There is a book and a movie called God is My Co Pilot, about Col. Robert L. Scott’s duty in China during World War II. The name of the book indicates Col. Scott’s recognition that God helped him during the war. This theme can be adapted for the US Navy and its graduates from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, even today. Hence, the title of this essay is a modified version of the title of Col. Scott’s book.
On Thursday, June 19th, I had reason to visit the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Bill Short, a retired Naval Officer of the class of 1973, gave me a personal guided tour. In addition to the Academy, we went to the active naval base nearby. The mission of this base is to support the Academy in its needs.
The tour took us through many buildings, starting with the dorms and the library. Everything is of immense scale. Bancroft Hall is the single largest dormitory in the world. It can hold over 4,400 midshipmen. The corridors are measured in miles, nearly 5, and the floor space in acres, over 30. Bancroft Hall is also the home of King Hall, the dining area for the midshipmen, and Memorial Hall. Memorial Hall holds many “relics” concerning the exploits of Academy graduates. When you enter the Rotunda of Bancroft Hall, after going up the impressive exterior staircase, you look up an impressive, indoor stairway that opens into Memorial Hall itself, where your eyes are greeted by a giant banner with the slogan “Don’t Give Up the Ship”. This dying command of Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, during a battle in the War of 1812, has been an inspiration and a battle cry for the US Navy for nearly two centuries.
The most amazing part of this building is much smaller in scale, but much larger in importance. To the right of the stairway is a small corridor that leads to the tiny Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This chapel has a Tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament reposed therein. In front of the Tabernacle is a single prie-dieu. There is just enough room there for a single chair on either side of the worship area. My guide said that this was his favorite place at the Academy.
In the short, narrow hallway leading to the Tabernacle, there were other surprises. There was an icon of Mother Seton, and a stained glass window of her, dedicated to an Academy graduate. This was a gift of the Class of 1949 to commemorate Fr. Thomas J. Donoher, a member of that class. (So far, I have been unable to find out more about Fr. Donoher.) There is also a plaque that explains the Catholic belief in the Real Presence within the Tabernacle, and a second plaque that tells something of the history of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. At the end, this plaque states:
“Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified on March 17, 1963, and was canonized on September 14, 1975. She is the first native born North American to be so honored.
“Shortly after the canonization of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Rome on September 14, 1975 by Pope Paul VI, the then Chief of Navy Chaplains, Monsignor John J. O’Connor (who later became John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York) took the initiative to proclaim Mother Seton ‘Patroness of the Sea Services’ for Catholic men and women in uniform—the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine. Admiral James D. Watkins, then Chief of Naval Personnel, collaborated closely with Rear Admiral O’Connor in that effort and in 1977 they struck a medal honoring Mother Seton because of her two sons, William and Richard’s naval service.”
These two sons of Mother Seton, William and Richard, attended Mt. St. Mary’s College, in Emmitsburg, Md. before going on to the navy. Richard Bayley Seton (1798 – 1823) joined the US Navy in 1822 but he died prematurely on board the ship Oswego, a year later while off the coast of Liberia, Africa. William Seton (1796 – 1868) also joined the US Navy, and received a commission as a lieutenant in February of 1826. He married Emily Prime in 1832. One of their children became an Archbishop. When William ended his Navy career, he was a full captain.
There were two other surprises that I delightfully experienced during my tour. First, my guide, Bill, pointed out to me that the most prominent feature of the Academy is the chapel. The chapel is situated on a small rise in a centrally located spot. When seen from the naval base across the river, the chapel dome commands your attention. In fact, the Navy chapel is the most prominent focal point not just for the Academy, but also of the entire Annapolis area. The dome of the state Capitol building, which can also be seen from the naval base, is not as impressive as the Navy chapel’s dome. There is a permanent Catholic chapel, called St. Andrew’s Chapel, beneath the main, interdenominational chapel.
After I entered the main chapel I was pleasantly surprised to find several stained glass windows, and in particular, on the left side, a large one of Mother Seton. This is much larger than the one in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and it appears to be from the original construction, which suggests a long history at the Academy of respect for this first of American saints.
Across from it, on the other side of the chapel, is a stained glass window with a midshipman in a white dress uniform opening his orders. Above him, to his right, stands Our Lord giving a blessing. I was told that this window represents the “Invisible Commission.” This fits in with the Academy’s mission statement, which proclaims in part that the mission of the Academy is to form midshipmen “morally, mentally and physically.” I took particular note that here “morally” comes first, as indicated by the invisible commission given by Our Lord Himself.
I hope to be able to visit the US Naval Academy again in the future. I also hope to be able to learn more about its Catholic graduates and their contributions to our Faith and our nation. God bless the Naval Academy, and help it to succeed in its mission, especially in its mission to form moral leaders for our world.