Next week Washington DC will be treated to the arrival of a pro-life Catholic who is also a member of the British royal family.
How is that possible?
Nicholas Windsor gave up his place in line to the British throne when he converted to the Catholic Church in 2001. He became “the first male blood Royal to convert to Catholicism since Charles II on his deathbed in 1685.”
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Lord Nicholas—now 43—was married to his wife Paola Frankopan, who is descended from the noble line in Croatia, and became the first British royal ever married in the Vatican. His godfather is Prince Charles. His first cousin once removed is Queen Elizabeth. He is, to say the least, connected.
Lord Nicholas is coming to Washington DC in the company of Lord David Alton, a life peer, that is, his title cannot be inherited, who is one of the great pro-life heroes in Great Britain and beyond.
The two Lords are coming to present their joint project for a Museum of Christian Heritage to be located at the Jesuit estate Stonyhurst, the home of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England.
The story of this project begins in 1593 when English Catholics established a boy’s school at a place called St. Omers not far from Calais then subject to the Spanish crown. Catholic education was not legal at the time in England and so English boys were sent there for education and protection.
Besides protecting English boys, the school became a protector of precious Catholic items like vestments, manuscripts, and relics that were endangered on English soil. Thus began what is now called the “oldest surviving museum collection in the English-speaking world.”
The first acquisition in the collection came in 1609 when they took possession of Henry VII’s cope and chasuble. The Jesuits have religiously added to this collection as they have traveled the world from that time.
Some of the other remarkable items include a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, the rope that bound St. Edmund Campion at the time of his execution, and personal items belonging to St. Thomas More, Elizabeth of York, Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, James II and the Stuart Family including items belong to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The Jesuits left France and set up shop at Stonyhurst where the first museum was begun in 1796. The Arundell Library was opened there in 1855 and housed such amazing artifacts as the Book of Hours that is said to have been handed by Mary, Queen of Scotts, to her chaplain on the scaffold just before her execution.
In the 1970s—don’t you just know it was the 70s—all this was dismantled and the collection went into storage. Nicholas Windsor, David Alton and others mean to rectify this. They aim to restore and rebuild and present to the world this remarkable collection.
They are in the United States raising awareness and money for several phases of building. They have already restored St. Peter’s Church. The immediate phase includes the restoration of various existing buildings including the Arundell Library. All told this library and others will house the 40,000 volumes belonging to the college. Further phases including building a retreat and study center and eventually a full-blown museum to showcase all the unique Catholic treasures collected over the centuries at Stonyhurst.
While in Washington Windsor and Alton will meet with Catholic donors, politicians, Catholic prelates, and other luminaries including Justice Antonin Scalia who boasts a bust and a portrait of Thomas More in his chambers and who enthusiastically supports the Windsor/Alton project.
When I recently heard of this project for the first time, I must admit I thought it was a kind of surrender. Here is a museum for a faith that is under attack and no longer really practiced except by a benighted few, so let’s create a museum where we can at least look at all the great stuff we used to have. I think of the Rock and Roll Museum and how it signals rock’s decline.
We have enough religious museums in Europe already. They’re called churches, many of which are given over to maybe one mass a week and then for paying tourists the rest of the time. It’s nice that so many tourists want to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris but sad that religious observances are reserved only for the tiny part in the middle of the Church. The tourist swirl by just outside the lattice while the holy sacrifice goes on inside.
But, there is a story to be told at Stonyhurst, one that most Catholics may not know. There is the story of English Catholicism gutted but not destroyed by the English Reformation. Even now the Reformation is coming unraveled. There is the story of relics and books brought to Stonyhurst from the four corners by brave Jesuits. There is the story of how we move forward through dangerous times because that is the story Stonyhurst tells. So in many ways this museum is a game plan and a sign of hope.
History will tell our descendants whether the rafters being shaken lose by the Jesuit at Casa Santa Marta will one day be shown in the Catholic Heritage Center at Stonyhurst. History will tell us if the Reformation will come tumbling far enough down that a Catholic like Nicholas Windsor could one day occupy the British throne. One wonders, given historical trends, where that throne might be occupied one day by an atheist or stranger still a Muslim.
In the meantime, two of England’s and Rome’s best are coming to America to tell a story that all faithful Catholics need to hear and support.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, UK.