June 23, 2017 – What is believed to be a 17th-century iron cross, owned by Georgetown and used by Pope Francis in his first United States Mass two years ago, will become part of a one-year Smithsonian exhibition on “Religion in Early America” beginning next week.
Historians believe the cross came over to Maryland from England with the first settlers in 1634.
Rev. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., a German department professor rediscovered it at Georgetown in 1989.
Since it was rediscovered, the hammer-welded cross made from ship’s iron has hung in the university’s Dahlgren Chapel, except during a short renovation project funded through philanthropy in 2012.
Exhibit specialists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History created a replica of the cross that will hang in the chapel until the exhibit is over.
“It's exciting to hold something in your hands from the time of the origins of the university as a small rectory school,” Murphy says. “It's even more exciting to see the cross's importance acknowledged by the Smithsonian.”
The Georgetown professor says the exhibition’s insurers believe the spike on the bottom of the cross may be a nail from either the Ark or the Dove, the ships that made the first expedition from England to what was then the Province of Maryland.
The four-foot high cross’ vertical inscription reads, "This cross is said to have been brought by the first settlers from England to St. Mary's.” The horizontal Latin inscription states Ad perpetuam rei memoriam, or “For the eternal memory of this event.”
The vertical inscription reads, "This cross is said to have been brought by the first settlers from England to St. Mary's.”
The Pope’s Mass
The pope used the 24-pound cross on Sept. 23, 2015, to celebrate Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The event represented “five firsts,” the first Jesuit pope making his first trip to the United States using the first cross used at the first Catholic school in America, which later hung in a chapel at the first Catholic university.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History first religion history exhibition, which begins June 28, looks at the themes of religious diversity, freedom and growth from the colonial era through the 1840s.
Georgetown’s iron cross will be on display along with George Washington’s christening robe from 1732, Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth and an 800-pound bronze bell made in Boston in 1802 for a Unitarian church in Maine.
Other religious objects on loan from museums, institutions and individuals in the exhibit include a Torah scroll on loan from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, founded in 1654; a 19th-century Arabic manuscript written by a Muslim enslaved in Georgia from the University of Georgia library; and a handwritten page from the Book of Mormon manuscript.
“Georgetown’s iron cross is an evocative highlight of Religion in Early America,” says Peter Manseau (G’13), Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History. “It movingly captures the commitment of the first Catholics in the thirteen colonies to make a new home for their faith from the materials they had at hand.”
Manseau received his doctorate in religion from Georgetown in 2013.
“The museum is grateful to university faculty, administration and campus ministry staff for the opportunity to include this fascinating story in the exhibit,” he says.