Pope Pius IX’s Secret Vist to America in 1849

The aquatic entry of a Pope onto America Territory

With Pope Francis arriving in America, there are many media sources recollecting the “first” papal visit to the United States by Pope Paul VI. But this isn’t quite correct. Back in 1849, there was a covert visit to the United States by Pope Pius IX. Here’s a video explaining it, or you can read on below for a full explanation of this little known historical fact:

If you don’t see the video in your email or RSS, click here.

I’ve only had the opportunity to visit the White House once and after lunch I was shown a portrait of a large ship flying the American and Papal flags. It depicts the first papal visit to the territory of the United States in the person of Pope Pius IX in 1849.

The American USS Constitution (known affectionally as “Old Ironsides”) received onboard King Ferdinand II and Pope Pius IX on Aug 1 1849 giving them a 21-gun salute. By stepping on board an American vessel, the Holy Father officially entered American territory. A commissioned military ship has the same legal status as a piece of political soil. So while Pius IX did not actually enter the borders of the United States, he did technically step foot onto American territory.

The King and Pope received a full tour of Old Ironsides and was even hosted in Captain Gwinn’s quarters. The Holy Father personally met the Catholic sailors on board, blessed them, and spoke with them through an English/Italian interpreter.

To show his appreciation, Pope Pius IX struck a silver medal bearing the pontiff’s coat of arms along with the coat of arms of Captain Gwinn. The Holy Father also sent papally blessed Rosaries to the crew of the Constitution. 

When news reached the United States that the Pope of Rome had received hospitality on an American war vessel, the Navy was furious. Commodore Morgan sought to have Captain Gwinn disciplined. However, Gwinn died months later before disciplinary measures could be executed. I’m sure Saint Peter returned the hospitality to Captain Gwinn…

Question: Did you know that a Pope had “entered America” back in 1849? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • BelovedCatholic

    Love the comment “Saint Peter returned the hospitality” 🙂

    • Joan Browning

      A bit of history I was unaware of! I do not understand why Commodore Morgan would be so irate as to want to punish Captain Quinn….Maybe he felt Quinn stepped on his toes?
      Guess politics was then and still is the name of the game!

      • Recall that the Papal States are still a sovereign nation. Pius IX was the European equivalent of a national monarch. That and a lot of 19th century anti-Catholicism had something to do with it!

  • Enrico Contolini

    Why did he come and why did he only stay on the ship and did not come on land?

    • avnrulz

      Mr. Contolini, if you read that the ship welcomed about the King and the Pope, which means the ship was in Italy, not the Americas.

      • Enrico Contolini

        I see… The article does not say that the ship as in Italy, but I guess it makes sense.

        • avnrulz

          Yes, sir, but it is explained in the video in more detail.

  • Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC

    It is true. As another point of interest, even before Bl. Pope Pius IX became pope he had already visited the Americas as a bishop. He spent time in Chile and Peru to help the Apostolic Nuncio.

    • Father Donald! Great to see you here. Good to know about his visits to Chile and Peru.

  • This is so awesome! Not hating on Francis or BVXI or SJPII…But I miss the good ol’ days when Popes lived much less public lives.

  • Way cool! Dr. Marshall, did you know that Pio Nono was the only international sovereign to ever officially recognize the Confederate States of America as a legitimate state? He even sent Jefferson Davis an autographed picture. I find this an interesting tidbit given the current ramping up of smear campaigns by revisionists to slam the Confederacy as slave mongers.

    • John Albertson

      Mythbusting: Jefferson Davis studied as a youth under the Dominicans of St. Rose Province at St.Thomas School in Kentucky. When he wanted to convert, the friars told him to wait a while. It is said that he customarily wore a Brown Scapular. The letter of Pius IX was in reply to one sent by Davis requesting support. The Pope sent a vague and non-committal reply using, as befitted protocol, the salutary form that Davis had used when he styled himself President of the Confederacy. When Davis circulated this as an implicit recognition of the Confederacy, news reached Rome and the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonellii, hastily wrote to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward that such was not the case. After the war, Robert E. Lee compounded the confusion by claiming that the pope had endorsed the claims of the Confederacy. The pope in any case could not have recognized the Confederacy whose constitution protected slavery in contradiction to its condemnation by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 “In Supremo Apostolatus.” Mary Surratt, conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln, and the first women in the US to be hanged by the federal government, was a Catholic. Her son , a former Catholic seminarin, was sentenced to hanging too, but eventually escaped to Rome via Quebec where he enlisted as a zouave in the Papal Guard under an assumed identity. When he was discovered, Pius IX had hims arrested and offered to extradict him to the USA for hanging, but he escaped again, to Egypt. When he was recognized, he was sent back to Washington, DC still in his papal uniform. Because of a declared mistrial and some charges dismissed because of the statute of limitations, he became a teacher in a Catholic school. When Davis was in prison, he did received a signed photograph of Pius IX, not addressed to a president, but expressing solicitude for a prisoner. Contrary to myth, a crown of thorns which he kept was not made by the pope but by Mrs. Davis, Varina, to accompany the photograph. Another but of trivia: up until the Civil War Archbishop Hughes was outspoken in his pro-slavery views and preached in support of it in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street.

  • Lisa Ann Homic

    Who was that sneaking into the video? Cute.

  • A really big TECHNOCALITY….no????

  • In Defense of the Church

    I didn’t know that… thanks a lot for this information Dr. Taylor.

  • Dave Farrell

    I did not know this. I must fact check this with my special Catholic/Naval expert, Fr. Rick Gribble, CSC; Stonehill College