SULLIVAN: 20,000 Treasures Under the School
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 03:09
The metal vault door creaked open, letting light into a cold, stone room deep in the bowels of Healy Hall. Mountains of gold coins, jewels and silver chalices covered the floor.
Well, not exactly. But my opportunity to visit the Healy Vault this summer exposed me to just a few of the treasures that are hidden across the Hilltop. Over 20,000 artifacts maintained by two university curators are kept in various locations across campus. They exist not only as a record of Georgetown’s own rich history but as a demonstration of the history of the world.
Inside the vault was a large collection of Smithsonian-worthy artifacts. I saw, among other rarities, a cannonball that had been unearthed during the construction of Healy, a “haunted” cradle that held Georgetown’s 15th president, hand-woven silk vestments worn by the first Jesuits in colonial America, cavalry sabers from the Civil War and souvenirs from post-war Germany when Fr. Edmund Walsh, S.J., attended the Nuremberg trials. Just upstairs, in the seldom-visited Carroll Parlor, hangs “The Calling of St. Matthew,” appraised to be the most valuable painting in the world at one point in the 19th century. A mosaic-covered table from the Vatican stands in one corner, while General Custer’s West Point uniform and a lock of George Washington’s hair sit inconspicuously on the various shelves.
Why were these artifacts, many of which are quite valuable and worthy of display at museums worldwide, given to Georgetown? The answer is not so that they may gather a layer of dust in basements. No, these artifacts are here to animate the spirit of Georgetown “for generations to come.” Without a healthy appreciation of the challenges, failures and triumphs of Georgetown students past, our community becomes uprooted, divided by the partisan controversies of the moment. Without knowledge of our common purpose, we become individuals who are here just for good grades and fun weekends. We become isolated in our various clubs and student groups, unconcerned about the larger community that calls on us to be men and women for others.
It may sound idealistic to imagine scattered artifacts and trinkets as having the power to give meaning to our entire university community, but I was fortunate enough to explore the Healy Vault with someone who had had that very experience.
While exploring the vault many years ago, Fr. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., had come upon a piece of metal covered in dust and lying on the ground. That piece of metal, made from the iron of the ships that carried the first Jesuits to America, is the cross that now hangs in Dahlgren Chapel.
While the items in the vault are made of nothing more than wood, metal or stone, their true value is found in the common history they provide to generations of students. The effect of a common purpose and identity on various Georgetown student groups is further testament to history’s ability to center our pluralism. The Sodality, Georgetown’s first student group, brought together the diverse and active Catholic community for the simple purpose of devotional prayer and meditation. The Philodemic Society encourages serious debate “in the defense of liberty.” With pluralism becoming an increasingly important cornerstone of the Georgetown experience, we need to recognize our roots, now more than ever.
Georgetown’s traditions manifest in students, not administrators, and it is students’ responsibility to continue practicing and expressing those traditions. But our history lies behind vault doors, locking us out of opportunities to benefit from and give meaning to our past.
The university must make a greater effort to share the treasures and memories of Georgetown students past, artifacts that were given in the explicit hope that future students would find purpose in them. We yell “Hoya Saxa” to this day, even though none of us ever watched the mighty Hoyas beat our traditional football rivals from atop the stone wall. More of that spirit of Georgetown should be freed from deep inside the vaults.
Kevin Sullivan is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. GHOSTS OF HOYAS PAST appears every other Tuesday.