Mary Gwendoline Caldwell

Mary Gwendoline Caldwell bestowed the first donation to the Third Plenary Council of American Biships that initiated the founding of The Catholic University of America.  Although she was born in Louisville, Kentucky on October 5, 1863 to William Shakespeare Caldwell and Mary Eliza Breckinridge, Mary Gwendoline grew up in New York City, where she attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville as a teenager.  Her family became Catholic converts in the 1870’s when William Shakespeare sparked interest in the faith.  He remained an active Catholic until his death in 1874, leaving both Mary Gwendoline and her younger sister Mary Elizabeth orphans in the care of Roman Catholic Friends with an inheritance of serveral million dollars.  In his will, William Shakespeare stated that his daughters should use 1/3 of their inheritance to assist the Catholic Church in becoming a prominent part of American society.

When she heard that John Lancaster Spalding, a friend she had acquainted at Sacred Heart, was trying to open a Caholic university, she donated $300,000 to fulfill her duties to her father’s will.  Mary Gwendoline required that the university be founded within the United States, controlled by the U.S. Bishops, affiliated with other faculties, remain seperate from all other institutions, educate only ecclesiastics intelligible in Philosophy and Theology, and never be controlled by one religious order, before she would provide the donation.  She also requested that the donation only be used in its founding and Mary herself be considered the founder.  She claimed $200,000 could be used for buildings and the surrounding grounds and $100,000 could endow professorships.  She was only 21 at the time of her donation and was awarded with many honors because of her charitable contribution.  On May24, 1888, at the cornerstone ceremony for Caldwell Hall, the first building on campus which subsequently was named in her honor, Mary Gwendoline received a gold medal from Pope Leo XIII.  She also received the Laetare Medal of Notre Dame in 1899 for acheiving such distinction for the American Catholic Church.

After a brief engagement to the European prince Murat in 1889, she married German Marquis des Montiers-Mermville on October 19, 1896.  She resided in Europe for the remainder of her life; Mary Gwendoline renounced the Church after spending time in Protestant Europe and no longer connected herself to the University.  She died of Bright’s Disease in 1905.  Today,  Caldwell Hall still stands as a reminder of her contribution to The Catholic University of America.

Further reading:

Jones, Edward T. Notable American Women 1607-1950:  A Biographical Dictionary.  Vol I (A-F).  Cambridge, Mass:  The Bekrop Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Nuesse, C. Joseph.  The Catholic University of America:  A Centennial History.  Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press, 1990.

Author: Tirzah O'Beirne

Date: 17 Nov. 2002