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The Infirmary Garden, St. Joseph's Statue, and the Lamp Association: An online exhibit from the Georgetown University Archives
In 1872, a garden was created on the south side of campus, bordered by Gervase Hall to the west and Mulledy Hall and the South Building to the north. This came to be known as the Infirmary Garden because of its proximity to Gervase which housed the campus infirmary at that time. The appearance and size of the garden site changed over time but one constant element was the inclusion of a statue of St. Joseph. Through scans of photographs and documents in the University Archives, this online exhibit illustrates the evolution of the space, the installation of two different statues of St. Joseph, and the formation of the St. Joseph’s Lamp Association in 1874. This Association collected money for the purchase of lamp oil, so that a light could be kept burning in front of the statue at specified times.
Note: This exhibit was updated in 2020 to include images of the statue of St. Joseph commissioned in 2015 from the Ukrainian-born sculptor Julia Levitina (C '03). This statue replaced the 1988 statue by Hamilton Reed Armstrong which had become damaged. Art Curator LuLen Walker supplied images and a caption for the Levitina statue; these can be seen at the end of the exhibit.
Gervase Hall was constructed to serve as the College infirmary. It was completed in 1831 and replaced a wooden structure on the same site that also served as an infirmary. It is unclear when an infirmary garden was first planned but we know from an account in the student newspaper, the Georgetown College Journal, April 1872, that “a once barren spot [the garden area] is being converted into a delightful pleasure ground.” The gardeners came from the “small boys’ side” or the Preparatory Department and were supervised in their work by the Infirmarian.
Part of the conversion from barren to delightful spot was the installation of a statue of St. Joseph who had been proclaimed as the Patron of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX in 1870. After the installation of the statue, the Infirmary Garden was also known as St. Joseph’s Garden.
This photograph is the earliest image of the statue found in the University Archives. Six feet tall, it had been shipped from Munich, Germany, and its arrival on campus was followed by considerable discussion of the best location for it. The site selected in the center of the Infirmary Garden, facing the South Building, had wonderful views over the river to Virginia. According to the Georgetown College Journal of April 1873, in addition to the views, the site was selected because the “infirmary had always been in a somewhat special manner under the protection of St. Joseph.”
At a June 10, 1872 ceremony, the statue was blessed by John McElroy, S.J., in the presence of members of the Jesuit Community, the student body, and invited guests. Fr. McElroy, in his concluding prayer, placed the College and the infirmary in particular under the especial patronage and protection of St. Joseph.
Patrick Gorman was known as “Humility” to the students. After leaving the Jesuit novitiate because of ill-health, he came to Georgetown where he spent almost a quarter of a century. According to John Gilmary Shea’s 1891 History of Georgetown College, he devoted his life to faithfully discharging the duties assigned him, and devoting all that he earned or obtained by a little traffic to the [Association of the] Holy Childhood and the Association for the Propagation of the Faith. He never used a bed, sleeping on a bench or floor, always attended the earliest Mass, and spent all the time of recess from work in the Chapel in vocal or mental prayer. Brother James Robbins was, according to Shea, a worthy companion of Mr. Gorman, whom he imitated in his charities and in his devotion.
Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Welch of Waltham, Massachusetts, were the parents of Ralston E. Welch who had enrolled at Georgetown on September 19, 1867. He fell ill and died on campus on April 13, 1869. In addition to partly funding the purchase of the statue, the Welch family also provided money to buy equipment for the infirmary. Other contributors included Georgetown President John Early, S.J., the wife of James Hoban Sands, later Rear Admiral Sands, who was Superintendent of the Naval Observatory and who had been a Georgetown student in the 1850s, and the wife of Senator Thomas James Robertson of South Carolina.
While the St. Joseph statue is entirely blocked from view by a tree in this photograph, several of the other items mentioned in the Original Contributors list above are visible: namely, large iron vases paid for by Dr. Grafton Tyler, the College Physician; small vases paid for by the Class and Students of 1873; and a small statue, seen to the right of the tree, possibly the gift of Reverend Charles Kelly of Pennsylvania.
This letter, ascribed to student John Agar, describes the both installation of the statue and the formation of what came to be known as the St. Joseph’s Lamp Association. The author states that in the fall of 1872, there was a serious measles outbreak in Washington, D.C. [Archivist’s note: John Gilmary Shea describes the epidemic as involving a smallpox-like illness rather than measles in his 1891 History of Georgetown College.] However, only one Georgetown student contracted the disease and he survived: in the fall of ’72, the measles were raging throughout the District—they entered the College once, but disappeared as soon as our Patron was invoked. The year passed with no real illness . . . The inmates of the Infirmary to express their gratitude for such marked protection burnt a light at his shrine during the month of March. Again, in April ’73, the measles appeared in the District, and notwithstanding the frequent intercourse of the students with the citizens, there were only two or three slight cases at the College. When it was learned how kind St. Joseph had been, the students eager to testify to their thankfulness, resolved to keep the light burning before St. Joseph’s statue the whole year . . . A society has been organized . . . At a meeting of the Philosophy [Senior] class, February 9th, ’74, it was resolved that we, the Philosophers of Georgetown College, assume the task of establishing firmly among the students, the devotion to St. Joseph . . .
