Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

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The Bishop and The Heiress

March 4th, 2014 · 7 Comments

As a harmless amusement, to distract my thoughts from the perennially depressing revelations about sexual abuse and corruption in the Church, I took up working out the genealogy of my family. Some pleasant surprises on my side: a staunch Confederate, and a soldier who was on the muster rolls at Valley Forge. Also indirect relationship, but real and traceable, to Lady Beatrice Weasel, King Alfred, and best of all, Lady Godiva.

My wife’s family had some very successful industrialists, such as the great-grandfather who invented the open hearth process for making steel and built blast furnaces all over the world, naming many of them (to the puzzlement of historians) after his daughter Lucy, a woman of forceful personality. Others were classic American stories: from ticket agent to president of the New York Central Railroad, from cabin boy to owner of a steamship line. Another ancestor was James Caldwell, an English actor who came to the United States in the early nineteenth century. He played Romeo in the theater in Fredericksburg, Virginia; during the death scene the widow Wormeley sighed and fainted. One thing led to another, and over the opposition of all her relatives, she married him, producing a son, William Shakespeare Caldwell. Having dipped his toe into the gene pool of the First Families of Virginia, James Caldwell returned to the theater in New Orleans where awaited his mistress, a Jewish actress by the name of Margaret Abrams. My wife (to the consternation of her mother) is descended from that activity on the wrong side of the sheets. So far, so good. Hot stuff. Caldwell made a fortune lighting first his theater and then the cities of New Orleans, Mobile, Memphis, and Cincinnati with gas.

Shake Caldwell (as William Shakespeare was known), went to the University of Virginia, and married another FFV maiden, producing two daughters, Mary Gwendolin and Mary Eliza (these are my wife’s first cousins, three times removed). The Caldwells, I gather, may have been from a Catholic (if somewhat sexually irregular) background, because he and his wife prayed to Mary for children, which is why they were both named Mary. The mother died; the father, although he had already established the Little Sisters of the Poor in Richmond, postponed becoming a Catholic until just before his death, when he was baptized. He left the daughters in the care of Irish Catholics he had met in New York. They turned over the care of the daughters to the thirty-two-year-old Father John Spalding, nephew of Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore. Mary Gwendolin was eleven and Mary Eliza nine. John Spalding was chaplain at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, and took over their education, travelling with Mary Gwendolin to such an extent that it caused gossip. He became trustee of their estate.

John Lancaster Spalding  (1840-1916)

Mary Gwendolin Caldwell, Marquise des Monstiers-Mérinville

At the age of twenty-one, Mary Gwendolin, under the guidance of now-Bishop Spalding of Peoria, purchased the land in Washington D. C. for the Catholic University of America and gave money for the erection of Caldwell Hall. She was honored by Pope Leo XIII for her generosity and received the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame in 1899. Mary Gwendolin’s wealth attracted the attention of Joachim Napoleon Murat, the heavily-indebted grandson of the King of Naples; he wanted half her wealth as her dowry, so he could pay off his gambling debts. She said no dice. Instead she married a French marquis, Bishop Spalding presiding. It did not work out; they separated, and she pensioned the Marquise off so he wouldn’t divorce her, which would cause her to lose her title, Marchioness des Monstiers-Mérinville.

Caldwell Hall, Catholic University

Her sister Mary Eliza gave the money for Caldwell chapel. In it, with Bishop Spalding presiding, she married a German baron who was killed when Kaiser William’s yacht ran into his yacht during a regatta, leaving her the Baroness von Zedtwitz, with a four-month-old boy who became the bridge champion of the world. Spalding became the boy’s guardian.

Mary Gwendolin then became ill, and in 1901 revealed a dark secret to her sister: that she had been sexually involved with Spalding for twenty years, that is, it started she was nineteen. There were scenes. He was up to be made Archbishop of Chicago, but the Vatican investigated and instead made him retire at age sixty-eight. In 1904 both sisters publicly renounced Catholicism, although not directly accusing Spalding. Privately Mary Elizabeth called Spalding “a whited sepulcher,” “a liar,” a “sensual hypocrite,” of “a private life of iniquity and license” and “a very atheist and infidel.” She offered to come to Rome with witnesses to testify against Spalding, whom she had known “intimately” (her emphasis). Both sisters were denounced by Catholics as sick, crazy, spoiled rich girls who threw tantrums and made wild accusations when life didn’t turn out the way they wanted.

In her own defense, Mary Elizabeth, under her title of Baroness von Zedtwitz, wrote a short book, The Double Doctrine of the Church of Rome. She condemned the Jesuits, the doctrine of probabilism, equivocation, and the sexual failings of a supposedly celibate clergy.

