The Corner

The Politics of Personal Destruction, 1890s-Style

One of the best things about attending the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., is having on your own campus one of the greatest college chapels in the world: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (It is, in fact, the largest Catholic church in the U.S.) Another is the existence, right down the street, of Trinity College, a sweeter, mellower, and aesthetically more pleasing academic enclave. In the new issue of The Washington Monthly is a fascinating story about the origins and subsequent influence of Trinity. One part leaped out at me:

Soon the fledgling project was surrounded by rumor and innuendo. Joseph Schroeder, a professor of dogmatic theology at Catholic, relayed his objections to allies in the Vatican and began publishing broadsides in conservative newspapers. “We cannot discern any advantage gained by this newfangled rise of the New Woman,” he wrote. Fending off the anti-Trinity campaign fell to Euphrasia, a tireless networker, promoter, and fund-raiser who might have been a star in the university development world had she lived in a different time.

The face-off was dubbed by some the “War of 1897.” Catholic newspapers up and down the East Coast ran stories about the controversy. “The project of a University for the weaker sex,” said one pointed inquiry from Rome, “has made a disagreeable impression here.” Finally Sister Euphrasia determined to speak with the archbishop himself, who had fled the stifling summer heat for Atlantic City. . . . The archbishop was impressed by their case and their determination, and his support helped tip the battle in Trinity’s favor. (It didn’t hurt that the college’s supporters began pointing to their opponent Schroeder’s weakness for all-night sojourns in disreputable saloons.) By December the war had subsided. Trinity College enrolled its first students on November 3, 1900. [Emphasis added.]

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a wonderful thing that the proponents of Trinity College succeeded in founding their school (though not, as the Washington Monthly article implies, because its alumnae Nancy Pelosi and Kathy Sebelius gave America the gift of Obamacare). It’s just that I think that any “origin story” — whether in history or in mythology — that gives part of the credit for the victory to the fact that our side described our opponent as a boozehound . . . well, that story is much less romantic than an origin story ought to be. (Also, the fact that someone on the CUA campus drank a little more than was good for him would come as a surprise to no one remotely aware of the circumstances on the ground. Many years before Kathryn Lopez, Maureen Dowd, or I went there, a certain Ed McMahon ’49 was a star in the Drama Department.)

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