Christopher Columbus and Notre Dame: A Church Historian’s Perspective

Christopher Columbus and Notre Dame: A Church Historian’s Perspective January 24, 2019

Among institutes of higher education, Notre Dame has a storied place in American Catholic culture and life. In his 1972 book That Most Distressful Nation, Father Andrew Greeley wrote that for many American Catholics, “the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame were folk heroes of which to be proud.” For some, going to South Bend was a bigger deal than being accepted to the Ivy Leagues.

When Notre Dame does something, Catholics take notice: whether it’s giving an honorary degree to Barack Obama, or inviting Mike Pence to address graduates. Its annual Laetare Medal award is an event of interest to the whole Catholic community, not just the university. In short, what happens at Notre Dame matters.   

That’s why it’s such a big deal when university president Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., recently addressed complaints about murals in the Main Building depicting Christopher Columbus:

The murals… reflect the attitudes of the time and were intended as a didactic presentation… In recent years, however, many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’s voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this “new” world and at worst demeaning toward them.

Father Jenkins’s letter was a response to a university-wide petition to have the murals removed, which they called Notre Dame’s “own version of a Confederate monument.”

As a historian of American Catholicism (I know some peers will disagree), my own feeling is that they should stay as they are. First of all, murals can’t be removed without great damage to the image. This is a teachable moment. Notre Dame has the best program in the country for American Catholic history. Perhaps the faculty could organize a public listening session to promote further dialogue on the subject.

Another option would be to post a permanent public disclaimer next to the murals. This could  briefly explain the historical context of the paintings. At the same time, it could also give the university the chance to formally eschew all forms of imperialism. No institution has a perfect past, but the beauty of the past is that we can learn from it if we choose.

Let’s also keep in mind that during the 1880’s, when these murals were painted, anti-Catholicism was quite powerful. Catholic immigrants were suspected of having double loyalties. In response, Catholics wanted to show Protestant America that they were good Americans too. Hence they pointed to a seminal figure in American history, a Catholic. That’s why they chose Christopher Columbus. They were trying to fight hatred, not promote it.   

If we look close enough, we’d find that many Catholic universities (not to mention many non-Catholic ones) have skeletons in their closet. Until the 1830’s, the Georgetown Jesuits were slaveholders. Recently the university made a formal amends to their descendants. There are other examples.  

At Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas, for instance, there stands a statue of Archbishop John Ireland, who alienated Ukrainian Catholic immigrants to the point where thousands left to join the Orthodox Church. Many Eastern Rite Catholics find his statue offensive. Similarly, Fordham has a statue of its founder, Archbishop John Hughes, who was well known to be racist. Georgetown houses a statue of a slaveholder, Archbishop John Carroll. Are we going to remove or cover these statues too?    

So let a disclaimer be posted at Notre Dame, by all means, and let the university expressly disavow all forms of imperialism, cultural and otherwise. But leave the murals alone. They’re as much a part of the university’s history as Touchdown Jesus, maybe even more.

Let’s acknowledge our collective American Catholic history, warts and all. Let’s talk about the fact that symbols which once had one meaning now signify something else to the modern mind. Let’s learn from it. But, for God’s sake, let’s not destroy and distort the past to make ourselves feel better today. Tampering with history, as history has shown us, can have dangerous consequences.  

(*The drawing of Christopher Columbus is by Pat McNamara.) 


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