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How one English school shaped America

All manner of future luminaries passed through the classrooms of Stonyhurst

These days, schools and universities enjoy sending out yearly bulletins to their alumni: it’s partly an exercise in reminding former students of happy times and partly a way of raising funds. Neither pursuit is reprehensible. If such updates had been the fashion during earlier centuries, Stonyhurst would have been able to produce a very impressive list of update recipients on the other side of the Atlantic.

Before the forced move to the Ribble Valley in 1794, back when Stonyhurst was its continental forerunner at St Omer, all manner of future luminaries who would help to shape America passed through its classrooms. The founder of Georgetown and America’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, was an old boy, as was his father, Charles, who got to sign the Declaration of Independence. Aedanus Burke, a Galway boy, went on from St Omer to become a rather puzzling figure during America’s revolutionary wars. He was all for tearing down the “unnatural distinctions of nobleman and commons” and talked of the “new republic … launching into the immense ocean of future times”. Still, he was far from pleased with the precise details of the US Constitution. He did his bit, however, and became a leading jurist in South Carolina – the place where he and his militia comrades had attempted to batter the Brits. And let’s not forget Thomas Lloyd, who made life a good deal easier for generations of secretaries and journalists by inventing American shorthand.

Following the forced decamping to Lancashire, Stonyhurst old boys who ended up in the US were an equally mixed bunch. Thomas Francis Meagher lies somewhere between disreputability and respectability. A keen Irish nationalist, he was supposed to be deported to Australia for his seditious crimes but made his escape and, after service on the Union side during the Civil War, became a bigwig in Montana’s politics. Others were of more Confederate sympathies: after a spell as governor of Maryland, Enoch Louis Lowe took issue with the Yankees, but, post-bellum, practised law in New York City. Bryan Mullanphy, however, pursued a gentler course. A mayor of St Louis during the 1840s, he contented himself with donating a major collection of Native American artefacts to Stonyhurst, his alma mater. They now reside in the British Museum.

I’m not usually a list man, but these are just a few examples from a truly impressive roster. Few schools can boast that they educated the great-grandfather of George W Bush (George Walker) or the man who took Hollywood by storm (the mighty Charles Laughton). And let’s remember just how important Stonyhurst was during the incessantly perilous decades of the 19th century. Many Catholic exiles from European countries sought refuge at the college and a good number set sail for the US, playing key roles in missionary work and education.

The link was strong and often there was a sense that Stonyhurst had much to teach America. The Jesuit scientist Giovanni Antonio Grassi, amid the turmoil of his order’s suppression, spent time at Stonyhurst then headed off to Georgetown. It was, he reported, “a dismal change” since the student body “with the exception of a very few, contains nothing but a crew of black-guard youths and boys”. Grassi did his best to improve matters, and I’m told that Georgetown turned out rather well.

How fitting, then, that the US has often returned the favour. Old friends are the best friends. A nice example is the E L Wiegand Foundation’s donation that has done wonders for the renovation of Stonyhurst’s Old Chapel Museum with its fabulous collection of books and manuscripts. A Shakespeare First Folio? A prayer book belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots? All that and more. Though check the schedule: the place isn’t always open to the public.

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University