labored so successfully to preserve, will be inspired by your example and thrilled by the story of your genius and courage.
It is not within the power of any man or body of men to honour you whom the whole nation claims for its hero; but the University of Notre Dame offers you the highest distinction within its gift, in bestowing on you this year its Laetare Medal. Accept it as a symbol of the proud appreciation which your Catholic fellow-citizens hold your distinguished public services.
The Laetare Medal has been worn only by men and women whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity. It will be a joy to your fellow-citizens that you are now enrolled in that noble company which is worthy of you and which you will adorn. For in you are crowned the virtues of a Christian soldier– the generous response to duty, the unstinted service of laborious days and restless nights, the courage of a martyr and the gentleness of a hero.
One of the noblest chapters of Catholic theology is that which teaches the duty of patriotism and whole-hearted devotion to the public weal. Catholics are among the first to recognize that duty and respond to it. But whenever a slanderous cry goes up from the camps of fanaticism; when men and women would proclaim the Church hostile to liberty and false to the principles of American government, she finds her best response and her strongest vindication in the lives of men like you.
(*The above drawing of General Rosecrans is by Pat McNamara.)