Last year marked the first time that The Catholic University of America celebrated commencement virtually; this year’s commencement, to take place in-person with social distancing at FedEx Field, will mark the first time the ceremony has ever been held away from campus. This blog post will run through some other notable firsts in the University’s commencement history.
The earliest commencement exercises on record took place in the Assembly Room of McMahon Hall, which was constructed between 1892 and 1895 (shortly after the University first opened in 1889 with the completion of Caldwell Hall). By the early 1920s the commencement ceremony was being held in the gymnasium (today’s Crough Center), a practice that would endure for decades.
In his excellent pictorial history of Catholic University (2010, Arcadia), Robert P. Malesky notes: “Many large-scale special events took place in the gym, from the 50th anniversary celebration in 1939 to rock concerts in the 1960s and an address from Pope John Paul II in 1979” (p. 67). Conspicuously absent from his list of “large-scale special events,” however, are the annual commencement exercises—an omission that would probably dishearten the 1923 Commencement Week Committee, which, on the front page of The Tower, pleaded with students and alumni to COMMENCE COMING TO COMMENCEMENT. The Committee felt that “a Commencement Week combining the dignity of academic exercises with the delight of social and of athletic events serves as a sort of epitome of University life,” and lamented that CatholicU, though “still pretty young,” had yet to sow the seeds of a “mighty tradition” like that of “the ‘Proms’ of American Universities, the ‘Commemoration’ of Oxford, [or] the ‘May Week’ of Cambridge” (see “Commencement Week,” The Tower, April 13, 1923). Hoping to rectify that and to entice more people to attend the end-of-year festivities, the Committee added a Senior Ball to the program.
1933 witnessed a “Historic Commencement” at which the sitting President of the United States, FDR, was a guest of honor. (Granted, CatholicU has an extensive history with our country’s chief executives.) According to the Catholic University Bulletin, “a new attendance record was set by the five thousand who attempted to secure admission to the University Gymnasium, [but] the audience that witnessed the affair was not to be compared with the vast radio audience of ten million people to whom the commencement exercises were brought” (July 1933, Vol. 1, No. 5, p. 1). Upon receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws, FDR offered the following unscripted remarks.
1962 marked the first time that commencement was held outdoors, against the backdrop of the recently-completed Pangborn Hall. In a Tower article hyperbolically titled From Hell to Heaven, one student celebrated the improvement in venue—ridiculing the idea of “columns of robed students receiving their diplomas here beneath the basketball nets.” Sadly for him, though, it would be a few more years before others came to feel as strongly as he did that the gym was appropriate (only) for “basketball, volleyball, crab soccer, effervescent cheerleaders, and 1-2-3-4 calisthenics.” The 1965 commencement exercises (at which then-President LBJ delivered the address!) were the last to be held in the gym. (Incidentally, two days earlier, he had also given the commencement address at Howard University.)
1966 marked the triumphant return to outdoor commencement exercises. This time, the ceremony took place in front of Mullen Library.
Although the University Mall has remained the traditional venue for the annual commencement exercises, in 1973 the ceremony did an about-face.
Since then, except in extreme circumstances—such as those of 1977 (not to mention those of the past two years)—commencement has been held on the East Portico of the National Shrine. (In 1977, rain drove the commencement celebrants into the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine. A few days later, then-President of the University Clarence C. Walton, the first lay person to lead the University, wrote to the Assistant Director of the Shrine to thank him for “the thoughtfulness and the help [he] provided when, as escapees from rain clouds, the Shrine became our graduation home.” Walton was also sensitive to all the effort that went into setting up and breaking down the unused chairs.)
This week marks one hundred years since the foundation stone for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was laid on September 23, 1920. But, like Rome, the Shrine wasn’t built in a day. In this blogpost, I’ll focus on the early history of the Shrine—from its inception up until the intermission in its construction beginning in 1931.
“IDEA MANY YEARS OLD” pronounced the Salve Regina Press, the publisher of the Shrine’s fundraising bulletin, on August 1, 1924; after the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception, had been designated as the patroness of the United States in 1847, whispers of a “fitting architectural symbol of this dedication” supposedly occurred at the Second Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in 1866 and surfaced again at the Third Plenary Council in 1884. The establishment of a national Catholic university in 1887 only lent urgency to the matter of a patronal church. When The Catholic University of America first opened in 1889, the campus community patronized the chapel in Caldwell (then-known as Divinity) Hall. As early as July 1910, Thomas Joseph Shahan, the fourth rector of the University (1909–1928), expressed his desire for a full-fledged University Church: “Professors and books shed a dry light,” he explained (himself a professor), “but a glorious Church sheds a warm emotional, sacramental light” (Letter to Mr. Jenkins). Dubbed the “Rector-builder,” Shahan championed much of the campus construction in those days—perhaps to a fault: “A university is a society of men, not buildings,” chided his successor, Monsignor James H. Ryan (Nuesse 171; Malesky 90). In any case, the Shrine was his pride and joy. In 1913, Pope Pius X gave Shahan his blessing along with $400 (Tweed 49).
