The image reproduced here is the monumental statue of Moses — the centerpiece of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union fountain. Originally commissioned as part of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the fountain commemorates the contributions of Catholics to the first 100 years of the U.S. history. Flanking Moses on four sides are sculptures of Commodore John Barry, Archbishop John Carroll, Charles Carroll (the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence), and Father Theobald Mathew.
Who is Father Mathew? Before researching this fountain, I, for one, had never heard of him. Known as “The Apostle of Temperance”, Fr. Mathew was an Irish priest who saw the scourge of drunkenness in his native land and decided to do something about it. In 1838, he founded a Total Abstinence Society in Cork — sort of a precursor to Alcoholics Anonymous — took the pledge himself, and began a crusade encouraging others to refrain from liquor.
By the time Father Mathew died in 1856, it is estimated that over 7 million people across the world had taken the total abstinence pledge, including hundreds of thousands in the United States.
In 1876, such an achievement was considered worthy of commemoration. But our country was much different then. One need only scan through some of the photos and lithographs made during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition to appreciate the dynamism, optimism, and growth that underpinned American life. Above all, there was a sense that virtue, progress, heroism, faith, and beauty should be celebrated on a grand scale.
Contrast that with the situation in Philadelphia and our other major urban centers today where very little of this optimism remains. Taxes are astronomical in places where men once went to war to protest much more modest impositions. Far from encouraging temperance, our cities hand out needles to those destroying themselves with drugs. Murder rates rival those of Sadr City, Iraq. Vice and hedonism are openly celebrated and officially protected while organizations that promote the manly traditional virtues are persecuted. In Philadelphia, the Boy Scouts are about to lose their building because they refuse to make the same mistake so many of our Catholic bishops made in giving those with disordered sexuality easy access to young people.
In our day, the term abstinence has come to connote something quite different than it did in Father Mathew’s day. But the underlying sense is the same. And many young people are already taking a new kind of pledge — to remain chaste until marriage and completely faithful within marriage. And some of the truly rebellious ones are opening their hearts to the possibility that God is calling them to perpetual chastity in the priesthood or religious life. There can be no greater sign of contradiction to the vulgarians of this world than this.
Today, the Catholic Total Abstinence Union fountain is a forgotten relic that almost no one knows about. The machinery that powered it has long since ceased to function. Weeds grow out of the cracks between the granite blocks, and the grounds around it are strewn with trash and beer cans. As such, it is an apt metaphor for our own broken society, once so grand and beautiful.
But even here there is hope. In 2007, plans were announced to begin restoration work on the fountain.
It falls to the rest of us to begin the much larger job of the restoration of America.