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Relics and possessions of St. Thomas More come to the St. John Paul II National Shrine

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A new exhibit, “God's Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More,” opened at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington Sept 16. It will be the exhibit's only showing in the United States, and will run until March 3 - with free admission, scheduled lectures and a screening of the 1966 film, “A Man for All Seasons.”

The exhibit's title comes from a quote of St. Thomas More, believed to have been his last words before his execution, “I die the king's good servant, and God's first.”

“I die the king's good servant, and God's first.” St. Thomas More

The exhibit includes more than 60 artifacts, donated by the exhibit's sponsors, and organizers - Stonyhurst College Collections in Clitheroe, England, and the Knights of Columbus. The collection narrates St. Thomas More's life with personal items such as his clothes, letters, books and two relics. The exhibit details the chaos of the Reformation in England, interesting influences More had on Shakespeare and on early America.

More's connection to early America seems mythical but is real. After More's execution, St. Omer College was established in Bruges, Belgium, (later transferred to Stonyhurst College when penal laws were lifted) as a refuge for English and American boys to receive a Catholic education as their own countries banned Catholic learning. Students were taught of the heroic martyrdom of St. Thomas More.

“He was (revered) by the boys at the mention of his name,” said Patrick Kelly, executive director of the shrine, noting that it was practice to remove one's hat at the mention of the saint. Two alumni of St. Omer College were Bishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop of America, and his cousin, Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence. 

Artifacts of the Carrolls are showcased along with letters written to religious communities by presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. A letter from Jefferson to an Ursuline Convent in New Orleans was intended to comfort the Ursuline Sisters after the Louisiana Purchase transferred the French territory to American hands. 

“(The letter) was folded, as if someone kept it close to their heart - like a passport,” said Janet Graffius, curator of collections at Stonyhurst College.

The exhibit's other theme - religious freedom - bookends the exhibit with two quotes, one at its entrance and the other at the exit wall. The entrance quote comes from St. John Paul the Great when he proclaimed St. Thomas More as “the heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians,” in 2000. The exit quote from the prolific English writer G.K. Chesterton echoes a prophetic message from 1929.

“Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred's years' time,” wrote Chesterton. 

The intent of the exhibit is to acquaint contemporary America with the martyr's exemplary life. Carl A. Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, wrote in his foreword of the exhibit that he hopes “it will inspire all to imitate (Thomas More's) virtues and proclaim the dignity of the human conscience where God's voice echoes within us all.”

Find out more
St. John Paull II National Shrine is located at 3900 Harewood Rd. N.E., Washington. 

Go to 
jp2shrine.org/thomasmore . The exhibit runs until March 31. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016