Order of Malta's ties to Revolution explored at feast day gathering

BOSTON -- In 1778, at the height of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren had a warning for Abigail Adams.

That year, after France allied with the Thirteen Colonies, a French fleet came to Boston. Many of the French naval officers were Knights of Malta (as the order was then called) because Malta provided better naval training than France. The home of Josiah Quincy served as a headquarters for these officers and a place for them to socialize. In a 1778 letter, Warren wrote to Adams that "Knights of Malta are sometimes dangerous companions."

"She writes to Abigail Adams ... and says that these young women in Boston, very impressed by these French naval officers, all, I'm sure, in Quincy, that they have to be on their guard or they'll be swept away by the Knights of Malta," Massachusetts Historical Society Chief Librarian Peter Drummey explained.

For centuries, the Protestant Brahmins who dominated Boston's political elite maintained a close and friendly relationship with the Catholic Knights of Malta. On June 24, the Boston Area Order of Malta celebrated the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, their patron saint, with an exhibit on the order's history at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. Before the exhibit, a Mass for the order was celebrated at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine across the street by Father Jack Ahern, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Dorchester.

"As Knights and Dames of Malta," Father Ahern said in his homily, "you were invited and challenged to be prophets of justice and ministers of God's tender love. As with John the Baptist, the hand of the Lord is upon each one of you, and the spirit of God is accompanying you as you embrace the charism of the order."

He described that charism as serving the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, and the marginalized -- "all who need the tender embrace of Jesus."

"May the hand of the Lord steady you and your service to the church," he said, "and may the spirit of God be your guide as we seek to make God's kingdom of peace and grace a reality here during this time and in this place."

The Mass concluded with Boston Area Order of Malta Chair Ed Delaney leading the assembly in the order's daily prayer.

After Mass, the Knights and Dames walked up the grand spiral staircase of the Massachusetts Historical Society, where Drummey and MHS Board Chair Newcomb Stillwell, himself a Knight of Malta, were waiting for them.

"The Order of Malta played a crucial role in the success of the American Revolution, which we never knew before," Stillwell said. "You heard it here first."

Prior to the presentation, Delaney asked Stillwell and Drummey to look through the 14 million documents in the MHS archives and see if any of them mentioned the Order of Malta.

"Neither Peter nor I really had any idea that there might be something about the Order of Malta in the collection," Stillwell said. "It turns out we've got a lot of stuff about the Order of Malta in the collection."

Much of that "stuff" came from William Winthrop, descendent of John Winthrop and U.S. Consul in Malta from 1834 until his death in 1869. Winthrop donated his collection of Maltese artifacts and manuscripts, both originals and copies, to MHS. (It may have helped that his distant cousin Robert Charles Winthrop was MHS president at the time).

"Trust me, the Vatican Museum has nothing on us," Stillwell joked.

Winthrop's collection included watercolors depicting the coats of arms of the Grand Masters of the Order of Malta and a book from circa 1600 with a naval map of Malta. The book and watercolor were both on display for today's knights and dames to marvel at.

"I brought in a couple of examples of that," Drummey said, "but the collection is actually much larger. This is just a sample of it."

Winthrop was passionate about uncovering Malta's history and did some archaeological work there. He was so fascinated by the Knights of Malta that he claimed to be one.

"I don't see how that's possible," Drummey said, "but he did."

After the American Revolution, Malta was one of the first countries to have diplomatic relations with the newly independent U.S. When Malta was invaded by France, the Knights asked the U.S. for help. It never came. The Knights and their British allies managed to defeat France, but Malta became a British territory, and the Knights lost their power. The Knights set their sights on the U.S., hoping that the large new country could offer land to make into their new territory. Of course, the U.S. did not give up any of its territory, but it did welcome Knights who moved there.

"Is it fair to say that since the French Navy caused us to win the Revolutionary War, we can connect the dots to the Order of Malta?" Stillwell asked.

"I would say that's not overstating that," Drummey replied.