ON THIS SPOT: The Mystery of the Pope’s Letter

Today, the Catholic University of America celebrates Founders Day. One hundred thirty years ago, on April 10, 1887, Pope Leo XIII (right, courtesy Catholic University Archives) sent a letter to Cardinal James Gibbons giving his formal approval for the founding of the university. It was a momentous event, and that letter was a historic document of great magnitude for the new school.

When I was writing my photographic history of The Catholic University of America, I wanted to include a picture of that letter. I had been working closely with the folks at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives throughout the course of researching the book, and asked them about obtaining a photo or scan of the letter. I guessed some special permission might be needed in order to handle a document of such significance. To my surprise, the archivists could not locate it. There were printed reproductions of the letter available, but not the original, handwritten letter in Latin, signed by Pope Leo XIII. 


Printed version of Pope Leo’s letter authorizing the formation of the Catholic University of America, April 10, 1887. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Catholic University Archives. 

I have to admit, I was confounded. So was Robin Pike, the Audio Visual Archivist, with whom I worked most closely. She queried the other archivists, plowed through dozens of finding aids and followed numerous leads, all to no avail. If that letter wasn’t at the university, where else might it be? Pope Leo addressed it to Cardinal James Gibbons, the Archibishop of Baltimore. Perhaps it was in their archives. I called Baltimore, and after another diligent search, their archivists also found only printed reproductions, not the original document.

Finally, inadvertently, I discovered the answer. In May 1888 there were ceremonies surrounding the laying of the cornerstone of Caldwell Hall, at first called Divinity Hall. It was a significant event with many celebrities including President Grover Cleveland and even the US Marine Band, led by John Philip Sousa. The Washington Post provided extensive coverage, and in a lengthy article on May 25, 1888, I found this paragraph:

Mystery solved. The original letter from Pope Leo XIII authorizing the Catholic University of America exists in a small copper box inside the cornerstone of Caldwell Hall. Perhaps someday it will again see the light of day.


© Robert Malesky 2017