Courtesy of Samuel P Peabody

SHARRI WHITING DE MASI

The Colonial Dames of America:

Preserving American History at Home and Abroad

Sharri Whiting De Masi

Since its founding in New York almost 125 years ago, The Colonial Dames of America has been distinctive for its international outreach, both in terms of its members’ accomplishments and its chapters. Among the first to be established after the CDA was organized in 1890, the chapters in Paris, Rome and London continue to play a vital role in the activities of The Colonial Dames of America.

 

Chapter IV in Paris was founded in 1901 and has supported the building of the replica of the ship Hermione, begun in 1997. General Lafayette sailed to America in 1780 on the original Hermione to rejoin the Revolutionary troops. The new ship will be put to sea in 2015 and Chapter IV will host a special preview for Dames from Europe and the United States in October 2014.

 

Chapter XI in London was chartered in 1930 and has been an integral part of historic preservation in Great Britain, including assisting with the restoration of The Mount Vernon Garden at The American Museum in Bath for which they received the President’s Award for Excellence, The Colonial Dames of America. Many of its early members were presented at the Court of St. James’s and stayed to marry titled Englishmen. Among them was the Countess Denbigh and Desmond (the former Kathleen Emmet of New York) who, as part of a chapter and diplomatic delegation, placed the plaque in Grosvenor Square in 1933 on the house where John Adams lived during his term as the first American minister to Great Britain, 1785-1788.

 

In Rome, Chapter X, founded in 1930, held its first meeting at the residence of Princess Poggia Suasa Ruspoli, who was elected honorary president. Chapter X continues its commitment to an ongoing project to memorialize the Americans buried in the Cimitero Acattolico (Non-Catholic Cemetery) in Rome. Approximately 800 Americans have been interred at what was known as the “Old Protestant Burying Ground” since its inception almost 200 years ago. Chapter X has received the President’s Award for Excellence, The Colonial Dames of America, twice for this project.

 

The cemetery is still in use, providing a final resting place not only for Protestant Christians, but also for Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those of many other faiths and philosophies. Among the most famous are English poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, along with Americans Richard Henry Dana Jr. (Two Years Before the Mast), William Rutherford Mead (architect, old Pennsylvania Station, the Boston Library; founder, American Academy of Rome), Elizabeth Phelps (Suffragette benefactor and colleague of Susan B. Anthony), George Boardman Taylor (Baptist missionary and writer), the William Haseltine family of artists and achievers, South Carolina watercolorist Caroline Petigru Carson, Carrie Brown Bajnotti (the granddaughter of Nicholas Brown II, founder of Brown University), beat poet Gregory Corso, and Florence Cary Koehler (one of the most important American artists during the Arts and Crafts period, a friend of both Henry James and Matisse; her work is a part of the Metropolitan Museum’s collections).

 

In this historic cemetery are stunning monuments to loves lost, sculpted by American artists including William Wetmore Story, whose paean to his beloved wife, Emelyn, is called The Angel of Grief, and the statue of Psyche erected by Richard Greenough in honor of his wife Sarah. Story’s grief-stricken angel has been copied in several cemeteries in the United States, including Houston’s Glenwood Cemetery.

In an effort to combine the preservation of history with modern communications techniques, Chapter X is developing an e-book, Notable Americans Buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. The work-in-progress is available at www.cda1890rome.org. The project is dedicated to the late Christina Huemer, a member of Chapter X, Rome, who served the American Academy as Drue Heinz Librarian and was responsible for the organization of the Friends of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

 

Among the two Dames whose bios appear in the e-book is Katherine Breck Onofrii, mother of Chapter X President-Emeritus Flavia Onofrii Accolti-Gil. Katherine served as President of Chapter X and was the daughter of George Breck, a director of the American Academy in Rome and renowned visual artist, and Colonial Dames of America Parent Chapter member Katherine Head. The other Dame buried in the cemetery is Louise Archer Belden Iddings, who joined Chapter X in 1931. Her husband, Lewis Morris Iddings, was Counselor of the American Embassy in Rome and American Diplomatic Agent in Cairo.