In the 1950s, while he was writing a dissertation under the guidance of the John Tracy Ellis, the Franciscan priest David Sweeney discovered these allegations about John Spalding. Ellis did not believe the allegations, so they were simply suppressed, and the dissertation became the standard biography, The Life of John Lancaster Spalding. Andrew Greeley later claimed Sweeney and Ellis suppressed incriminating evidence.  C. Walker Gollar, the great great nephew of Bishop John Spalding, in 1995 published an article in the Catholic Historical Review, “The Double Doctrine of the Caldwell Sisters,” defending Spalding, implying that illness and disappointment had driven the sisters mad. Poor Spaulding had his career ruined, absolutely ruined by these crazy, hysterical women – mere women. Gollar in a later article examined Ellis’s decision to suppress what Gollar thinks are false charges against Spalding.


· Neither the interviews the sisters gave nor the book (available online) sound irrational.

· It is hard to explain their bitterness unless something terrible had happened to them or they had discovered something terrible. The sisters were not naïve; they were women of the world, and would not have been scandalized by rumors that a priest in a Roman suburb might have a mistress. Mary Gwendolin could not have publicly accused Spalding, without also ruining herself.

· When Mary Elizabeth threatened to make the abuse public if Spalding were appointed archbishop of Chicago, Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco wrote to Denis O’Connell, the Rector of the Catholic University: “You must advise the B[aroness] for the sake of her family and especially for the sake of her child to say no more about it to anyone. He [Spalding] has no chance for the promotion.”

· Archbishop Riordan looked into the charges and wrote to Rome “I had hoped he was innocent but I am now satisfied he is guilty.” Riordan later changed his mind for unspecified reasons.

· Bishop Frederick C. Rooker of the Philippines in 1904 wrote a letter in which he called Spalding “a brazen villain.”

· Enough officials in the Vatican believed the charges to block Spalding’s promotion. This at least shows that Spalding’s behavior was not considered either common or acceptable. But the hierarchy’s sole concern was to prevent scandal, which they interpreted to mean damage to the reputation of the clergy. They showed no concern for the tragedies and possible betrayal the Caldwell sisters had experienced.

· The tendency of historians and journalists and church officials to protect powerful men at the expense of the women they have injured also fits a general pattern.

· Spalding’s defenders (mostly the Spalding family) claim that Mary Gwendolin was mad at him because she wanted an annulment and he wouldn’t arrange it; but she had pensioned off the Marquis so he wouldn’t divorce her.

· Spalding lied about never being a trustee but documents show he was appointed by the court.

· Even if the sexual relationship began when Mary Gwendolin was an adult, it was abusive, adulterous, and quasi-incestuous, as Spalding functioned as her guardian and father. It was not an “affair,” as some historians have called it. Moreover, abuse victims usually cannot admit the worst, so the abuse may well have started when she was a child.

· The relationship of Mary Gwendolin and Spalding fits the classic pattern of Stockholm syndrome. The perpetrator keeps the victim psychologically off-balance by sudden changes from kindness to abuse. The victim feels that the only hope for safety is pleasing the perpetrator. If the victim is fortunate, she or he may suddenly snap out of the trance and realize that she or he has been induced to live in fantasy-nightmare world that the perpetrator has created.

If the allegations of the sisters are true, and the great preponderance of the evidence points in that direction, the Catholic University of America was founded by Spalding, who was, according to the sisters, a sexual abuser and an atheist, with the money of the woman he had abused.

Mary Gwendolin died at forty-five and Mary Elizabeth at forty-four. The Caldwell sisters were buried in a secular cemetery, not in their father’s grave in the Catholic cemetery in Louisville. On their monument stands the inscription: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Tags: Celibacy · clergy sex abuse scandal

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Janice Fox // Mar 5, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I am glad to hear that you are feeling better and are able to use the computer again.

    First of all, I am also descended from Lady Godiva. If my husband is elected to political office and tries to raise taxes, I worry about what I might need to do.

    That is quite a story about the origins of Caldwell Hall. I attended two services there in the 1970s: a wedding and a special classical music Mass sung by a wonderful choir. When there I thought of all the holiness that had gone into its construction.

    Well, churches are hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints. We just did not realize how sinful the clerical caste was in those days. There is no room in any church for a “holier than thou” attitude on the part of the members.

    The actions of the two sisters are laudable. They told the truth when it was not popular to do so. Their monument is beautiful. When I am next in Louisville, I will put it on my list of places to visit.

  • 2 Anonymous // Mar 5, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Oh My. What a story. And to think you found it on your R&R from clergy sex abuse. There is an opera in this find.


  • 3 ginger // Mar 5, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Really makes you wonder about all the other stories that just never saw the light of day. These sisters were only able to make a few waves because of their wealth.

    Their poor deluded father to entrust his two daughters–and their enormous inheritance–at such tender ages to a 32 yr old priest. Those were different days, I guess, but one would still think a man of the world might find such an arrangement a bit odd.

