Slaves Held Washington Became a Catholic on His Deathbed

The following two pieces appeared in the Denver Register in the 1950s:

From the Denver Register, February 24, 1957


New York- It was a long tradition among both the Maryland Province Jesuit Fathers and the Negro slaves of the Washington plantation and those of the surrounding area that the first President died a Catholic. These and other facts about George Washington are reported in the Paulist INFORMATION magazine by Doran Hurley.

The story is that Father Leonard Neale, S.J, was called to Mount Vernon from St. Mary‘s Mission across the Piscatawney River four hours before Washington‘s death. Tradition also holds that shortly after Washington‘s death Father Neale sent a heavily sealed packet to Rome. If this be true, it may yet turn up in the Vatican archives, or it may have been lost during the Jesuits’ hidden years.

Washington’s body servant Juba is authority for the fact that the General made the Sign of the Cross at meals. He may have learned this from his Catholic lieutenants, Stephen Moylan or John Fitzgerald. At Valley Forge, Washington forbade the burning in effigy of the Pontiff on “Pope’s Day.” Several times as President he is reported to have slipped into a Catholic church to hear Sunday Mass.

From The Denver Register, May 11, 1952


Washington (Special)-A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of St. John were among the effects found in an inventory of the articles at Mount Vernon at the death of George Washington, first president of the U.S.A. The Rev. W C. Re­petti, S.J., archivist at Georgetown University, reports he has discov­ered this information in an appendix to a biography of Washington.

The book is a LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Edward Everett, published by Sheldon & Co. in New York in 1860. Appendix No. 2, pages 286-7, lists an official “inventory of articles at Mt. Vernon with ap­praised values annexed. Taken by sworn appraisers after the decease of General Washington,” the list includes:

1 Likeness of St. John 15.00
1 Likeness of Virgin Mary 15.00

“The fact that he had a picture of the Blessed Virgin is rather unex­pected, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not been brought out,” says Father Repetti.

The long report among slaves of Mount Vernon as to Washington‘s deathbed conversion would be odd unless based on truth. These were not Catholic Negroes; it is part of the tradition that weeping and wail­ing occurred in the quarters that Massa Washington had been snared by the Scarlet Woman of Rome, whom they had been taught to fear and hate. Supposedly, Father Neale was rowed across the Piscatawney by Negro oarsmen,’ and men often talked freely when slaves were nearby, confidently ignoring their presence.