 

Before the 18th century, Protestants and other “heretics” who died in Rome were usually buried outside of the walls, along with prostitutes, criminals, and other “sinners” or undesirables. Protestants were forbidden by canon law to be buried in consecrated ground, but when Grand Tours became the fashion and wealthy northern Europeans came to Italy more often, it was necessary to provide a more suitable burial ground. Given that the Stuart court of Great Britain was in exile in Rome, where James III enjoyed papal protection, there were many Protestants among the Stuart followers and they ranked too high to be buried with prostitutes.

 

After about 1716, Protestants such as these began to be buried near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, near Monte Testaccio. Among the first of them was an American, Lady Emily Temple. Throughout the rest of the 18th century, many Protestants were buried in unmarked graves, as the funerary regulations of the time prohibited epitaphs or monuments. Burials were usually done quietly at night to avoid spreading contagious diseases such as cholera. Later, as rules eased, the funerary art became more extravagant and monuments appeared that are as fascinating as those departed notables buried beneath them.

ALEXIS DEVANEY

Above: Presentation Key to the Museum.

SHARRI WHITING DE MASI

Above: Cimitero Acattolico (Non-Catholic Cemetery), Rome, Italy.

ALEXIS DEVANEY

Above: (l-r) Board members M. P. Naud, with husband Robert Naud, and Kathleen Springhorn.

An American woman living as an expatriate is eligible for membership in The Colonial Dames of America’s chapters abroad in much the same way as if she resided in the USA: if she can demonstrate legitimate descent from an ancestor who held public office or a military commission in the original thirteen colonies, or who otherwise served in an eligible capacity, during the period beginning May 13, 1607 (settlement of Jamestown) and ending April 18, 1775 (just before the Battle of Lexington). Each chapter has its requirements for proposal for membership, including an invitation from a current member of that chapter and with supporting letters as required by the chapter. Once the descent has been verified and membership approved, membership begins upon payment of applicable fees.

 

Continuing in the tradition of CDA chapter commitments to preserving our American heritage abroad is Houston’s Chapter VIII, which is participating in the restoration of the St. Thomas Anglican Church Cemetery in St. Kitts, West Indies. Among those interred here in this Caribbean resting place are Sir Thomas Warner, father of the first colonial governor of Virginia and ancestor of George Washington, and Capt. Samuel Jefferson II, great-great-great-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson. Chapter VIII shared the President’s Award for Excellence in 2013 for this project.

 

In New York, former President General and Co-Chairman of the Development Committee Helen Evans is well known for her professional achievements as the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along with Brandie Ratliff, then Research Associate for Byzantine Art, Helen was recently presented one of 24 awards at the 21st annual World Book Award presentation sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Religious Guidance.

Their catalogue for the Museum’s 2012 exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th-9th Century) was chosen from a field of 2,000 books considered for the prizes, which honor the best new books in the field of Islamic Studies. Other awards were presented for books on Persian Studies, including topics ranging from ancient to modern history, science, art, and translations of major Islamic and Persian texts. While American scholars collected more awards than other countries, the winning entries also came from Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Syria, and the UK.

AUDREY SVENSSON

Clockwise from bottom left: President General Sharon Vaino,

Jaan Vaaino, Richard Jaffe and Lynette Jaffe.

Helen attended the award presentation in Tehran on February 8, 2014, wearing dress appropriate for the setting. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, spoke on the importance of intellectual freedom at the presentation, which was attended by ambassadors accredited to Iran. The Secretary of the World Book Award, Mohammad Reza Vasfi, emphasized the importance of the book in Iranian civilization in his speech and underscored the need for the continued relevance of the printed page. According to Helen, “The award winners and the Iranian Ministry of Culture recognized the important role books play in bringing contemporary cultures together by promoting understanding of the cultural history of peoples of differing traditions.”

 

Helen and Caroline McLain are chairmen of the Development Committee, The Colonial Dames of America, and are coordinating the programs for celebration of the 75th anniversary in 2014 of The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, owned and operated by the Dames, and the 125th anniversary of the founding of The Colonial Dames of America in 2015. These anniversaries serve to underscore the long-term commitment to preservation of American history within the United States of America at home and abroad.