    Today’s world has its share of problems, but I am really glad we live in an age in which victims at least have a chance of being believed–and in which nobody in their right mind would trust the human element of the Church to protect their children.

    The monument is beautiful, and the inscription a powerful indictment. I hope those two found peace at last.

  • 4 CM // Mar 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Pope Francis was visited by George Weigel last week, so it is no surpise that his statements yesterday on the abuse crisis mimick Weigel’s ideological views of the crisis: holiness is what was lacking; abuse is greater among the laity; we are getting blamed unjustly for a common problem; Benedict was at the forefront of the reform.
    You, Leon, and so many other reformers have rebutted these false notions with hard facts, which continue to get pushed under the tide of high rhetoric.
    Yes, there are slightly more pedophiles among laity than priests but pederasty (abuse of adolescent boys) by priests, which is the main problem, has been at a rate Sipe proved to be between 9% and up to 40% in some urban settings.

    Sadly, Pope Benedict only acted under pressure, and after years of knowing the truth, and allowing, for example, Maciel to continue to abuse. I believe his brave stepping aside was in recognition of his failure and the moral impossibility of his leading any reform. It is example all must follow who betrayed children. It will be Francis’ fate if he does not act decisively.

    Yes, holiness was lacking. But the kind of “holiness” which insists on couping men up together for years in seminary, without possibility of marriage, leads to situational homophilia with lifelong tendencies to be attracted to boys, if ex-Legionnaires’ accounts can be believed.

    The Church has not been singled out. With over 4,000 creditable accused pederast priests in the US alone, the enormity of the diabolical infestation is almost unimaginable. In addition, known pederast cardinals and bishops remain in power, and are well known by the pope. His failure to remove them is aiding and abetting their continued abuse of children. If he thinks telling them to stop is sufficient, he should consult his chief demonologists.

    The Pope struggles to appoint his abuse commission because, I believe, he realizes the clerical experts who now claim to be architects of reform were themselves minions in the original cover-up.

    The crisis is far from over. Sick priests are still permitted to remain priests under insufficent supervision. Child protection measures being foisted on bishops conferences worldwide are a smoke screen to avoid addressing this horror.

    True experts need to be consulted if the pope has any chance of coming out of the brainwashing that has deeply affected Church leadership on the topic. Leaders such as you, Leon, and Richard Sipe, and Jason Barry. The Pope should hold a private summit with reformer experts to educate himself first, including the real anatomy of the ring of abusers and abettors that exists under his nose, and continue to advise him.

    Most importantly, he must establish a truth and justice commission, trying in court any bishop who moved priests around and through whose actions children continued and continue to be molested.

    The Pope bemoans the lack of generative bishops. No honest priest will step forward to be bishop to support the continued practices they know will burden them with living a lie. There is no generativity possible without placing the protection of children before everything else. If that means most of the bishops in the Church must step down, then so be it. God will raise up 7000 more. The Church was reduced to a handful of clerics during times of heresy. This is the heresies of gnosticism, Jansenism and angelism writ large. Cleansing the house of the Lord must be complete now, or the enemies of the Church will do it later with violence. I believe the persecution of Christians has so increased because of contempt issuing from a crisis clearly not addressed.

    The Pope must learn what he does not know. If not, his papacy will be for naught.

    But, if the Pope continues to listen to men like Weigel, whom I personally heard laugh at the notion that people were so angry at the cover-up, then the Pope himself is paving the way for more persecution of the Church.

  • 5 TheAltonRoute // Mar 7, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    I heard of these rumors about Spalding a while ago. He was the first bishop of my home diocese, the Diocese of Peoria. Spalding solemnly dedicated our church and the nearby Irish church attended by many of my ancestors. The Irish parish named its parish hall the “Spalding Lyceum.” The Spalding name is everywhere in the Diocese of Peoria.

    Look into Cardinal O’Connell of Boston. He was also rumored to be an athiest and an abuser.

  • 6 Mary Ann // Mar 8, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    God rest those poor women. Just to be clear, their father did not give them to Spalding. He gave them to an Irish Catholic family. I bet Spalding induced that family to give them to him. He wanted the money. And, yes, Leon, I do believe that John Spalding abused her earlier than 19 - why on earth in that era would a priest travel with a teenager?

  • 7 Mary // Mar 21, 2014 at 11:32 am

    There is more truth than recognized in that old adage that “Money is the root of all evil”

    Think INTEGER GROUP when wondering why the LC Superiors who knew about Maciel’s double life remain in authority.Think Money when you look at the expertise of Cardinal DePaolis who was appointed by Benedict to investigate the ex Legion and ex Regnum Christi complaints.
    “De Paolis was later named President of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See by Pope Benedict XVI on 12 April 2008″

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