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Caldwell, Mary Gwendolin Byrdlocked

(21 October 1863–05 October 1909)
  • Patricia Fox-Sheinwold

Caldwell, Mary Gwendolin Byrd (21 October 1863–05 October 1909), philanthropist and socialite, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of William Shakespeare Caldwell, a plant operator, and Mary Eliza Breckenridge. Soon after the death of Caldwell’s mother, her father, who had made a fortune constructing and operating gas plants in the Midwest, moved the family to New York City where, shortly before his death in 1874, he converted to Roman Catholicism and enrolled his two daughters in the Academy of the Sacred Heart, their primary source of education. Under the terms of his will, Caldwell and her sister, Mary Elizabeth, were made wards of Catholic friends and, on their twenty-first birthdays, were to donate a third of their vast inheritance to the Catholic church.

It is not clear whether the $300,000 that she donated to the Catholic church in 1884 to found a national school to advance Catholic philosophy and theology established Caldwell as the founder of the institution. According to the New York Times (16 Nov. 1904), the donation was made to “endow the College of Theology in the university.” Now known as the Catholic University of America, the Times referred to it then as the Catholic University of the United States and as the Roman Catholic University at Washington. It also is not clear whether the gift was motivated by her lengthy and strong friendship with fellow Kentuckian John Lancaster Spalding, first bishop of Peoria, Illinois, or by the clause in her father’s will. Later Caldwell added $80,000 to her gift ($60,000 to endow the Chair of Theology and $10,000 each for two scholarships).

As young adults, Caldwell and her sister traveled together extensively in Europe and ultimately became part of international society. This led to Caldwell’s engagement in 1889 to Prince Joachim Joseph Napoleon Murat, the invalid grandson of the king of Naples, who was twice her age. She called off the engagement, however, after the prince insisted that Caldwell split her fortune with him. One of her guardians, Eugene Kelly, was quoted as saying that Caldwell was too intelligent and too aware of the value of money to let hers ever get out of her control. In Paris in 1896 she married a middle-aged nobleman, Françoise Jean Louis, Marquis des Monstiers-Mérinville.

Mary Elizabeth, who had become Baroness von Zedtwitz and who also lived abroad, had embraced the Lutheran faith. After her husband died in 1896, the sisters became very close, and many of Caldwell’s contemporaries believed that her sister influenced her ultimate decision to renounce Catholicism. In the fall of 1904 Caldwell formally announced that she wished to rid herself of the “subtle, yet overwhelming, influence” of the Catholic church, claiming that, while living in Europe, “her honest Protestant blood” had “asserted itself.” Her statement stunned the Catholic church, and church officials in Washington removed her portrait from Catholic University. One of its larger buildings, however, still carries her name. Bishop Spalding could not account for Caldwell’s decision, as he had always known her to be a good Catholic, whereas Father Dennis Stafford of St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C., felt that her ill health had played a part in her change of faith. In 1902 Caldwell had suffered a paralyzing stroke, which had left her speech so impaired that she had to communicate by writing. But among the friends who knew her well, Caldwell’s renunciation did not come as a great surprise because she had a reputation for being very impulsive and somewhat eccentric.

In 1905 Caldwell and the marquis separated. In order to retain her title and to prevent a divorce, she agreed to pay him $8,000 a year. Four years later, Caldwell died on board an ocean liner waiting to dock at New York harbor. Bright’s disease was listed as the immediate cause of death. Some of her friends believed she had made the very taxing voyage to consult medical specialists in the United States, but others thought she had returned in order to die on American soil. Caldwell was buried in Louisville, Kentucky.

Bibliography

Information on Caldwell and her family is available at the Filson Club in Louisville, Ky. Highlights of Caldwell’s life as well as notices of her benefactions to the Catholic church are recorded in the New York Times: 10 Dec. 1884; 15 June 1885; 23 July and 1 Nov. 1889; and 14 Oct. 1896. Caldwell’s controversial decision to leave the church is covered in the New York Times, 30 Oct. and 16 Nov. 1904, which include interviews with Caldwell as well as reaction to her action. For information on her association with Catholic University, see Profiles of American Colleges, 19th ed. (1992). An obituary is in the New York Times, 6 Oct. 1909.