 

Second Vice President Brantley Knowles worked with the professional staff of the museum to develop a new Council of Proprietors for the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden (MVHMG), which was introduced at the May 2013 Annual Meeting. The Council of Proprietors is intended to include proprietors from every chapter of The Colonial Dames of America, reflecting their special interest in building support and recognition for this unique museum of American history. One of the eight oldest buildings in Manhattan, the MVHMG is an oasis in the chaos of the city, with a walled garden inspired by gardens of the Federal period. The garden contains spring blooming bulbs, flowering fruit trees, native plants, and herbs with a charming gazebo as a focal point. Members of the council will share information and enthusiasm about the museum with their chapters around the United States and abroad; they will play an integral role in the anniversary events scheduled for the museum in 2014.

 

The MVHMG’s 2013 Fall Fundraiser, which benefited the museum’s educational initiatives, marked the re-accreditation of the museum by the selective American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and honored New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his dedication to education and encouragement of cultural institutions. Chaired by First Vice President Beverley Sherrid, “New York City Treasure” took place on October 24th as a benefit cocktail party attended by CDA members, including chapter proprietors, and museum members who gathered to support the museum and its education programs.

ALEXIS DEVANEY

Above: Museum Director Mary Anne Caton with husband Kevin Murphy.

Acknowledgments

 

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of CDA President General Sharon Vaino, CDA First Vice President and Benefit Co-chair Beverley Sherrid, CDA Second Vice President Brantley Knowles, CDA Past Presidents General Helen Evans and Audrey Svensson, Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden Director Mary Anne Caton, CDA Chapter IV President Mary L. d’Anglejan-Chatillon, CDA Chapter VIII President Evelyn Aucoin, and CDA Chapter XI Past President Ellen Davidson.

For more information on The Colonial Dames of America, please visit the CDA’s website at www.cdany.org.

AAM President Ford Bell addressed guests with comments about the importance of museums in transmitting our cultural heritage. Lending her support and encouragement was AAM Board Chair Meme Omogbai. President General Sharon Vaino awarded the inaugural Key to the Museum to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.Francis Barry, NYC Director of Public Affairs, delivered a warm welcome to the gathering from the mayor and accepted the key on the mayor’s behalf.

 

Leigh Keno, president of Keno Auctions, conducted a lively auction of three donated lots, including a six-day visit to Rome and Umbria given by Chapter X. A silent auction drew additional enthusiastic bidding throughout the evening.

 

Among the guests were First Vice President and Benefit Chair Beverley Sherrid with her husband, Mark, Second Vice President Brantley Knowles, Recording Secretary Caroline McLain, Corresponding Secretary Sandra Pearl with her husband, Erwin, Board Member M.P. Naud with her husband, Robert, Ch. III Proprietor Robin Dougherty, Ch. XI Proprietor Linda Waterhouse with her husband, Stephen, Board Member Kathleen Springhorn, and Thomas Dillman. President General Sharon Vaino was accompanied by her husband, Jaan. Past Presidents General Helen Evans, Courtney Iglehart, Nancy Shackelford Jones, and Audrey Svensson also enjoyed the festivities. Mary Anne Caton, Director of the MVHMG and her husband, Kevin Murphy; and Allison Coliskey, Executive Director of the CDA, also attended.

About the Author, Sharri Whiting De Masi
 
Writer (travel, food/wine, culture), olive farmer in Umbria, Italy; President, Chapter X – Rome, Italy, The Colonial Dames of America; Proprietor Chapter X, Mt. Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden; Chair, Communications Committee, The Colonial Dames of America.

The Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium and the offices of The Colonial Dames of America are at 417 East 61st Street, New York, NY 10065, Tel.: (212) 838-5489. The venue is available for private and corporate events, including receptions and dinners.

 

The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden is at 421 East 61st Street, New York, NY 10065. Tel.: (212) 838-6878.

The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden’s website is www.mvhm.org.