Sister Anne Marie Kirmse, O.P., Ph.D., brightens her tone when she recites an anecdote about Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Fordham’s late Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society:
One day in 2002, Cardinal Dulles asked her to find an envelope in his files on which he’d written a reference. He’d jotted down the note while attending a talk in Washington, D.C. on a very warm day sometime in the 1960s. Now, he wanted the reference for a lecture he was writing.
“The cardinal did his own filing because he felt that if he put something away, he’d know where it was,” recalled Sister Kirmse, “and he remembered having put the envelope in his jacket, which he carried because of the heat.”
So she went to the files, of which there were many, with the clues at hand: Washington D.C. Warm weather. 1960s.
“I pulled a file from the ’60s, and Woodstock College (where the cardinal had taught). I went through each of the years, the spring months; and believe it or not, in the year 1967 there was an envelope, torn in half—on the back of which was a citation.
“It was true; his memory never failed him until he closed his eyes for the last time.”
Sister Kirmse served as Cardinal Dulles’ research associate and executive assistant during his 20-year tenure as Fordham’s McGinley Chair. She helped the cardinal prepare speeches, organize his teachings and writings, keep up with correspondence and maintain his busy schedule of appearances.
Today, Sister Kirmse is helping the staff of Fordham’s William D. Walsh Family Library curate a show on the late cardinal’s life and work. “The Papers and Memorabilia of Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.,” runs through Dec. 23 in the library’s exhibition hall on the main floor. It features more than 100 items of memorabilia from the cardinal’s personal archives, which he bequeathed to the library in 2003.
Included in the archival collection are books, research materials, manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, memorabilia, awards, decorations, honorary degree citations, the cardinal’s vestments and other materials.
University Archivist Patrice Kane estimates that there are a few thousand items in the Dulles archive.
Library Director James McCabe, Ph.D., said the collection is the library’s most valuable holding.
“If this archive were to be auctioned by Christie’s or Sotheby’s, it would surely be of interest to important research libraries like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and others,” McCabe said.
“The show will reveal the dimension of his scholarship as the leading theologian of the 20th century in the United States, and some personal and family history. The Dulles family is an important family in the history of our country,” he said.
In her second-floor office at Faber Hall, Sister Kirmse has spent a portion of her summer sorting out papers and artifacts for inclusion in the show. It is not unusual for a small bit of correspondence, or a boxed honorarium, to trigger a memory about the beloved theologian who wore so many hats: soft-spoken professor in the Fordham community; fellow Jesuit; leading American theologian; and member of the Vatican elite.
One item on display is a small, tattered letter written in eager child script. The sentences run a bit crooked, but its content shows the signs of a thoughtful wordsmith. It is Cardinal Dulles’ first letter to Santa Claus, written when he was a young boy and most likely saved by his mother, Janet Avery Dulles. The content is politely tactical: “Dear Santa Claus, I send much love to you and I wish you to give me many Christmas presents, as you do always.”
Conspicuously, the entire upper case alphabet is printed artfully across the bottom of the letter below the signature.
“It made me curious why a child would print the alphabet on the bottom of a letter to Santa Claus, so one day I asked him,” recalled Sister Kirmse. “He looked at me as if he was shocked that I hadn’t recognized his rationale. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I wanted Santa Claus to know that I was a good boy and was doing my lessons!’”
A certain politeness existed within the Dulles family; thus the cardinal’s childhood included one year at an exclusive school in Switzerland and, eventually, an Ivy League education.
A sense of refinement is evident even throughout the family’s correspondence, said Sister Kirmse, especially within a telegram announcing Avery Dulles’ birth, sent from his grandfather to his father. “Your Son arrived at 7 this morning. Everything fine. Janet says come if convenient.”
“There’s that level of refinement from his upbringing,” Sister Kirmse said, “and there was a strong sense of decorum.” She recalled that, prior to becoming a cardinal, Father Dulles would typically wear an open sport shirt and Dockers, chinos or some brand of sports slacks during the summer.
“But he would always instruct me to be sure to tell him when the students were returning,” she recalled. “Then he’d put on a jacket and a tie every day. It would be 100 degrees in August, but he’d say, ‘I can’t disrespect the students.’”
With the office of cardinal, however, came a degree of pomp—at least with regard to dress. Pope John Paul II made Father Dulles a cardinal in February 2001; he is the only U.S.-born theologian appointed to the College of Cardinals who was not first a bishop.
Sister Kirmse recalled a dinner not long afterward, held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, to raise funds for Catholic universities. A number of Jesuits and nuns sat at a table sponsored by Fordham as Cardinal Dulles walked in dressed in a full-length scarlet watered silk cape, or ferraiolo—a cardinal’s covering for special non-liturgical occasions.
“We all did a collective gasp,” recalled Sister Kirmse, “because he was so tall, and that cape on him was astoundingly beautiful.”
The ferraiolo is on exhibit, draped over the cardinal’s scarlet-tripped cassock.
Among other things on display are a French croix de guerre World War II cross of war, which naval Lt. Avery Dulles received for heroism; Cardinal Dulles’ white brocade mitre hat; his red silk biretta—which famously fell from his head as he embraced the Pope during his elevation—a typed letter to his parents explaining his conversion to Catholicism; his sterling silver birth cup from Tiffany’s; several photos from various decades of his life; and a display of original announcements of his 39 McGinley lectures.
Some 70 volumes of the cardinal’s books are also on display in several translations. Henry Bertels, S.J., the University’s cataloguer of rare books, singled out a signed copy of the cardinal’s first commercially published title, A Testimonial to Grace(Sheed & Ward, 1946), inscribed to his mother.
“It gives you a personal insight into the relationship that Cardinal Dulles had with his family,” said Father Bertels.
Sister Kirmse hopes that the exhibit shows the many sides of a man that the Fordham community was privileged to claim, and yet whose scholarly and theological legacy is far-reaching.
But it was his close personal relationships that came home to her strikingly on the day of his burial when his niece, Ellen Dulles-Coehlo, sprinkled a handful of dust onto his just-lowered coffin and spoke to him.
“[Ellen] told him how much he’d meant to her father (his late brother John), to herself, and to the rest of her family,” recalled Sister Kirmse. “At that moment, I realized that the love Cardinal Dulles had for God, his family, his friends and colleagues, his Jesuit community, his students, and his country are an important part of his legacy as well.
“We will not see his like again.”