Two Saints in Washington DC?

We have two saints in Washington DC.  Well, not exactly. What we do have is the statue of two blesseds in the Capitol building. Who might they be, you may wonder? Blessed Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, is one. The statue stands in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall adjacent to the Rotunda. In 1864, Congress passed a law inviting each state in the Union to contribute to the Capitol two statues of their own citizens who were “illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service.” Each of our United States contributed the two statues, except for Nevada and New Mexico who thus far have only sent one. The state of California commissioned the artist Ettore Cadorin to sculpture a bronze statue of the diminutive Franciscan missioner (he was only five feet and two inches tall). Upon completion in 1931 it was sent to Washington. Fray Junipero Serra died in 1784. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.

Who is the other blessed? Would you believe that a Jesuit could conquer the prestigious halls of Washington, DC? But this one was a martyr for charity. He is none other than the Belgian missionary, Blessed Father Damien de Veuster, the leper of Molokai. Our fiftieth state, the islands of Hawaii, commissioned the sculptor, Mariol Escobar, to create a bronze statue of their altruistic champion as one of their two contributions to the Capitol collection. It was received into Statuary Hall in 1969 and unveiled there on April 15. The date of the unveiling is significant because the Hawaii state legislature had passed a law establishing April 15, the day Blessed Damien died, as Father Damien Day. This selfless man of God, with full knowledge of the contagious nature of leprosy, contracted the horrific disease while ministering to the spiritual and corporal needs of the infected natives on the island of Molokai. After fifteen years serving the six hundred lepers of that island, he withered away there, one with his dying flock, until that day in April, 1889, when his soul could no longer animate his emaciated flesh.

Although these are the only saints honored in Statuary Hall, they are not the only priests. Another Jesuit, Father Jacques Marquette, missioner to the Wisconsin, Huron, and other mid-western Indian tribes, had his own marble statue gracing the halls of the Capitol thirty-five years before the arrival of Blessed Junipero. The state of Wisconsin contributed this statue in honor of their courageous and pioneering priest who, besides his great accomplishments in the service of Jesus Christ, had also charted the course of the Mississippi River. He died ministering to the Indians of the Mississippi region in 1675.

So, there are ninety-eight statues of men deemed “illustrious” enough by the fifty states — at least by their historic renown — to represent each within the halls of the Capitol. [Note: Some of these, like the polygamist Mormon, Brigham Young, and anti-Catholics Will Rogers and Roger Williams, have historic fame only.] Fundamentalist patriots (who pride themselves on being iconoclastic) may be scandalized by statues in any venue, but if they realized that three of these national “images” are Catholic missionary priests — two beatified, and another whose cause would certainly be a worthy one — they would be far more dizzy than they already are. Then again, it may be a grace to prop up their heavy hearts and help them stand up straight and consider that “God is wonderful in His saints.” (Ps. 68:35)

You are assuming that this must be all. Yes, it is, as far as priests are concerned. However, we have not yet mentioned Mother Joseph. Hers is indeed a most worthy addition to the hall of statues. She was more than courageous, for she had no fear of anyone, or any enterprise, when it came to her works of Christian charity. It seems that she is God’s dynamic little secret. This writer had never heard of her. He came across her name by accident, while he was perusing the list of the states’ honorary figures. Her bronze statue, contributed by the state of Washington, was sent to D.C. only twenty-five years ago.

Born in 1823 in Quebec, Mother Joseph entered the Sisters of Charity of Providence in Montreal at the age of twenty. In 1856, she was assigned to lead five other missionary Sisters of Charity into the vast Pacific Northwest territories of the United States. For forty-six years she labored throughout this rugged region, passing to her eternal rest in 1902. Books should be written about this incredible sister. She founded eleven hospitals, seven academies, five Indian schools, and two orphanages. Not only that, she designed the buildings herself! Yes, she was a self-made architect! — and she was an artist.

When her parents first had taken her to the convent in Canada they introduced her as a potentially valuable asset to the community, a parent’s prerogative you may think. No, they meant those words literally without exaggeration. This is how she was described by her mother to the convent’s superior in Montreal: “I bring you my daughter, Esther, who wishes to dedicate herself to the religious life. She can read, write, figure accurately, sew, cook, spin and do all manner of housework. She can even do carpentering, handling a hammer and saw as well as her father. She can also plan for others and she succeeds in anything she undertakes. I assure you, Madam, she will make a good superior some day.”

While on her mission in the Northwest, she and the sisters would travel around to the mining camps, raising funds for their schools and hospitals, and encouraging the workers (most of whom were Catholic) to practice the holy Faith. A stickler for detail, Mother Joseph often inspected the rafters in the mines, literally bouncing on the planks to determine their support strength. Needless to say, Mother Joseph never returned to her missions without the needed funds and supplies. No one could resist her. In 1953, the American Institute of Architects officially declared her “First Architect of the Pacific Northwest.” No doubt, she had a say in the design of her own “mansion” in heaven.