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The Catholics in Statuary Hall


Kathy Schiffer - published on 07/03/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Meet the honored American saint, blessed, servant of God and other prominent men and women who represent their states in the U.S. Capitol Building.

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Washington, D.C. is National Statuary Hall. Also known as the Old Hall of the House, it’s a semicircular gallery immediately south of the Capitol Rotunda. For nearly fifty years—from 1807 through 1857—Statuary Hall served as the meeting place for the House of Representatives. The Hall now houses many of the 100 statues of great Americans (two from each state) which together comprise the National Statuary Hall Collection.

It’s an extraordinary honor for the men and women depicted here to have been chosen by their home state as one of the two most valued people in their state’s history. Many also played a significant role in America’s history and growth, from its founding to the present day. The honorees include statesmen, politicians, humanitarians, judges, government administrators, pioneers and missionaries. They are, in a sense, emblematic of the values that each state has held dear. “This is what we stand for. This is what and whom we’re most proud of.”

It is not surprising, then, that statues of thirteen Catholics have become part of the Collection. Here are their stories.

Father Eusebius Kino, S.J. represents the state of Arizona in Statuary Hall. The Jesuit missionary is revered in the American Southwest as the “founder” of Christianity in that region. An accomplished cartographer and explorer, Father Kino made more than fifty missionary journeys on horseback. He proved in his diaries, maps and charts that Baja was a peninsula. He helped the local tribes by teaching them agricultural and irrigation techniques. Fr. Kino’s cause for canonization was opened in 2006, and he was then given the title Servant of God.

California chose Blessed Junípero Serra to represent the state in Statuary Hall. In the 18th century, Blessed Junípero was an esteemed professor of philosophy at the University of Palma, in Spain, but he longed to serve God as a missionary. For more than twenty years, he labored as a Franciscan missionary on the California coast, personally founding eight of California’s missions. He was devoted to the Native Americans, and he baptized 6,000 of them. He was declared Venerable in 1985, and was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1988. At his beatification, John Paul II said that he “sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the mountainous changes wrought by the arrival of European scholars in the New World. … In fulfilling this ministry, Father Serra showed himself to be a true son of St. Francis.”

Fr. Damien de Veuster, known as the “hero of Molokai,” was selected by Hawaii to represent our newest state. Serving as a priest on the big island of Hawaii, he saw many of his parishioners exiled to the island of Molokai when they contracted Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Deprived of their families and hope, they were left in desperate circumstances. Fr. Damien volunteered to go and minister to the spiritual and temporal needs of the 600 homeless, abandoned men sent to Molokai, knowing that he, too, would never be allowed to leave the island. He cared for each victim of the disease, built their coffins, and saw to their burial in the area called the Garden of the Dead. Father Damien built churches, orphanages, homes and medical clinics. In time, he contracted leprosy, but continued his work until his death in 1885. St. Damien was canonized in October 2009.

General James Shields was a Union general in the Civil War. During his career, he also served as a U.S. Senator and as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court. He once challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel, after Lincoln made some unflattering comments about him. The two reconciled, however, and became lifelong friends.General Shields represents the state of Illinois in Statuary Hall.  

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