The latest incident of ignorance over historical fact comes to us by way of South Bend, Indiana and the University of Notre Dame. The University’s President has announced that a series of murals depicting Christopher Columbus’ life and exploration displayed at the University will be covered up.
The murals, painted by Luigi Gregori from 1882-1884, are located in Notre Dame’s Main Building. Gregori served for a time as artist in residence at the Vatican before becoming a professor and artist in residence at the University. Gregori was commissioned to produce a series of murals of Columbus by Fr. Edward Sorin, the founder and first president of the University of Notre Dame. One of the murals was in fact the model for the first series of commemorative stamps issued by the United States in 1893.
For the Fighting Irish to bow to complaints from representatives of the Native American community shows us that the fighting spirit has changed significantly at the institution. The purpose of a university is to educate and in this case it seems that Notre Dame has done a terrible job at educating the students as to the importance of the actions of Columbus and why his series of voyages have had such a lasting impact on society.
Native American students first called for the murals’ removal in 1995 and the University then put together a brochure to explain the murals’ context. Apparently, the brochure has not been read lately, because a little more than a year ago, in December 2017, University spokesman Dennis Brown said that the murals “are of historic and artistic value and the University has no plans to remove them.”
Notre Dame University President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C wrote in his January address to the University that “Gregori’s murals focused on the popular image of Columbus as an American hero, who was also an immigrant and a devout Catholic. The message to the Notre Dame community was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American.”
Those words still hold true more than a century after the murals were painted, but then the priest went on to write that for natives of the Americas “Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe.”
I argue that attacking Columbus and making him a punching bag is both weak and feeble, especially in the face of the ongoing issues that the Catholic Church has faced with widespread child abuse. These cases continue to emerge and a definitive model of action is still awaited from the Vatican. For all we know, this kind of horrific abuse has been going on for centuries. That is nothing short of a catastrophe.
Fr. Jenkins said that the decision to cover up the murals was made after consulting with the Board of Fellows, a Board which has no Italian Americans as representatives. The Board of Fellows oversees the Board of Trustees, which counts only one Italian American among its numbers. Are we to believe that the achievements of Italian Americans at Notre Dame warrant only one person’s representation among both boards? Such poor representation speaks volumes about how Notre Dame as an institution feels about Italian Americans as it fails to respect our contributions, both in terms of achievements and monetarily. I am therefore calling on the Italian American Alumni to hold back their financial support of the University until Fr. Jenkins reverses his decision regarding the Columbus Murals.
What is also genuinely disturbing is that on other academic fronts, a recognition of the injustice perpetrated on Columbus is recognized for what it is. Carol Delaney, an emerita professor of anthropology at Stanford University and author of “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” wrote that the current narrative around Columbus is tarred by bad history. “They are blaming Columbus for the things he did not do. It was those who came after – the settlers, that initiated the problems,” Delaney said. “He’s been terribly maligned.”
Professor Delaney wrote that Columbus initially had a favorable impression of many of the Native Americans he met and instructed the men under his command not to abuse them but to trade with them; he also punished some of his own men who committed crimes against the natives.
Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical marking the Columbian quadricentennial in 1892, reflecting on Columbus’ desire to spread the faith. In Quarto abeunte saeculo, the Pope wrote that Columbus “resolved to go before and prepare the ways for the Gospel” by his exploration. The Pope wrote, “When Columbus learned from the lessons of astronomy and the record of the ancients that there were great tracts of land lying towards the West…he saw in spirit a mighty multitude, cloaked in miserable darkness, given over to evil rites and the superstitious worship of vain gods. Miserable it is to live in a barbarous state and with savage manners: but more miserable to lack the knowledge of that which is highest and to dwell in ignorance of the one true God. Considering these things, therefore, in his mind, he sought first of all to extend the Christian name and the benefits of Christian charity to the West.”
Jenkins claimed that the goal of covering up the murals is to respect “the reality and experience of Native Americans in the aftermath of Columbus’ arrival.”
One could infer from his statements that the University President is acknowledging that Columbus is a scapegoat for every negative action affecting Native Americans that came after him. The University of Notre Dame describes itself as inspired by its Catholic character to be a powerful force for good in the world. In this instance, it is a classic example of pandering, rather than educating. Perhaps Fr. Jenkins and the Board of Fellows at Notre Dame University should have done a bit more research. They would have found that the attacks on Columbus were created in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan as part of a targeted assault on Italians, Catholics and the (Catholic charitable group) Knights of Columbus.
Columbus had a vision that a new trade route could be developed to the Far East. This was not a thought that struck him one day. It was an idea that developed over years. In the face of denials by some, ignorance by many and the fear of failure by potential financiers, he persevered. We are all aware of many of the aspects of his journey, after all, his is one of the great stories in all of mankind’s recorded works. His is perhaps the most celebrated error that has ever taken place; an error in calculation that led to the biggest boom in civilization. Without working with precision instruments, Columbus miscalculated the circumference of the globe, his plan of traveling west to reach the east made landfall onto one of the Earth’s great landmasses.
We say “Columbus discovered America” and do so with pride. Out of the woodwork then come the literalists, who chime in with Leif Ericson and his travels to the northern coast of North America. The apologists that claim Columbus destroyed the native culture that existed on the continents before his arrival. These dismissals of what Columbus accomplished are idiotic. Columbus discovered the “New World.” When we say this, it is understood to mean that he was the individual that created a bridge between the European world and the new continents. Europe was breaking out of the ‘dark ages’ and entering the age of enlightenment. It was Columbus who introduced the new continent to Europe, which was soon to be explored and settled.
Columbus is and will always be a hugely important historical figure because of his courage and his conviction. He went against the popular consensus and worked to fulfill his dream of exploration. His achievement is remarkable and will always be remarkable. His discovery of the “New World” has brought about changes that have impacted every culture on the planet. Those who denigrate Columbus completely miss the point. There is no question that some of the changes are controversial. Change will always create degrees of disagreement, but for the University of Notre Dame to cover up the artwork is weak and sends a message to the student body, alumni and potential students that controversy can outweigh the facts and sometimes it is better to just go along with the crowd.
This is not what the Catholic Church was founded upon, nor was this the foundation that this country was built upon. We honor Columbus’ accomplishment for the doors that it opened and as we consider everything that has occurred, based on his discovery, the balance unquestionably falls to his favor. For those individuals who choose to denigrate the explorer – I ask, what have YOU done to place you in a position to pass judgment on one of the greatest feats of exploration known to man? Should we begin to scrutinize, many hundreds of years later, the accomplishments of every explorer and historical world figure? The actions at Notre Dame are a direct affront to the Italian Americans. It cannot be looked at it any other way. I believe it is time to hit back where it hurts the University – in its wallet. Columbus’ accomplishment speaks for itself and historically, not only has stood the test of time, but will ALWAYS stand the test of time. If they consider themselves to truly be the “Fighting Irish,” then we should give them something to fight about!