Pope Francis to speak from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address lectern
When Pope Francis delivers his address at Independence Hall next month, he will stand behind a nondescript, lectern of dark walnut, largely unused since it was placed in a cemetery in Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863. There, President Abraham Lincoln gripped its softly curved sides and etched into the history books, "Four score and seven years ago..."
When Pope Francis delivers his address at Independence Hall next month, he will stand behind a nondescript lectern of dark walnut, largely unused since it was placed in a cemetery in Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863. There, President Abraham Lincoln gripped its softly curved sides and etched into the history books, "Four score and seven years ago. . . ."
Amid the hustle of big-picture logistics and intense plans for Francis' visit to Philadelphia Sept. 26 and 27 is the chest-high lectern that will link the Gettysburg Address to the pope's widely anticipated speech on religious freedom and immigration.
Privately owned and on loan to the Union League of Philadelphia, the lectern will be moved to Independence Hall for the pope's speech that Saturday. Only the pope and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will speak from it, before about 35,000 people on Independence Mall - and thousands more watching on Jumbotrons around the city.
The address at about 4:45 p.m. will precede the evening Festival of Families gala on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The piece is part of the nationally recognized J. Howard Wert Gettysburg Collection, Civil War artifacts amassed by a Gettysburg college professor during the war. The collection's owner, who wants to remain anonymous, agreed to donate the lectern for the event after Vatican officials saw it at the Union League.
The adjustable lectern stands four feet, five inches when fully raised. (Lincoln, at 6-foot-4, would have towered over it.) Its curved-edge reading platform sits atop a chamfered post set into a heavy, square walnut base. A thin, raised edge kept papers secure from slipping.
According to historical accounts, the lectern came from another professor at Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg and was chosen for the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery. It was intended to hold the notes of former Secretary of State Edward Everett, the event's main speaker. Everett spoke for two hours before Lincoln approached the lectern for his two-minute address.
Fellow professor Wert recognized the lectern's significance and added it to his Civil War collection. The items were passed down through his family and then sold to a friend. A Pennsylvania resident bought the collection when that friend died, said James Mundy, education director of the Union League's Heritage Center.
The items had been gathered by Wert, who was acting as a guide, taking troops to the battlefield.
"There's like 6,000 acres covered with thousands of bodies and horses, and Wert began picking pieces off the battlefield itself - what made it unusual was he wrote down what he found, where he found it, and possibly to whom it belonged," Mundy said. As time passed, Civil War veterans sent items of their own.
Mundy said the collection "is considered to be the best Gettysburg collection in the country."
Mundy, who knows the current owner, asked about bringing Wert pieces to display at the Union League during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2013. Most items have since been returned, but the lectern remains - sitting inconspicuously in the second-floor hallway, a "members-only" space. Mundy said the lectern will be put on public display at the club before the pope arrives.
"The beauty of the lectern is, it's extremely simple. I think that ties into who Pope Francis is," said Bob Ciarruffoli, president of the World Meeting of Families 2015 and a member of the Union League who said he walks by it almost every day.
"His desire to speak on key issues of immigration and religious freedom - it's no different than Abraham Lincoln addressing the most important issue of his time almost 150 years ago," Ciarruffoli said.
Lincoln famously said he belonged to no religion, but Mundy said he thinks the nation's 16th president would be pleased to share with the pope.
"Lincoln, while he wasn't a religious man, I think, believed in God as the creator," Mundy said. "His second inaugural is more of a sermon than a state talk. I think Lincoln would be very happy to see it used the way it will be on Sept. 26."
More than a dozen U.S. presidents who have delivered addresses in front of Independence Hall. Lincoln spoke there in 1861 ahead of his first inaugural address, where he raised a flag of 34 stars, representing the 34 states then in the Union.
John F. Kennedy, the nation's first Catholic president, spoke there July 4, 1962.
The historical significance of the space was not lost on Fred Stein, president of the Creative Group, which is producing the papal events at Independence Hall.
In talks with the Vatican, Stein said, he was told often that the pope is not an "object" person but a people person. Still, he explained the significance of the lectern, the Liberty Bell, and the backdrop.
"It would be our hope that when he stands at the stage, looking across the street at an assembled group of 30,000 to 40,000 and the Liberty Bell on the left, and the National Constitution Center, the Jewish History Museum, and the African American Museum all right there, it'd be nice if the one thing he said in English was, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
The inscription on the Liberty Bell, Stein noted as he gave a tour to Vatican representatives in the spring, is taken from Leviticus 25:10.
So convincing was Stein's pitch, he said, a Vatican representative confirmed for him that day, "This is where the Holy Father will deliver a speech on immigration and religious freedom."
Then came the task of making sure the lectern was the real deal. Stein went back to the Union League, which had verified it in 2013 and had it checked again to ensure a duplicate was never made.
"This indeed is the original and only one," Stein said.
A conservator was brought in to make sure the joints were tight and to plan installation of separate hand rails so the pope will have something sturdy to lean upon.
Thomas Moser of Auburn, Maine, a master at historical furniture-making, said the handmade lectern is Pennsylvania black walnut (though its aged patina looks more like cherry), with a knob to adjust the height. It stands 48 inches high at its highest point downstage and 53 inches high upstage.
Moser's company is crafting the chairs for the stage and an exact replica of the lectern to use in planning the railings of cherry wood and steel.
The work is uniquely suited for Moser, formerly a college professor with a doctorate in rhetoric and public speaking.
"I would argue the Gettysburg Address was the most important speech spoken on U.S. soil," Moser said. "The fact that this would be used is astounding."
The Independence Hall event - including performances and speeches leading up to Francis' address - is free but ticketed. Details on how tickets will be distributed are yet to be announced, Stein said.
He said some consideration will be given to cultural groups that represent the city's diversity, given the pope's focus on immigration.
If Americanism can be considered a civil religion, Lincoln's lectern and his Gettysburg Address are two defining elements of it, said Maureen O'Connell, chair of the religion department at La Salle University.
The Civil War, she said, "was about a moment of defining identity and who constitutes an American, in which Lincoln wrestled with the contradictions of 'all men are created equal.' "
Francis, with his focus on economic inequality, imprisonment rates, and immigration, is in many ways stepping into the situation Lincoln was in on that day in Gettysburg, she said.
"To stand in Independence Hall, to stand at that podium, provides the pope with a moment to stand back and name the contradictions in the history of this great American experiment, but also to list off the unique resources we have . . . human rights, the right to work, religious liberty, the common good; things central to American civil religion, all of which have been recognized by popes that predate him as ingredients for creating strong, inclusive, local, and national communities.' "
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