KRISTEN SKILLMAN/The Hoya Father G. Ronald Murphy is a professor of the German language, utilizing his impressive backgrounds in history, theology and language.
KRISTEN SKILLMAN/THE HOYA
Father G. Ronald Murphy is a professor of the German language, utilizing his impressive backgrounds in history, theology and language.

Dahlgren Chapel boasts an impressive piece of history: the cross on the wall. Father G. Ronald Murphy, a German professor at Georgetown, describes his journey of discovering the cross and his plight of displaying it at Georgetown today. Father Murphy is an acclaimed author and scholar from Trenton, N.J. His fascination with German literature and culture greatly shaped his work as a scholar. This exclusive interview unveils his search and discovery of this monumental memento, as well as his plan to reveal it to the university.

Father, can you share with us how you discovered the cross?
One day, I was driving home from New Jersey after saying Mass and I came down the Eastern shore up near the Sassafras River. I saw a sign that said “Bohemia Manor — St. Francis Xavier Church,” and I decided to follow it. I began to explore the grounds and found a tiny bookshop. The people there told me that the original church had burned down, which made me very unhappy.  They took me outside to a graveyard, and buried there were early Jesuits of the Maryland Province. I thought to myself, “Why in the world would these Jesuits be all the way up here near Delaware?” I then went to the other side near the rectory and discovered an exposed foundation that had a sign saying: “This is the site of the original school of the Jesuits.” This school, of course, is the ancestral school of Georgetown. The early Jesuits would have travelled up here due to anti-Catholic pressure in St. Mary’s City, so it does make sense that they would have settled this far north.

I continued to search around the foundation and I discovered a stone cairn, and on top was a great big iron cross with a plaque that said: “This cross is a reproduction of the original cross that was brought from St. Mary’s to Bohemia.” The sign went on to say, “the original cross is at Georgetown University.” I was shocked because at the time I was the rector of Georgetown’s Jesuit community and knew nothing of this cross. And so, I returned to Georgetown with a spirit of discovery and began to search for the cross. I first went to the archivist, who also did not know anything about the cross. He did, however, bring me down to the archive room, which is below the South Tower of the Healy building. I began to walk around and was captivated by all of the artifacts scattered about. I start poking around and found no trace of the cross.

At this point, I thought maybe the whole thing was a mistake. I couldn’t find anything like the cross, but then I became distracted by a wall of muskets and swords. I began to walk over when all of a sudden I tripped over a wooden pallet that was on the floor. I looked down at what it was supporting it, and it was the cross. I nearly fell over it. At first I was afraid to pick it up, and I noticed the Latin inscription: “ad perpetuam rei memoriam,” which literally means “the perpetual memory of the thing,” or “may this be eternally remembered.” Then I saw a vertical inscription, which said, “This is the cross which is believed to be carried by the sea from England to St. Mary’s.”

What is the significance of this cross?
First, we know that this cross must have been significant because the person who wrote on the cross told us to never forget this object. It is clearly something that was precious to the community. The use of Latin also reveals that the inscriber wanted this to be remembered in all times and places.

Furthermore, if this cross was used on St. Clement’s Island, it means that it would have been present at the first Mass in English speaking North America. The inscription also preserves the cross so that no one would sell or use the metal for other projects.

Finally, this cross-connects Georgetown to the early Jesuit missions. It’s the oldest part of Georgetown’s history — and the state of Maryland for that matter — as it stems all the way back to St. Clement’s island and St. Mary’s City.  In fact, Maryland Day is coming up soon on March 25, the day the first Jesuits landed on St. Clement’s Island in 1634 on the feast of the annunciation.

What was your original plan to unveil the cross?
At the time, we were approaching the bicentennial of Georgetown in 1989, and I thought that the cross would be the perfect object to tie us back to our ancestral roots. I suggested to Fr. Charlie Currie, who was in charge of the bicentennial celebration, that we should have the Ark and the Dove (the boats that carried the cross and first Jesuits over from England) sail back up the Potomac river to Georgetown and have students bring the cross from the ship to the front gates of the university. However, after looking into it, it was impossible for the ships to sail under the bridges along the river.

My second idea was to have the ship sail as close as possible to the university and have Georgetown crew team members row up to the boat, take the cross and row back to the dock and carry the cross to the president at the front gates. I was trying to bring to life the story of that cross: it came to us “by the sea,” by water. Unfortunately, those plans did not work out, but we still have the cross. And it’s now hanging up nicely in Dahlgren chapel. I encourage students to go and visit this astonishing piece of our history. It’s important for us to be aware of where we came from.

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One Comment

  1. Peter Brinkmann says:

    Father Murphy was my German Professor in the summer of 1975, Intensive Basic, Part II, a normally 12 week course that was compressed into 5 weeks. 3 hours in the morning, 3 hours in the afternoon, and an equal number of hours required in the language lab. Father Ron taught me things that have stayed with me my entire life, among them the real meaning of realizations. He encouraged me to pursue my German as he thought that with time and hard work I could speak without an American accent. At various times in my life I have been able to reach that level and when I have received compliments from Germans my mind goes back to those years long ago. Father Ron is a treasure and a credit to our alma mater. Es lebe Vater Murphy, S.J.!

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