The Laetare Medal of the University of Notre Dame was conferred last Sunday on the great Catholic architect, Mr. Patrick Charles Keely of Brooklyn. No more honorable selection could have been made, nor one that would certainly reflect back on the University conferring it an honor fully corresponding to that which it gave. All public testimonies of honor, such as this, ought to have a mutual and reciprocal effect. In this case it undoubtedly had. In material value and external ornament the Laetare Medal and its accompanying address, designed and wrought by skillful hands, are things of beauty, and coming from such a respectable, progressive, and far-seeing Institution such as Notre Dame are well worthy of acceptance by even so eminent a master as Mr. Keely. On the other hand, when the University of Notre Dame determined to mark out for its homage and distinction a man eminent in his science and a great master in his truly Christian art, it selected one, the glory of whose achievements and the lustre of whose life must reflect honorably on it and this great prize that it has established. The personal modesty of Mr. Keely’s life will not permit us to say a single word in praise of himself, but everyone can infer what might be said when it is remembered to what Mr. Keely has devoted himself and his wonderful gifts. “The devout astronomer is mad.” Certainly it would be equally impossible for a Christian architect, who designs temples for the Eucharistic Sacrifice, to lack that enthusiasm for his faith which come from the hourly expression in permanent forms of the most precious thoughts of religion. The condition of the Laetare medal may therefore be passed as entirely filled in this case. Of Mr. Keely’s genius we need speak just as briefly. Already he has built seven hundred churches in honor of the Christian name, not to speak of the numberless institutions that accompanied them. The number is wholly unprecedented in the history of any architect of ancient or modern times. It could only have been reached in the phenomenal period of Catholic history that the Church in America has known during the present half century. Mr. Keely was a Providential man, raised up to meet, in his particular line, the this marvelous emergency. Nor must it be supposed that these are petty little structures, suitable for mission chapels in rural districts. Few of them are of that character. Numbers of them are works of the first class. Scores of them are cathedrals that in cost, size and structure recall the amazement of those who saw the Cathedral of Seville and believed its designers and builders mad to attempt such a gigantic task. His first great work was to carve out, with his own hands, the beautiful canopies of the altars in the old Cathedral of Brooklyn, and the crown of all his works, though we trust not his last, will be the new Cathedral of Brooklyn. That in size alone will be greater than any church yet planned on the American continent. Those who have been favored with a glimpse of the well nigh completed plans, are of opinion that its great size will be the very least of its claims to notice. Mr. Keely in his modesty never permits without protest its comparison with any other work. We will therefore say simply that it will be a most beautiful as well as a massive and impressive structure, leaving to the future to contrast it with anything that the piety of a succeeding generation may achieve. Among his other works, of which every newspaper reader must have heard, are the Jesuit churches in Montreal, Boston, and New York, the cathedrals of Buffalo, Boston, Providence, Hartford, Chicago, and Newark. That which he is building for Bishop Hendricken, though not the largest, will be in every way one of the most complete and beautiful in the country. These facts may show that Notre Dame in selecting Mr. Keely as the medallist of this year, has chosen a man of great eminence, whose life and work will be a suggestion to the young men who are growing up in the fine atmosphere of Catholic public spirit that this Western University is creating within its sphere.
NOTE: The leading Catholic architect in 1800’s America, Keely emigrated to New York in the 1840’s. The article refers to Brooklyn’s uncompleted Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the cornerstone of which was dedicated in the summer of 1868. Only one part of that project remains standing, the residence at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section. A recent study suggests that the number of churches and church buildings attributed is actually much lower than seven hundred: probably closer to two hundred. A big difference, but it goes to show how anxious Catholics were to flaunt the accomplishments of one of their own in an era of intense anti-Catholicism.
(*The above drawing of Patrick Keely is by Pat McNamara.)