Annual contributions from the Senior Class, as well as from friends of the Association, were applied towards the purchase of lamp oil, so that a light could be kept burning at the statue by the infirmary staff day and night during the prevalence of any epidemic, during the two examinations, and at night during the year.
March 19th is the Feast Day of St. Joseph. This card was given to Brother Martin Whelan who, according to his obituary in Woodstock Letters, 1904 , was a long–time resident of the College infirmary, where he lived in an unobtrusive and edifying manner, until his death which occurred on November 22, 1903.
The homemade card is a crude example of decoupage. From the French word découpe, meaning to cut out, this is an art form that involves gluing cut-outs, usually paper, to a surface. The surface is then typically lacquered, a step omitted here.
The St. Joseph’s Lamp Association appears to have become defunct by the early 1890s but it was revived by Georgetown President John Creeden, S.J., in 1918 after the Spanish Flu epidemic began to threaten D.C. Francis Barnum, S.J., was appointed Georgetown’s first archivist in 1898. His notes also state that the lamp has always been kept burning by the Infirmarian, even when the Association was not active. Records in the Archives do not indicate at what point the practice of burning the lamp ceased.
Additional notes by Fr. Barnum explain that the original lamp of the Association was not suitable for hanging out of doors. Every rain and windstorm would extinguish it. In March 1919, I [Fr. Barnum] went to Baltimore and purchased a regular ship’s lantern for $12.50 which would burn through any gale or snowstorm. I got the support made at the iron works near the bridge on Pennsylvania Ave. Since then we are always sure the lamp is burning.
A grotto of Lourdes was dedicated in the Infirmary Garden in 1888. Woodstock Letters, 1888, volume 17, page 120 provides a brief history of it: The sodalities of the Senior and Junior Division are contemplating the erection of two new statues in the college yard. The members of the latter have already collected a handsome sum of money and propose to build a grotto of Lourdes on the mound facing St. Joseph’s statue in the Infirmary garden. The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes has been ordered [from France], and the dedication of both grotto and statue will take place sometime in May.
Notes written on two different occasions on the reverse of this photograph by Francis Barnum, S.J., read as follows:
1899 View of the infirmary garden. Fr. E. H. Welch saying his office
The tree was known as Fr. Carroll’s tree. His wheel chair was placed there every day till he grew too weak to go out. The vine was a Wisteria of wonderful beauty and could have been saved.
Edward Holker Welch, S.J. was College Chaplain between 1895 and his death in 1905. He was also Professor of History in the Graduate School. The Fr. Carroll mentioned was William H. Carroll, S.J., who died in 1902. The reference to wisteria vine that could have been saved may relate to changes made to the garden during the building of Ryan Hall which opened in late 1904. Ryan was built on the site of the first building on campus, the South Building. Constrained by Maguire Hall to the east and Mulledy Hall to the west, Ryan had to be built to the same width as the South Building but was considerably deeper and encroached on the Infirmary Garden as a result. The statue of St. Joseph was moved to face Mulledy Hall when Ryan opened.
This photograph illustrates how the footprint of the original garden was impacted by the construction of Ryan Hall. After Ryan was completed, the plants were replaced by grass and paving stones. Note the object on the lawn in front of the statue – it is the original lamp for which the Lamp Association purchased oil.
In the background, the top portion of a hand ball court can be seen in front of Ryan Hall and, to the right of that, the Aqueduct Bridge spanning the Potomac. The Aqueduct Bridge closed in 1923 after Key Bridge was completed and was demolished in 1933.
In 1987, the original statue was replaced by a different statue, also of St, Joseph, after it had been damaged. The new statue was placed in front of Mulledy Hall as its predecessor had been, contrary to the location suggested by the title of the article. However, it was positioned slightly to the east of the site the statue occupied in the pre-1947 image above and was oriented to face away from rather than towards the building.
In 2015, a new statue of St. Joseph was commissioned from the Ukrainian-born sculptor Julia Levitina (C'03) to replace the 1988 statue by Hamilton Reed Armstrong which had become damaged. In Levitina’s dynamic figural group the infant reaches out toward the viewer in a childlike gesture of curiosity as well as a biblical pose of blessing. St. Joseph protectively holds his son but the two do not link gazes, symbolizing the autonomy of the outward-facing child to “claim his intellectual independence, to pursue his own destiny,” as the artist explained. Levitina has fittingly emphasized the humanity of Jesus and the relationship between St. Joseph and his adopted son, which is a metaphor of the guardianship of Georgetown faculty and staff to its students. The bronze statue is about 5 percent larger than life size and stands in front of Isaac Hawkins Hall. The lamp at the base of the statue is a reference to the St. Joseph’s Lamp Association established in 1874.
Curated by Lynn Conway, University Archivist