U.S. Capitol's Visitors Center and Statuary Hall include several noted Catholics
Thursday, July 22, 2010 2:24 AM
Underneath the massive dome of the U.S. Capitol and in nearby corridors are larger than life-size statues of America's most historical and revered figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller and Ronald Reagan.
This statue of Father Damien, now St. Damien of Molokai, leper priest, is among statues of famous Catholics in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall and in the new Capitol Visitor Center.
Among those immortalized in the U.S. Capitol are also several Catholic heroes - four missionary priests, one woman religious and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence - all who figure prominently in our nation's history.
"Each symbolizes the virtuous spirit that has carried our nation forward and strengthened its backbone," Father Eugene Hemrick writes in his 2001 book, One Nation Under God, Religious Symbols, Quotes and Images in Our Nation's Capital.
Displayed in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall and in the new Capitol Visitor Center are statues of: Father Damien, now St. Damien of Molokai, leper priest; Father Jacques Marquette, explorer and missionary; Father Eusebio Kino, scientific explorer and missionary; Father Junipero Serra, builder of missions; Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence, architect of the Pacific Northwest; and Charles Carroll of Maryland (1737-1832), the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and a cousin to the nation's first Catholic bishop, Archbishop John Carroll.
"Although they lived at different times in American history, the similarities between these exemplars are amazing...Each was blessed with extraordinary gifts; each epitomized amazing courage and contributed to our sacred heritage," writes Father Hemrick.In or around Statuary Hall, also known as the Hall or Heroes, each state is permitted to honor two famous individuals in their history. The bronze or marble statues weigh roughly 9,000 to 13,000 pounds and are spread throughout the Capitol building to prevent floors from collapsing.
St. Damien (1840-1889), who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, is the first Catholic saint to be honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol. A native of Belgium, he ministered for 16 years to the lepers of the island of Molokai, where the kingdom of Hawaii placed lepers. His statue is in a modern-style, with the leprosy scars visible on his face from eventually contracting the disease.
A bronze likeness of Mother Joseph (1823-1902) is courtesy of the state of Washington. Mother Joseph entered the Sisters of Charity of Providence in Montreal and later led a group of five missionaries to the Pacific Northwest territories of the United States. She was responsible for the completion of 11hospitals, seven academies, five Indian schools, and two orphanages throughout an area that today encompasses Washington, northern Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. She is depicted kneeling in prayer with a rosary and tools to symbolize her building efforts.
Blessed Junipero Serra (1713-1784) was a Franciscan missionary priest who established missions along the California coastline from San Diego to San Francisco. He was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II. He built monasteries and his preaching converted large numbers to the Catholic faith. His statue depicts him holding aloft a cross.
Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette (1636-1675) represents Wisconsin. He was a French missionary priest who explored the Mississippi River regions, bringing the Gospel to the Native Americans in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.
Father Eusebio Kino (1645-1711) was also a Jesuit explorer who ministered to the areas of lower Arizona, Mexico and California. His statue depicts a cactus plant to represent his missionary work in the desert Southwest.
Tourists may find the statues of Mother Joseph and Father Kino resting in the new underground U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Opened in 2008, the center allows tourists to view many exhibits that focus on the history of the Capitol, Congress and major legislative pieces. In a brief introductory film, a viewer can catch a quick glimpse of Father Daniel Coughlin, the Catholic priest who serves as chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives.
However, some members of Congress have criticized the new center because in their view it does not appropriately honor the religious heritage that has been crucial to America's success. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began a petition seeking to more prominently recognize God and religion at the center. The Visitor Center's main corridor, Emancipation Hall, now has a sign reading, "In God We Trust."
Along the walls of the U.S.Capitol rotunda, which from the outside resembles the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and has been described as the "symbolic and physical heart" of the Capitol, are some artworks with depictions of vivid religious or Catholic imagery. Among those paintings are: the Baptism of Pocahontas, the landing of Christopher Columbus, the discovery of the Mississippi River by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, as well as the embarkation of the Pilgrims who are shown praying over the Bible before their journey to the New World.
Standing in shadow of the U.S. Capitol dome are two historical Catholic parishes - St. Peter and St. Joseph - where Catholic lawmakers, Capitol staff members and Hill residents have worshiped and practiced the faith for well over 150 years. Both parishes host travelers from all over the country and world and celebrate special Masses for the annual March for Life which concludes on Capitol Hill every Jan. 22.
Father Hemrick writes that his book is a tribute to the "artists who beautified the Capitol with religious symbolism, reminding us that America's greatness is founded on its trust in God...We are truly blessed to live in a country that not only respects God, but has chiseled that respect in stone, inscribed it on walls, pieced it together in mosaics and painted in on canvases so that American generations will never forget their religious heritage."