The Gallery of Living Catholic Authors was an extraordinary flowering of Catholic literary culture in the middle of the 20th century. It arose, without great fanfare, from Webster College, Missouri, in 1932, when a professor of English, Sister Mary Joseph, wrote to 100 carefully selected writers, inviting them to become members.

Her intention was, it seems, twofold. First, to stimulate interest in Catholic literature among students at Webster itself, which had been founded in 1915 by her order, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, to provide higher education to women. Second, to help “build up a Catholic reading public which would know, read, talk about and ask for Catholic authors, and do what they could to spread Catholic literature”.

In 1936, when membership reached 200, the board of the Gallery decided to create an “academy” of its 40 greatest authors, consciously modelled on the Académie Française. The selection process included a vote run by the Jesuit magazine America. Ultimately, 31 places were filled, comprising 11 American authors and 20 from the rest of the world. Chesterton was one, but he died before the formal opening and a special status was created for him.

By 1954, membership of the Gallery itself had climbed to 775. The Catholic Herald took notice: “At Webster Groves, Missouri, in the much-maligned Middle West of America, lives a Sister of Loretto who has gathered all present day Catholic writers of distinction into a ‘Gallery of Living Catholic Authors’.” The organisation was in possession of more than 60,000 pages of manuscript, 750 letters, photographs and voice recordings, and countless books, pamphlets and magazines. The ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram was commissioned to design a library, presumably in his signature Gothic Revival style, though this remained unbuilt.

Academy members included Hilaire Belloc, naturally, and Evelyn Waugh, who sent manuscript pages of Edmund Campion to form part of the Gallery’s collection of authors’ papers (now housed at Georgetown University). Another member was Christopher Dawson who, when writing to Sister Mary Joseph following his election, identified the need for “an international Catholic culture to meet the international challenge of secularism”. Other members included Clare Boothe Luce, at different times a hit playwright, managing editor of Vanity Fair and the US ambassador to Italy, and Thomas Merton, whose letter of acceptance asked for prayers and funds for a new Trappist monastery. They were joined by François Mauriac, Maria von Trapp and Fulton Sheen, whose letter to Sister Mary Joseph lamented “the present generation’s [loss of] contact with historical Christianity” (perhaps in the belief that it was the responsibility of living writers to rectify this). Less well-known names these days, such as the New Zealand poet Eileen Duggan and the Scottish novelist Bruce Marshall, were also members.

Jacques Maritain seems to have been a particularly strong champion of the Gallery, praising Sister Mary Joseph for her conviction that “this Catholic family” needed to “come to a better awareness of itself, and of its own energies and of its own standards”: “Before giving something, we need to be something; before giving ourselves, we need to be ourselves; before giving divine truth, we need to have divine truth and life descending into and passing through ourselves. Well, it is chiefly by its own literature, art and poetry that any community whatever becomes conscious of itself.”

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection