On a sultry August 5th evening in 1920 the transatlantic liner Leopoldina cast off from the New York docks amidst the sounds of a police band, sirens, and cheers. Aboard were 237 members of a Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, bringing with them a giant American flag to use for unveiling a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette. The ceremony was to take place on August 22nd in the northeastern French city of Metz, near the German border. From a distance it is difficult to appreciate the deep national stirrings in both the United States and France that this event occasioned.
The idea of the monument had first surfaced at the 1919 National Knights of Columbus “Peace” Convention in Buffalo, New York where, following a powerful speech by a French High Commissioner, a resolution had been unanimously passed to memorialize the Franco-American wartime sacrifices with a statue of Lafayette. Within a short time, the Knights had raised $60,000 for the project, and at their National “Lafayette” Convention in August 1920, a model of the bronze statue was displayed to the public in the foyer of the convention center.
The 16-foot high equestrian sculpture was a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts heroic realism. Sculpted by Paul Wayland Bartlett, the statue duplicated an earlier work that was placed in the central courtyard of the Louvre Museum in 1908. “With head and sward and spirit uplifted,” an art critic wrote, “the young Marquis rides to a victory that will change the world.” Three weeks before the Leopoldina sailed, the actual statue had been hauled by a Knights of Columbus truck to wharf side in New York City and shipped to France.
The statue was a product of the religious-social situation of French and American Catholics prior and during the Great War. In 1905 the French Parliament had passed legislation transferring all Church property to state ownership, outlawed religious orders, and banned the teaching of religion in public schools. The Great War had provided Catholics an opportunity to assert themselves in the public forum. Supporting the war effort also allowed the Church to align itself with the traditionally Catholic officer corps of the French army, led by Ferdinand Foch, Grand Marshal of France and a devout Catholic.
The choice of Metz, a city where the youthful Lafayette had made the decision to join the American Revolution, was also significant. The fortress town, the largest metropolitan center of Alsace-Lorraine, had been restored to France only one year earlier, after a repressive forty-year occupation by Germany following the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Its population was staunchly Catholic, and since the end of the conflict had successfully litigated with the government in Paris to retain its religious rights.
The Knights of Columbus, in turn, viewed the statue as a capstone of patriotic effort that had won for them the high regard of the French government. During the two year period in which America had engaged in the conflict, Knights had distinguished themselves for support of the War effort, aiding in the collection of over $30,000,000 in contributions to take the lead in operating social and entertainment programs. By August 1919, the Knights were operating nearly one hundred servicemen’s clubs in France, under the motto “Everybody welcome, everything free.”
The choice of Lafayette as a symbol of these efforts also seemed appropriate. During the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette had served America as one of George Washington’s most trusted commanders, and had been responsible for bringing the French into the war. With the help of Thomas Jefferson, he had later drafted the core document of the French Revolution, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (1789), and had championed democratic revolutions in Greece, Poland, Italy, and South America. No figure in France was as closely identified with the ideals of democracy. For all of these reasons, both Marshall Foch and the French hierarchy were receptive to the Knights of Columbus’s offer.
Not all sectors of the American Catholic community, however, saw the French hero in a positive light. Three years before coming to America, Lafayette, along with 100 other French officers, had joined a Masonic Lodge in Paris, an act that carried the penalty of excommunication – although at the time the stricture was only lightly enforced. But the issue had not gone away. In 1900 it had taken the personal approval of Pope Leo XIII for an American Archbishop to speak at the dedication of a similar statue of Lafayette in Paris. Two decades later, concerns again were raised criticizing the Knights for their endorsement of an “apostate general,” “ and a “renegade Catholic.” One priest complained that the Knights of Columbus were showing “ridiculous eagerness to prove [themselves] patriotic.” Elements of the German community seemed particularly unhappy. Defending the decision, the Supreme Secretary replied that the statue was intended to “express appreciation of the aid and assistance given by France to the struggling colonies” and not “to glorify Lafayette as a Catholic.”
The French, however, welcomed the large delegation with open arms. Upon the group’s arrival at the seaport of La Havre on August 15th, it was whisked through customs and taken by special train to Paris to celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame with the Cardinal Archbishop. From Paris they traveled by train and automobile to the battlefields of Northern France where the countryside had been ravaged by war. “We passed through at least twenty small settlements or towns,” a delegate wrote, “many of them entirely destroyed, others partially ruined, while still others were deserted.” Hundreds of thousands of trees had been destroyed, many of them by poison gases and chemicals. At every side were cemeteries. America’s loss of 53,000 combatants paled in comparison to the 1.3 million military deaths that the French had suffered. The members of the American delegation were deeply moved by the great number of black-dressed widows shouting “Vive l’Amerique!” as tears ran down their faces.
Arriving at Metz on the afternoon of August 21, members of the group found the city festooned with American and French flags. On their way to a grand banquet attended by the Premier of France, they were cheered by enthusiastic crowds. The next morning, at a Solemn Memorial Mass honoring the dead of both countries Foch joined the Knights in receiving Communion. The dignitaries were then conveyed by automobile to the courtyard of the Palace of Justice for the dedication ceremony of the statue. Uncovering the statue, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty recalled the oft-quoted General Pershing’s words, “ Lafayette we are here,” and to the delight of the huge crowd, then added: “Lafayette We Are still Here!”
Aircraft flew overhead dropping flags and flowers. For the first time in fifty years the bells of the Cathedral were rung, and five thousand French troops paraded past. An account of the dedication of the statue appeared the next day on the front page of the New York Times, and in other newspapers across the United States.
For twenty years, the statue stood as an eloquent tribute to the internationalism and high-mindedness of an American Catholic lay organization in the period immediately after the Great War. Though the values symbolized by Lafayette remained, the statue would not survive. In 1940 German forces once again occupied Metz, and soon thereafter the statue and its artwork were destroyed.