PORTRAITS: The Angel of Brookland

Clara Barton was already known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” when she first met Antoinette Margot. Barton’s work with wounded soldiers and their families during and after the American Civil War had made her famous, not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. It was in Switzerland in 1870, where Barton had gone to rest and to learn about the newly created International Red Cross, that she was introduced to a shy young French woman who had signed up to nurse soldiers wounded in the Franco-Prussian War.

 (Photo: Clara Barton, at about the time she met Antoinette Margot. Barton was 21 years older. Library of Congress)

Antoinette Margot was born in Lyons in 1842 and raised by strict Protestant Huguenot parents. She had a talent for painting, and made a name for herself when she won a gold medal in Paris. But she wanted to help people as well, so joined the fledgling Red Cross. She and Clara Barton met at Basel in 1870 and traveled together to the front. It was a horrific eye-opening experience, especially for Antoinette Margot.

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(Photo: Antoinette Margot, Library of Congress)

Many years later, Barton wrote of that time: 

I fell into the path of the Franco-Prussian War and with the brave and beneficent Red Cross went through it…. This slender lady…Antoinette Margot…went with me every step of the way; over broken ranks, through fire and blood, and both came out alive, God knows how.

Barton and Margot became close, so close that Margot went to live with Barton in London after the war, and then in Paris, where they shared an apartment at the Place Vendôme. More than a secretary but less than an equal, Margot helped Barton organize relief activities, while continuing to paint. One of her portraits was of Barton’s cat, Tommy, which became one of her favorites.

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(Margot’s painting of Tommy, which still hangs in the Barton house at Glen Echo.
Photo, National Park 
Service.)

In 1873, Barton returned to America and Margot went home to Lyons. She was not particularly happy being back in the strict confines of her parents' house and fell into depression. Then something changed. Margot had a spiritual conversion, broke from her parents' religion and became an ardent Catholic. Later she would write to Barton about it: 

Never, never I shall forget what I owe to you. I owe you even my perfect actual happiness of being a Catholic, for, without your strong teaching, and your nerving of my heart, I could never have dared to take the step of following my convictions, when I had convictions to follow.

In their years apart, Clara Barton had formed the American Red Cross and become its first president. Her fame continued to grow and she was busier than ever. In 1885 she wrote to Antoinette Margot and asked her to come to America and join her. Margot did, going first to Barton’s home in Danville, New York, then to Washington where they lived at 947 T Street NW. But their relationship was not what it once had been. Barton was often absent, dashing around the country, giving lectures and helping local officials coordinate disaster relief. But the house was not empty, with dozens of people coming and going performing various tasks for Barton. Margot found it noisy and confusing. When the two women were together, there was a noticeable distance between them. Barton seemed uncomfortable with Margot’s new-found religious zeal, later writing rather coldly: 

Poor, simple child! It is all for the best, I think. Hers is one of those unsteady, unbalanced minds that must be controlled. She has no mastery over herself, and nothing but a priest and a confessional can make her happy.

Disappointed, depressed and alone in a new country, Antoinette Margot broke with Clara Barton and moved to lodgings on F Street, where she tried to renew her creative life by taking on art pupils. She met two French women, Leonide Delarue and her mother, who ran a French import shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, and they became fast friends. She was able to return to France for a brief visit with her parents, and her father gave her a substantial part of her future inheritance to invest in real estate. Returning to Washington, Margot made a decisive move, choosing to build a home for herself and the Delarues in a new neighborhood that had a decidely Catholic cast - Brookland.

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(Real estate map from 1903. Library of Congress.)

Antoinette Margot bought her property in Brookland in 1889, just two years after the still sparsely populated neighborhood had been founded. She chose a plot of land near the railroad tracks and Catholic University, which had just opened that year. Local Catholics had no church in Brookland yet, so they went to the small chapel in Caldwell Hall on campus. Margot wanted to change that. She built a large house facing Bunker Hill Road on what is now the Brookland Green, with many rooms that could be used as an art school, and one reserved as a chapel. She named it Theodoron, “God’s Gift.” 

(Theodoron, from an old postcard. Courtesy John Feeley.)

She and Leonide Delarue soon walked over to campus to introduce themselves to a young professor of whom they had heard. Rev. Henri Hyvernat was one of Catholic University’s original faculty members,  professor of Biblical Archeology and Semitic Languages, and was already well-known and respected in Europe, despite being only thirty years old. He was also a native of Lyons, like Margot.

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(Rev. Henri Hyvernat about the time he met Antoinette Margot. Photo courtesy Catholic University of America Archives.)

Margot and Delarue were dressed so plainly when they met him that Hyvernat at first thought they had come looking for money and pulled out his wallet. He was very pleased to discover that wasn’t the case, that they were also French, and that one of them was from his hometown. Margot was looking for Hyvernat’s help in getting permission to use her house to hold services. This he did, going to Cardinal James Gibbons, who consented. Hyvernat became the unofficial pastor and the first Mass was held at Theodoron in 1891. He then worked with the two women to formally establish a new parish. They held numerous fundraisers beginning in 1892, and Hyvernat was able to buy property on the southwest corner of 12th and Monroe Streets for a new church. On June 13th, 1896, St. Anthony’s feast day, the new wood frame church was dedicated. Cardinal Gibbons suggested it be named St. Anthony of Padua, in honor of Antoinette Margot.

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(The original wood frame St. Anthony of Padua church in 1910. Library of Congress.)

Margot then built a new home directly across the street, which she called Villa Marie. She and Leonide Delarue lived there for the rest of their lives. Rev. Hyvernat built a house right next door. She gave him Theodoron to use for an Institute of Christian Oriental Research. For over 25 years, Antoinette Margot took care of her church, washing altar linens, mending vestments, arranging candles, and teaching Latin to generations of altar boys. She became a fixture in Brookland, often going out for strolls in her customary blue attire.

(Villa Marie. It stood where the Brookland post office is now. Photo courtesy Catholic University of America Archives.)

Antoinette Margot died on December 28, 1925. She is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, next to Leonide Delarue and near Rev. Henri Hyvernat. Margot Hall at St. Anthony’s Church is named in her honor.

© Robert Malesky 2016