Caldwell, Mary Gwendolin (1863–1909)

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Caldwell, Mary Gwendolin (1863–1909)

American philanthropist. Name variations: Mamie; Marquise des Monstiers-Mérinville. Born Mary Gwendolin Caldwell in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1863; died on October 5, 1909, aboard the German liner Kronprinzessin Cecile outside New York; elder of two daughters of William Shakespeare Caldwell (a constructor and operator of gas plants in the Midwest) and Mary Eliza (Breckinridge) Caldwell; attended Academy of the Sacred Heart, New York; married François Jean Louis, Marquis des Monstiers-Mérinville, on October 19, 1896 (separated 1905).

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Caldwell and her younger sister grew up in New York City, where their wealthy father took them to live after the death of their mother, and where he converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon his death in 1874, she and her sister became wards of Roman Catholic friends and also inherited several million dollars. While attending the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New York, Caldwell became acquainted with the Rev. John Lancaster Spalding, who later became the first bishop of Peoria, Illinois. Whether through her relationship with Spalding, or according the dictates of her father's will—it is not certain which—Caldwell made an offer in 1884 to donate $300,000 for the founding of a national Catholic school of philosophy and theology. The offer was accepted, with the stipulation that Caldwell be considered the founder of what became the Catholic University of America, incorporated in the District of Columbia in April 1887. Caldwell later made two smaller endowment gifts that were lost in the failure of a brokerage firm.

Mary Caldwell traveled extensively and became part of the international set. In 1889, she became engaged to Prince Joachim Joseph Napoleon Murat, the invalid grandson of the king of Naples, but marriage plans were terminated when the prince insisted on a settlement of half her fortune. She later married François Jean Louis, Marquis des Monstiers-Mérinville, a French noble, 30 years her senior. The marriage floundered, along with Caldwell's faith in the Catholic Church. By 1899, when she received the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University, her attachment to Catholicism was considerably weakened, and in 1904 she stunned the church by renouncing her faith. Those close to her, however, were less surprised, citing an impulsive nature and poor health. (In 1902, she had suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed and impaired her speech.)

Caldwell separated from her husband in 1905, though she paid him $8,000 a year to refrain from filing for divorce in an effort to keep her title. Four years later, the 46-year-old Caldwell died of Bright's disease in her stateroom aboard the German liner Kronprinzessin Cecile.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Caldwell, Mary Gwendolin (1863–1909)

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