Tale of a Jesuit Cemetery
by Fr. Tom Clancy, SJ
Grand Coteau is one of the oldest towns in Louisiana. People still visit it because it has not changed much through the years. Its population remains around 1,000. One of the popular stops is the Jesuit cemetery attached to the novitiate of the New Orleans Province. There Fr. Thomas Sherman, SJ, son of General William Tecumseh Sherman, lies buried next to Fr. John Salter, SJ, grandnephew of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America. How they came to be buried side by side is the burden of this story.
Thomas Sherman, the elder son of William and Ellen Ewing Sherman, was born in 1856. His mother was a Catholic, and he and the other children were raised in her faith. He was still a child when his father went to Louisiana to become the first superintendent of Louisiana State Seminary. This first effort to start a state university was a military college for males only and was located in Pineville. Sherman, a West Point graduate, served a little over a year in 1860- 61. When Louisiana voted to secede from the Union in the spring of 1861, he returned to his home in Ohio, but he is still recognized as one of the founders of Louisiana State University, now located in Baton Rouge.
William Tecumseh Sherman joined the Union army and rose to the rank of major general during the Civil War. After the war he became the commanding general of the army and enjoyed wide popularity, at least in most of the country. After his retirement from the military, the Republicans tried to draft him as their presidential candidate in 1884. This urging prompted his famous answer, "If nominated I will not run, and if elected I will not serve."
His son Tom was the apple of his eye. He graduated from Georgetown in 1874 at age 18 and then earned another degree from Yale in 1876. Returning to the family home in St. Louis, he studied law and looked after his father's business affairs until 1878, when he decided to enter the Society of Jesus. This was a great source of sorrow to his father, who had counted on him to help with the family finances. In fact, when Tom was ordained a priest in 1889, his father was not present. But less than two years later, on his deathbed, his father was received into the Catholic Church.
Tom Sherman was assigned to teach philosophy at St. Louis University, but he spent most of his time giving missions and public lectures on religion. He drew a great number of non-Catholics to his lectures not only because of the renown of his father but also because he was a polished and energetic orator. He vigorously attacked those who taught that Catholics could not be good citizens. During the Spanish-American War he served as a military chaplain and was attached to the personal staff of General Ulysses S. Grant II. After the war he continued his career as a speaker and writer and was considered to be one of the chief apologists of the Catholic Church in America.
Around 1910 Fr. Sherman began to show signs of a mental breakdown. He became hypersensitive and difficult and engaged in strange behavior. He went to California for a rest and never really led a Jesuit life from his mid fifties on. He wandered around the West Coast, traveled in Europe, and visited his relatives in the East. He finally settled down in Santa Barbara, California, continuing all the while to celebrate daily mass and to conduct himself as a priest.
In November 1931 word was sent to his family that he was nearing the end. His favorite niece, Eleanor Sherman Fitch, went to look after him. She decided to relocate him to DePaul Sanitarium in New Orleans, run by the Daughters of Charity; it was one of the few mental hospitals in the United States operating under Catholic auspices.
Since Miss Fitch had a summer home in the South and was a generous benefactor of the southern Jesuits, she was acquainted with many Jesuits in New Orleans. She asked Fr. James Greeley, SJ, to make the necessary arrangements. Fr. Sherman lingered until April 29, 1933, when he suffered a massive hemorrhage of the stomach. He told the attending nurse, Sr. Urbana, "Call Father Provincial. I wish to renew my vows as a Jesuit." It was done. He died that night. After a funeral mass at the Jesuit church on Baronne Street in New Orleans, his body was buried at the Jesuit cemetery in Grand Coteau.
Even though Fr. Sherman's father spent most of the Civil War in the West, he is most noted for his march to the sea that led to a scorched-earth policy in Georgia. Alexander Stephens, a native of Georgia, was serving as vice president of the Confederate States at the time. Born in February 1812, he became a lawyer, was elected to Congress in 1843, and served there until 1859. In the presidential election of 1860 he backed Stephen Douglas and in the following year was elected vice president of the Confederacy.
After Appomattox he was arrested and sentenced to prison. He served his time from May to October 1865 at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. There he was visited by female members of the R. H. Salter family, a distinguished New England clan. The Salter ladies had become interested in the Catholic faith while traveling in Europe, and a good number of the family had become converts. Their visits to Alexander Stephens were an outlet for their religious passion for good works.
On the occasion of some of their visits, Mary Salter met and fell in love with Linton Stephens, the half brother of Alexander Stephens, who was also a visitor to Fort Warren. Linton was a widower with three daughters. Eventually Linton and Mary were married. They settled down in Georgia, where Mary soon converted her stepdaughters to the Catholic faith. Two of them became Religious of the Sacred Heart. The third stepdaughter married Richard H. Salter, Jr. This union produced John Salter, born in 1877. His mother died when he was but three. He was reared by the Stephens family.
Young Salter was educated at Sacred Heart Seminary in Georgia and Belmont Abbey School in North Carolina. In September 1894 he joined the Society of Jesus, entering the novitiate in Macon, Georgia, and later teaching at the old Sacred Heart College in Augusta.
After being ordained in 1909, around the same time as Tom Sherman's breakdown, he returned to his native Georgia as rector of the college in Augusta. When Augusta had to be closed in 1918 for low enrollment and lack of money, he went to Macon to be novice master, the first American-born novice master appointed in the South. Though demanding, he had a little more tolerance for human weakness than did his predecessors. After fire destroyed the Macon novitiate in 1921, he moved with the novices to Grand Coteau, the current site of the New Orleans Province novitiate.
In 1928 Fr. Salter was appointed provincial. From what one can gather, he was an admired and respected leader of the province. Those who knew him spoke of his holiness and gentlemanly character. He had to deal with the beginnings of the Great Depression and its effects on the financial health of the Jesuits. Vocations were increasing, but there was not enough money to feed and house those who wanted to enter.
On March 19, 1933, while visiting a Jesuit parish in Augusta, he suffered what seems to have been a stroke, having had a long history of high blood pressure. After a three-week convalescence in Georgia, he returned to New Orleans, where he died on May 2, 1933.
Why was he buried next to Fr. Sherman? Because he was the next Jesuit to die.
Fr. Tom Clancy, SJ, a former provincial of the New Orleans Province, now serves as province archivist and director of the Jesuit Seminary and Mission Bureau in New Orleans.