Pilgrims view Civil War through Catholic lens

Friday, June 08, 2018 - Updated: 12:24 pm

By Ann Rodgers General Manager

On Memorial Day weekend, 52 pilgrims from the Diocese of Pittsburgh boarded a bus for Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Gettysburg to remember the war dead while gaining a Catholic perspective on the battle that saved the Union.

Aux. Bishop William Waltersheid, who led the pilgrimage, grew up near Gettysburg. His father took their family to the battlefield so often that “my mother used to say she qualified for a military pension,” he said.

He celebrated Mass at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, located near the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, where the pilgrims took a tour. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is famous as the first American-born saint. Four decades after her death, her sisters tended the wounded at Gettysburg.

When the Union troops were marching toward Gettysburg through northern Maryland, they camped on the grounds of the convent and school that is now the Seton shrine. Sisters from that community were already running the largest Union military hospital, Satterlee Hospital in Philadelphia.

The sisters in Emmitsburg could hear the cannons of Pickett’s Charge from 10 miles away. When silence finally fell over the battlefield, a group of them went with their chaplain, Father Francis Burlando, to care for the 21,000 severely wounded soldiers who both sides had left behind in a town of 2,400 residents.

Makayla Rubin, 19, a Bethel Park resident who attends St. Germaine Parish, was among the youngest pilgrims. A Civil War enthusiast, she dressed in period clothing for dinner at Gettysburg’s Dobbin House Tavern, which dates to colonial times and the Revolutionary War.

She especially enjoyed a talk at the Dobbin House by Deb Novotny, a licensed battlefield guide, who spoke about women at the battle.

“There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know. In history class they didn’t talk much about what the women did,” Rubin said.

Sunday began with Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg, which was used as a hospital during the battle. A stained-glass window memorializes the Daughters of Charity who cared for the soldiers there and elsewhere.

It was Trinity Sunday, and Bishop Waltersheid preached on the love that was shown amid so much violence, as a sign of the love that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have for every human being.

“We know that God reaches into our minds and hearts to tell us why we are here,” he said. “He sent us his Son so we can look into the face of love, and he sent the Holy Spirit to show us how they illuminate the world with his love.”

The pilgrims next boarded the bus for a battlefield tour with Chuck Burkell, a licensed battlefield guide with expertise on its Catholic connections. Near the site where Union Gen. John Reynolds was killed early in the battle, he explained that — in an era of great anti-Catholic bigotry in the military — Reynolds was secretly engaged to a woman who was converting to Catholicism and may have embarked on the same path. His fiancée, Kate Hewitt, then entered the Daughters of Charity at Emmitsburg.

Burkell discussed moral challenges old and new — from Catholics killing each other on each side at Gettysburg to controversies over Confederate memorials. He pointed to the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback, gazing across Pickett’s Charge.

His opinion as a guide who wants people to learn the lessons of equal rights and human dignity at Gettysburg “is that, if the monuments were to be removed, we remove part of history. The position of the Parks Service is that the monuments here aren’t celebratory, they are documentary.”

With the monuments, “it’s easier to have difficult conversations with people about slavery and discrimination, and about why these Southern soldiers believed what they were doing was right.”

Two of the most popular monuments are distinctively Catholic. The monument to the Union’s Irish Brigade is a Celtic cross nearly 20 feet tall, with an Irish wolfhound lying loyally at its base. A companion sculpture depicts the brigade’s chaplain, Holy Cross Father William Corby, administering general absolution before the battle. Corby, then a newly ordained priest who would later become president of the University of Notre Dame, wrote in his memoirs that the absolution was intended for soldiers on both sides, Catholic or not, whose hearts were repentant and who were shortly to meet their final judge.

The tour ended at the National Cemetery that President Abraham Lincoln dedicated in his Gettysburg Address. Civilian re-enactors were observing Decoration Day — the original name of Memorial Day — singing hymns and reading poems popular in the post-Civil War era.

Katherine Boyle, a parishioner at Prince of Peace Parish on Pittsburgh’s South Side, had signed up for the pilgrimage in part because it didn’t require air travel. It appealed to her love of history.

“I really liked the Catholic perspective on common secular topics,” she said. “Some of the things the guide told us, such as Reynolds perhaps being a secret Catholic and not wanting to disclose it, you would never read that in a history book.”

The Pittsburgh Catholic is already taking names of people interested in a similar pilgrimage in 2019.

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