The Catholic University of America

April 18, 2012

Walking Back in Time

  Steve Hay photo
  Maria Mazzenga tells her tour group about the manor house built in 1803 that once stood on this grassy hill. 

During Catholic University’s 125th anniversary Founders Week celebration, historical walking tours of the University were a highlight. The tour, offered four times, was specially prepared for faculty, staff, and students by Maria Mazzenga, education archivist for the University.

Mazzenga who received her doctorate in history at CUA in 2000, led each tour beginning in McMahon Hall near the large marble statue of Pope Leo XIII. The statue was given to the school in 1891 as a gift of Joseph Loubat and was created by Giuseppe Luchetti in 1890.

She told each group that Pope Leo, who served from 1878 to 1903, was very interested in higher education. He served as the official founder of The Catholic University of America 125 years ago.

On Friday, April 13, as she began her 10 a.m. tour, Mazzenga shared a story with the group about a Sunday morning in 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt was out for a horseback ride and came upon CUA students. He asked them about the statue of Pope Leo. They took him to see the impressive statue and he stayed for a chat with the students.

McMahon Hall, she told the group, was constructed in 1892 and is named after Monsignor James McMahon, who donated the funds in 1891 to build what is now an iconic image of the University.

“The opening of McMahon, which was then called the McMahon Hall of Philosophy, marked the move of the school into full university status. Previously, it had been a divinity school,” said Mazzenga.

She led the group outside to the space between McMahon Hall and the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center. She told the group that on this grassy hill, a manor house was built in 1803 by Samuel Harrison Smith, who lived there with his wife, Margaret Bayard Smith. The house would later become part of the Middleton estate, which was subsequently purchased by the bishops for the University.

As the group stood on the hill looking down at the bustling University center, several tours of prospective students and their parents passed by. April 13 was also CUA’s Odyssey Day, when the University welcomes accepted students and their families and orients them to the campus and classrooms.

Mazzenga acknowledged that it might be difficult to imagine what this land might have looked like more than 200 years ago. To help them visualize, she read from a letter Margaret Bayard Smith wrote to her sister-in-law, in which she described the property as:

“…a good house on the top of a high hill, with high hills all around it, embower’d in woods, thro’ an opening of which the Potomack, its shores and Mason’s Island are distinctly seen. I have never been more charmingly surprised than on seeing this retreat.”

Many notable Washingtonians visited the Smiths in the house on the hill, including Thomas Jefferson and James and Dolly Madison.

The group moved to the far north end of campus, to the edge of the woods behind Marist Hall. Mazzenga asked the group to “feel the air and space up here.” This was the site of Fort Slemmer, a Civil War Fort, she said.

“Like other forts in Washington, D.C., it was built to defend the capital from Confederate soldiers in Virginia and Maryland. The Union forces cleared the trees off the hill and surrounding area and from the top of the hill, they could literally see to the Potomac, which would give them first sight of the enemy.”

Linda Todd, a life sciences librarian at the University, said that she was surprised that the river was visible from this location. Others nodded in agreement. “It is hard to imagine,” said Mazzenga. “Yesterday on the tour, a student told me he can see the river from the top floor of Caldwell Hall. I’m going to have to check that out for myself.”

Todd also noted that she was unaware of “the fascinating pre-history of the University. It’s amazing to think there is Civil War history on our campus.”

Sara Sepanski, a graduate architecture and planning student, asked if the site of the fort had ever been excavated. Mazzenga said that with the help of CUA’s anthropology department there have been several digs, which uncovered bullets and earthenware.

On the way down the hill, the group passed what Mazzenga called a “rather forlorn-looking stump that was once the locus of an astronomical observatory built in 1890.”

They headed to Caldwell Hall. “Feel the presence of this massive building,” said Mazzenga.
“On May 24, 1888, the cornerstone was laid for this building, which at the time would be called Divinity Hall. It was pouring rain that day and President Grover Cleveland, Cardinal James Gibbons, and Bishop Lancaster Spalding were present,” she said.

It was pouring rain again in November 1889 on the day that Divinity Hall was completed, officially opening the University, this time with President Benjamin Harrison present.

Masses in Caldwell Chapel were crowded, and the need for a new University church became a mission of Thomas Shahan, who served as University rector from 1909 to 1928.

As the group headed to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Mazzenga told them that Cardinal Gibbons blessed the foundation stone of the Shrine on Sept. 23, 1920, with more than 10,000 people gathered. The lower-level Crypt Church opened in 1924 and it would be 30 years before work on the Great Upper Church would begin. In the late 1940s control of the Shrine passed from Catholic University to the American bishops.

Some on the tour mentioned that it would be hard to imagine the campus without the upper church, which holds 6,000 people, and its tower that rises 320 feet high. It was the Great Depression and the Second World War that delayed construction until 1953 when the bishops renewed funding efforts, said Mazzenga.

Sepanski said she remembers her parents telling her about the collections at weekly Mass in the 1950s to raise money for construction of the Great Upper Church.

After a visit to Memorial Hall on the lower level of the Basilica, the group crossed the University mall and headed to the John K. Mullen of Denver Memorial Library, which opened in 1928, and where the tour ended. Along the way, Mazzenga urged the tour members to take in the beauty of the campus. She finished the tour by reminding them none of this would exist without “the students, faculty, and staff who are the lifeblood of the University.”



More 125th Anniversary News