By at least one account, the fact that the foundation stone arrived in one piece for the festivities seven years later was a miracle; it was driven more than 1,500 miles from New Hampshire down to Washington, D.C. (taking a very winding path) on the back of a new-fangled green and gold “Auto Truck” whose brakes supposedly failed at one point during the journey. The donor of the stone, James Joseph Sexton, remarked “how lucky we were to travel so far […] without accident,” adding “I shall always reverence the Blessed Virgin Mary as I have told many […] how she protected us at Perryville Road when our Auto Truck dashed down the hill at fully 40 miles an hour” (“On This Day in History“).
Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, presided over the laying of the foundation stone—as he had on numerous other occasions at the University (including the inaugural event on May 24, 1888, when the cornerstone of Caldwell Hall was laid). The next day, The Washington Post described the ceremony as “one of the most notable religious events ever witnessed in the National Capital,” and reported that “10,000 persons thronged the university campus to view the spectacle” (“Vast Shrine Is Begun“). But conspicuously absent from the crowd that day were some of the Shrine’s earliest and most ardent supporters: laywomen like Lucy Shattuck Hoffman who made up the National Organization of Catholic Women (NOCW) (Tweed 35).
Hoffman had played a prominent part in the prehistory of the Shrine (between 1911 and 1918), not only as the founder of the NOCW but also as the mother of an established architect who in 1915 submitted the “plaster model of Gothic design” pictured in many of the Shrine’s early promotional materials (Tweed 32). As such, Hoffman apparently took for granted the fact that her son would get the commission. But in 1918, the University’s Board of Trustees decided to abandon the Gothic in favor of a Romanesque design. For whatever reason, the devoted members of the NOCW were not made privy to the Trustees’ decision and were left instead to read about it in the same fundraising periodical they helped distribute (Tweed 33). Hoffman felt betrayed. The members of the NOCW’s New York chapter resigned in solidarity, and just like that, one of the first national organizations of Catholic women “abruptly disbanded” (Tweed 34).
Interestingly, the foundation stone was laid “only thirty-six days after women won the right to vote,” but the climate at the ceremony was not celebratory (Tweed 17). In his sermon that afternoon, the bishop of Duluth accused women of “seeking a freedom that is excessive” (“Vast Shrine Is Begun“). His apparent lack of support for women seems incongruous given that the Shrine was not only marketed explicitly to “America’s Marys,” but was also in large part the product of women’s fundraising efforts.
In the absence of any traditional American ecclesiastical style, the architectural firm Maginnis and Walsh felt that “the U.S. cultural condition allowed—even demanded—freedom to experiment” (Tweed 25). Hence the “Byzantine beach ball” we know today (Tweed 5). Some have suggested that Shahan and the architects rejected a Gothic design because the National Cathedral, already underway in the District of Columbia, was Gothic. Others have suggested that they sought an alternative design because Gothic structures took too long to build—an ironic objection, considering the Shrine was only completed “according to its original architectural and iconographic plans” upon the dedication of the Trinity Dome mosaic in 2017: four score and seventeen years after the foundation stone was laid in 1920 (“Dedication of the Trinity Dome“).
Construction on the crypt level did not actually begin until three years later, in 1923. The first public Mass was held in the crypt church on Easter Sunday in 1924. Later that year, the Salve Regina Press reported: “In this crypt, incomplete though it is, already ordinations have been held and thousands of pilgrims have attended Mass, often said while the hammers of workmen punctuated the singing of the priest” (“Glories of the Crypt“). Presciently, the closing paragraph of the same August 1, 1924 issue of the Salve Regina Press exactly predicts future delays: “When the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will be completed is as much a problem as the great cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages faced. Business depressions, wars—many things—may intervene.”
For years, Shahan and his secretary, the Reverend Bernard A. McKenna, were the “two master minds” of the Shrine project, but shortly after Shahan’s death in 1932, McKenna—the Shrine’s first director—returned to his pastoral work in Philadelphia (Tweed 29–30). The loss of leadership was compounded by the onset of the Great Depression and the United States’ eventual entry into WWII; the project lay dormant after the crypt level was completed in 1931.
For more than two decades the lower church evoked the “Half sunk” Ozymandias; at one time, the bishop of Reno complained that it “remained a shapeless bulk of masonry half-buried in the ground” (Tweed 42). Following a 23-year hiatus, construction resumed in 1954 and the superstructure was formally dedicated on November 20, 1959. For more on that story, stay tuned for the centennial in 2059!
Although the foundation stone isn’t visible from the outside, you can see it by visiting what is now the Oratory of Our Lady of Antipolo, or #17 on the page-two map from this 1931 guide book.