Letter to campus regarding Columbus murals
January 20, 2019
Feast of Basil Moreau, C.S.C., founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross
Dear Members of the Notre Dame Community,
As we celebrate the feast of Fr. Basil Moreau, C.S.C., founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and as we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Walk the Walk Week at Notre Dame, I write to let you know of a recent decision.
The murals by Luigi Gregori that adorn the ceremonial entrance to Notre Dame’s Main Building depict the life and exploration of Christopher Columbus. Painted in 1882-84, not long after a devastating fire and reconstruction of the Main Building, they reflect the attitudes of the time and were intended as a didactic presentation, responding to cultural challenges for the school’s largely immigrant, Catholic population. In recent years, however, many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’s voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this “new” world and at worst demeaning toward them.
In recent years I have heard from students, alumni, faculty, staff, representatives of the Native American community, and others on this complex topic. I have decided, after consultation with the University’s Board of Fellows, on a course that will preserve the murals, but will not display them regularly in their current location.
Gregori painted the murals directly on to the plaster of the walls, and so any attempt to move them would damage and likely destroy the works. Since the 1990s, a brochure has been provided that explains to viewers the context of the murals’ composition and some of the historical reality of the events depicted. However, because the second-floor hall of the Main Building is a busy throughway for visitors and members of the University community, it is not well suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition. We will, therefore, create a permanent display for high-quality, high-resolution images of the murals in a campus setting to be determined that will be conducive to such an informed and careful consideration. The murals on the walls of the Main Building will themselves be covered by woven material consistent with the décor of the space, though it will be possible to display the murals on occasion. I will establish a committee to decide on the place to display the images of the murals and the appropriate communication around the display. We will begin soon the making of covers for the murals.
The murals present us with several narratives not easily reconciled, and the tensions among them are especially perplexing for us because of Notre Dame’s distinctive history and Catholic mission. At the time they were painted, the murals were not intended to slight indigenous peoples, but to encourage another marginalized group. In the second half of the 19th century, Notre Dame’s Catholic population, largely immigrants or from families of recent immigrants, encountered significant anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant attitudes in American public life. At the same time, Columbus was hailed by Americans generally as an intrepid explorer, the “first American” and the “discoverer of the New World.” 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.
For the native peoples of this “new” land, however, Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe. Whatever else Columbus’s arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions. As Pope John Paul II said in a 1987 meeting with the Native Peoples of the Americas, “the encounter [between native and European cultures] was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your way of life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged.” The murals’ depiction of Columbus as beneficent explorer and friend of the native peoples hides from view the darker side of this story, a side we must acknowledge.
Our goal in making this change is to respect both Gregori’s murals, understood in their historical context, and the reality and experience of Native Americans in the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival. We wish to preserve artistic works originally intended to celebrate immigrant Catholics who were marginalized at the time in society, but do so in a way that avoids unintentionally marginalizing others. The course described above, we believe, honors the University’s heritage, of which we are justly proud, and better respects the heritage of native peoples, who have known great adversity since the arrival of Europeans.
Remembering the legacy of Dr. King and asking in prayer for the intercession of Fr. Moreau, let us renew in our minds and hearts our commitment to respect the dignity of all individuals, their communities, and their cultures, with particular concern for the most vulnerable.
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.