Sitting in a curule chair reminiscent of ancient Rome, the sculpted figure of James Charles Gibbons extends his right hand to bless those viewing him while holding a cross in his left hand. Below, the granite pedestal supporting the statue hosts a number of symbols that represent his life and accomplishments within the Roman Catholic church: peacocks representing the resurrection and immortality scattered between Latin and Greek crosses line the top; on the left and right sides of the pedestal, the shield representing the Archdiocese of Washington, DC and Gibbons’s family coat of arms are combined; cardinal’s hats with five tassels symbolize the five ranks Gibbons achieved within the clergy; and, at the front, a quotation from Veni, Sancte Spiritus, a liturgical prayer, is inscribed. Gifted by the Knights of Labor in 1932, the statue sits as one of only a few recognizing a religious leader in the United States.
The statue, designed by Leo Lentelli, physically immortalizes the life and legacy of Gibbons, who is considered to be one of America’s most influential Roman Catholic cardinals. Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1834, Gibbons spent his younger years living in Ireland and then New Orleans before returning to his birthplace to attend St. Charles College — afterwards entering St Mary’s Seminary. Gibbons had quite an impressive career within the church, and even became the world’s youngest bishop. Later, Gibbons would become the primate (head bishop) of Baltimore, which meant he would deal directly with the Vatican.
In addition to his formal positions, Gibbons also helped to pen the “Baltimore Catechism,” which held great influence on the Church and was used for 75 years in Roman Catholic sunday schools. Finally, the cardinal was influential in helping to establish Americanist ideology within Catholic churches in the United States. The ideology was both pro-union and more liberal than its counterparts at the Vatican, and was greatly influenced by the political power of Irish Catholics who had immigrated to the United States, as well as the Knights of Labor.
Despite his many accomplishments, not everyone was a fan of Gibbons. He was a noted anti-women’s suffrage leader, and was involved in the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage. While he held major power and influence within the Roman Catholic church, Gibbons was a conservative official who did hold political opinions that opposed women’s rights during the 19th century. While his statue celebrates his legacy as one of the founders of the Roman Catholic church in the United States, it also prompts viewers to understand a more complicated history of the man in the chair.
Within Shaw Historic District.
DC Inventory: February 22, 2007
National Register: October 11, 2007