An Irish Vincentian and Jackie Kennedy

by | May 18, 2014 | Congregation of the Mission, Vincentian Family | 1 comment

There is quite a discussion about the publication of the letters between Jackie Kennedy and Irish Vincentian Joseph Leonard.  (Just Google Jackie Kennedy letters priest.)

Apart from that controversy, who was this Vincentian priest … and how did Jackie come to place so much trust in him? And then there is the question about everyone’s privacy in this digital age.

Who was Joseph Leonard?

From one perspective he is a name recognized by a few generations of English-speaking Vincentians and Sisters of Charity who learned about the life and writing of Vincent de Paul through Fr. Leonard’s translations and writing based on his familiarity with these writings.

Joseph Leonard, the translator.

  • Conferences of St. Vincent Paul to the Sisters of Charity. (4 Vol.)
  • Letters of St. Vincent de Paul.

Joseph Leonard, the author

  • St. Vincent de Paul and Mental Prayer
  • St. Vincent de Paul and Christian Education
  • Thoughts of St. Vincent de Paul

But there is another side to him.

The Irish Times provides this background which was probably unknown to many  of us who read his scholarly work. The article reads

Fr Joseph Leonard CM was born in Sligo in 1877 and died in Dublin in 1964, aged 87. He was a priest in the Catholic Vincentian Order – the letters CM stand for Congregation of the Mission – which is devoted to the teachings of St Vincent de Paul.

Fr Leonard was educated at Castleknock College, a Vincentian boarding school in Dublin, and trained for the priesthood at the Vincentian seminary St Joseph’s in Blackrock, Co Dublin.

After being ordained he was sent to London and taught in a teacher-training college run by the order in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.

During the first World War he joined the British army’s chaplain department, holding the rank of captain and serving on the western front in France. The experience left him partly deaf.

He was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He returned to work in London and was friendly with prominent social figures including Irish playwright and Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw and the hostess Lady Lavery, wife of artist Sir John Lavery and a friend of Michael Collins.

Fr Leonard was introduced to, and befriended, a wealthy American couple on honeymoon, Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis and his wife Annie Auchincloss.

Fr Leonard returned to Dublin in 1939, to the Vincentian seminary at All Hallows in Drumcondra.

Eleven years later he was contacted by two young American visitors to Ireland:Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and her stepbrother Hugh Dudley Auchincloss III. They had been given Fr Leonard’s name as a contact by Mrs Lewis. Mrs Lewis’s brother, oil heirHugh Auchincloss Jr, had become Jacqueline’s stepfather in 1942.

Jacqueline and Fr Leonard struck up an immediate friendship and corresponded regularly after that first meeting. They met on only one other occasion, however, when Jacqueline travelled to Dublin with her husband John F Kennedy, then a US senator, in 1955.

Fr Leonard’s health declined rapidly in the 1960s. By late 1963 he was unable to stand and had to request special permission from the Vatican to say Mass sitting down – which he did in memory of John F Kennedy following the president’s assassination in November 1963.

On the morning of Fr Leonard’s funeral in Dublin, as the coffin was being borne into the church, a bouquet of red roses was delivered from Jacqueline in New York.

Mrs Kennedy, widowed less than a year, subsequently wrote to the rector of All Hallows to offer condolences on the loss of “a great and good friend to all of us”.

How did she come to place such trust in him?

Such an exchange between an elderly priest and a famous woman is hard to imagine today. What wife of a US president would take the risk of such openness today, with a priest she met only twice? An opinion piece in the Irish Times offers an approach.

“It seems clear Jacqueline Kennedy not only protected her privacy in an admirable way but did so in an era in which it was still possible.

“Yet it is a little more complex than that. Kennedy wrote letters, a means of communicating that is “so 20th century”, but a vulnerable method, as shown by the fact the letters have indeed emerged in the public domain.

(The Boston Globe has an article on the other priests i her life.)

Privacy in an era of surveillance.

“Perhaps what Jackie Kennedy’s letters show best is that true friendship with someone who can be absolutely trusted and who understands you both spiritually and mentally was as rare and precious in so-called Camelot as it is in the era of viral cat videos.”

It’s not just the creepily accurate Amazon suggestions. It’s not just the advertisements that appear alongside the inbox every time we open it. All sorts of information is constantly being collected from everything from our loyalty cards to our social media sites.

It would be well to think about what we post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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