George Washington’s Conversion to Catholicism
By Ben Emerson
George Washington, the first president of the United States, served from 1789 to 1797 in that capacity. A popular slogan concerning him was that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
On December 13, 1799, Washington (aged 67 years) was exposed to a storm of sleet and developed a cold. He rested in bed at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
On the morning of the 14th at 3:00, he had a severe attack of membranous croup. At daybreak, Mrs. Washington sent for the only physician, Dr. Craik. Two other physicians also came, but all three together could not save him. Washington died between 10:00 and 11:00 that night.
About four hours before Washington’s death, Father Leonard Neale, a Jesuit priest was called to Mount Vernon from St. Mary’s Mission across the Piscataway River. Washington had been an Episcopalian, but was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church that night. After Washington’s death, a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of St. John were found among the effects on an inventory of articles at his home
George Washington had an interest in Roman Catholicism for many years. His servant Juba stated that the General made the Sign of the Cross before meals. He may have learned this practice from his Catholic lieutenants, John Fitzgerald or Stephen Moylan. At Valley Forge, Washington had forbidden during “Pope’s Day,” the burning in effigy of the Roman Pontiff. As President, Washington slipped into a Catholic Church several times to attend Sunday Mass.
Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) praised George Washington highly in an encyclical Longinque Oceani of January 6, 1893, to the bishops of America: “We highly esteem and love exceedingly the young and vigorous American nation, in which we plainly discern latent forces for the advancement alike of civilization and of Christianity. . . Without morality the State cannot endure – a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom we have just mentioned [‘the great Washington’] with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. . . Thanks are due to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and customs of the well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and the government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance.” Washington was a student of the writings on political philosophy of St. Robert Bellarnine and St. Thomas Aquinas. George Washington, James Madison, and some of the other Founding Fathers incorporated into the Constitution in 1787 some of these two saints’ ideas about how to set up a Republic.
In a like manner, Thomas Jefferson had studied these saints and incorporated some of their concepts into the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
A question, therefore, the reader can pose to
friends is as follows: Who was the first man who
served as U.S. President, who was at the time of his
death a Roman Catholic? Most people will say John F.
Kennedy, but the correct answer is George
Washington, the Father of our Country.