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America’s shrine to Columbus

As paesani of the most notable sailor of all times, many Italian Americans want to shout “Basta!” to the annual assaults upon the reputation of our great hero, Cristoforo Colombo. Isn’t it time to hear something positive about ol’ Chris?

Well you can if you go to Boalsburg, a picturesque town in central Pennsylvania. Little Boalsburg — population 3,700 (some 570 miles southeast of Chicago) — is home to the Columbus Chapel, which the Philadelphia Inquirer has called one of our country’s “most meaningful monuments to Christopher Columbus.”

Part of the home in which Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, in 1506, the chapel is half of an attraction known collectively as the “Columbus Chapel and Boal Mansion Museum.” The mansion is the historic home of the Boal family and contains significant items dealing with Pennsylvania history. The chapel is in a separate building on the same grounds. It was brought to the United States in 1909 by Terry Boal and contains a treasure trove of Columbus artifacts.

Terry was a fourth-generation descendant of David Boal, the village’s founder. While studying in Europe in the 1890s, Terry met Mathilde Dolores Denis de Lagarde. They fell in love, married and set up home in Boalsburg. Mathilde’s aunt, Victoria Montalvo, was married to Diego Colon, a direct descendant of Columbus. Victoria and Diego had no children, so their possessions, including the chapel, were deeded to their nephews and nieces, one of whom was Mathilde. The cousins divided the possessions among themselves, and Mathilde got the chapel.

I live in California, so it took me a while to get to Pennsylvania, but when I did and actually saw the Chapel, I was bowled over. But it made me wonder why something so important, so valuable, is almost unknown?

Even noted Columbus scholars were unaware of the chapel. Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco, an Italian-American writer who penned a definitive article on Columbus for The New York Times a few years ago, e-mailed me that although the information I sent her about the chapel was “very interesting … I’m sorry to say, I never heard of it.” Ditto professor William J. Connell of Seton Hall University, one of the nation’s leading authorities on Columbus and Renaissance Italy.

Dr. Robert D. Cameron, director of the museum and chapel, told me that for many years the attractions had been neglected but that recently many improvements have been made on the grounds and buildings.

The chapel contains an altar for saying Mass; two reliquaries containing pieces of wood that allegedly come from the “True Cross” of Jesus; an “Admiral’s Desk” used by Columbus himself and, later, by his son Diego; a confessional; statues and paintings of saints revered by Columbus; a Colombo family coat of arms; and an “explorer’s cross” on a pole, similar to the one stuck in the ground to lay claim for Spain to San Salvador, the first piece of New World land on which Columbus set foot.

That Columbus owned these things attest to his devoutness. Professor Connell notes that there was a movement in the 1800s to canonize him. “The idea was that Columbus deserved sainthood for bringing Christianity to the Americas,” said Connell. “It’s just a hunch, but it seems likely that many of the items in the Columbus Chapel were brought together with that in mind.”

The above appears in the October 2019 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Bob Masullo

A third-generation Italian American, Bob Masullo is a retired newspaper reporter, editor and critic. The bulk of his career was with The Sacramento Bee but he also worked for several other major papers. A co-founder of the Italian Cultural Society of Sacramento, he hosted its Festa Italiana radio program for 20 years and currently runs its Italian Film Festival. He spent his first year of retirement in Italy and wrote monthly columns for Fra Noi about it. Masullo lives with his wife, Eileen, in Sacramento; they have two daughters, both of whom are teachers, and a son, who owns Masullo Pizzeria, cited as one of the 10 best in the United States by pizza authority Chris Bianco.

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