Goodbye, Columbus aka Custer, Jackson, et al.
We have earlier marked the irony of Father Jenkins’s deciding to cover the Christopher Columbus murals in the Main Building while refusing to cover, as it were, the torrent of porn the University funnels to students 24/7. Because the subject arose repeatedly during the recent Alumni Weekend, we expand upon our prior analysis. The indignation among alumni appears deep and widespread.
And rightly so. Father Jenkins’s decision not only deposes a treasured artifact that links today’s Notre Dame to its founder, Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and celebrates the introduction of Christianity to the New World, but does so for a terminally frivolous reason.
On a visit to Rome in 1874, Father Sorin persuaded Luigi Gregori, a Vatican artist-in-resident, to come to Notre Dame to grace the young school with his talents. “Gregori stayed 17 years, filling the campus with classic artwork still admired today.”
While he was working on Sacred Heart Church, the calamitous fire that destroyed the Main Building struck. With characteristic drive and determination, Father Sorin swiftly raised the money to rebuild, and Gregori turned his attention to the hallway in the new Main Building.
Gregori and Sorin decided upon murals celebrating the life of Christopher Columbus, a national hero prized especially by Catholics in the midst of the virulent anti-Catholicism of the time. Gregori created 12 murals depicting Columbus’s life, e.g., his commission by Queen Isabella, his voyages, his sighting of America, his planting the Cross to claim the New World for Christ, and his death.
Several of them portray Columbus in a gathering including Native Americans. Amity reigns throughout.
What could be wrong with this? Plenty, according to Father Jenkins.
Nothing personal about Columbus, to be sure. Father Jenkins insisted in a television interview that concealing the murals was “not a criticism of Christopher Columbus,” whom he praised as a “a great explorer” and “devout Catholic.”
But he discovered America, and there’s the rub. “For the native peoples of this ‘new’ land,” Father declared , “Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe.”
Whatever else Columbus’s arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions.
Because the murals “hide from view the darker side of this story,” Father Jenkins explained, they have to be shrouded from view by people who don’t know the “full story” – not about Columbus, but about what countless others did to Native Americans over later centuries.
This saddling Columbus for what he didn’t do is so balmy it’s hard to believe Father Jenkins actually means it. That Native American activists have turned Columbus into a symbol of oppression – changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Americans Day and the like – is no reason for Notre Dame to honor a fiction as if it were a fact.
It was painful to watch Father Jenkins’s version of “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes” on national TV. He opened by “taking issue” with Martha MacCallum’s entirely accurate introductory explanation that the murals would be “preserved but covered up. ” Rather, to McCallum’s obvious bafflement, he insisted
We’re not concealing anything. We’re not erasing anything. These images will be on display continuously. They won’t be on display in the main thoroughfare but in a place where the full story, the full story can be revealed.
As to that, Father Jenkins has charged a faculty committee with deciding how the “full story” is to be told alongside “high resolution” photos of the murals – an unenviable task. Imagine an exhibit (mis)titled “The Full Story of Christopher Columbus’s Discovery of America” followed by a clutch of stories about unjust treaties, Custer’s cruelties, Jackson’s “Trail of Tears,” and the like.
And note in the interview Father’s misdirected invocation of his Irish ancestors, who would be offended by a memorial to “the contributions of English society. ” But the murals are not on an Indian reservation but at the country’s premier Catholic university. Covering them is the equivalent of covering Lord Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square.
More, if Columbus is to be tasked with the depredations of others, he should be also be credited with their benefactions. As to that, St. John Paul II’s address to Native Americans that Fr. Jenkins cited in support of his decision is especially apt. Immediately following the brief passage Father quoted about “injustices” to Native Americans is a much longer one about the “full story,” if you will, that, unsurprisingly, Father did not mention.
At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects of your people’s encounter with the culture that came from Europe. Among these positive aspects I wish to recall the work of the many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land. They established missions throughout this southwestern part of the United States. They worked to improve living conditions and set up educational systems, learning your languages in order to do so. Above all, they proclaimed the Good News of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, an essential part of which is that all men and women are equally children of God and must be respected and loved as such. This Gospel of Jesus Christ is today, and will remain forever, the greatest pride and possession of your people. (Italics in original).
The Pope followed this with a warning against “dwell[ing] excessively on mistakes and wrong” and a reminder about “those who came to this land, faithful to the teachings of Jesus, witnesses of his new commandment of love.” These men and women, he declared, “with good hearts and good minds, shared knowledge and skills from their own cultures and shared their most precious heritage, the faith, as well.”
But of course none of this will be displayed. We will, again, inevitably not get the “full story,” The quest is chimerical. It is spawned by Father Jenkins’s novel notion that historical paintings ought tell the “full story.”
At Notre Dame, the Native American Student Association spearheaded the campaign against the murals, and they were supported by the Student Government officers. The student chapter of Young Americans for Freedom led the opposition. Its petition (still open) drew over 2,400 signatures – 340 students and others had joined a petition against the murals — and the talk it sponsored by conservative commentator Michael Knowles drew a large and enthusiastic audience.
Outside Notre Dame, Father Jenkins’s decision was widely publicized in print, on the Internet, and on television.
And widely derided. See, e.g., here and here and here and here and here and here and here and especially here and here (former Rover executive editor and Sycamore Trust awardee).
One of the most discerning critics (a ND parent) pointed to the absurd consequences that would attend treating other works of art as Fr. Jenkins treats Gregori’s. He notes, for example, that in the rotunda of the United States Capitol visitors gaze at “The Landing of Columbus,” “The Baptism of Pocahontas,” and “The Discovery of the Mississippi” by de Soto.
Alas, not a one of them tells the “full story.”Let Father Jenkins know what you think by joining the student YAF chapter petition here http://tinyurl.com/y6swcq4t and emailing Father at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if that address has been disabled, at email@example.com.
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