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Rosary beads carried by priest who tended to dying President Kennedy up for bid

By MIKE SPENCE | The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo. | Published: May 11, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — President John F. Kennedy's 102nd birth anniversary is on May 29. Perhaps that upcoming birthday was a reason for a recently concluded auction of Kennedy-related items.

One of those items holds significant religious significance – the rosary beads carried by the late Rev. James N. Thompson, who was one of two priests present when Kennedy received his Last Rites before he died in the emergency room of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Kennedy, who was riding in an open car, was shot twice as the presidential motorcade drove past the Texas School Book Depository. Although conspiracy theories have abounded over the years, the FBI and the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination both concluded that Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin – Lee Harvey Oswald.

The final moments of Kennedy's life were spent in the hospital's Trauma Room One, where doctors labored in vain to save the mortally wounded president, and Kennedy's wife, security personnel and the priests witnessed his passing.

The rosary beads are significant because of what they represent. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president, which was a factor of some controversy in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The rosary beads

The rosary beads themselves were a point of pride for Rev. Thompson, who died in 1982. He carried the beads everywhere.

"The rosary beads were given to my great uncle, upon his placement at Holy Trinity Church in Dallas, Texas, from my grandmother (Mary Magdalene Thompson) who was his only sister," Thompson's grandniece (who donated the rosary beads to the collection) wrote in a letter about the rosary beads.

"My great uncle carried these rosary beads either in his pocket or his priest's jacket. They were special to him."

Kennedy's presidency

Even today, Kennedy's assassination looms large in our history. It occurred in the early 1960s, which turned out to be a decade marked by significant domestic unrest and violence.

When he was elected in 1960, Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president, at age 43. Although his time in office was short, Kennedy is remembered for the U.S. space program (He established the goal of landing a man on the moon), the Peace Corps, civil rights and the arts.

His quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," served as an inspiration to millions of Americans.

Yet, the Kennedy presidency wasn't all smooth sailing. He backed the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy later had to stare down Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union as the world teetered on nuclear destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviets installed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. Kennedy eventually won the standoff. But he also significantly increased the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, which evolved into a highly unpopular war.

The fact that Kennedy won election as president surprised many. He ran against an incumbent vice president, while overcoming a deep-seated prejudice and the sentiment that no "Papist" could be elected president. Al Smith, like Kennedy, a Democrat from the northeast, had tried once before and failed.

"There was a lot of traditional anti-Catholicism, which was of two varieties. One was old-fashioned fundamentalism: the pope is the Antichrist, the Church is the scarlet woman in the Bible," said James Hitchcock, author of "Abortion, Religious Freedom and Catholic Politics."

"Then there was the sophisticated anti-Catholicism, found among liberal intellectuals, (who felt) certain Catholic teachings, birth control for example, are not good for society."

Kennedy even felt pushback from his own party.

"There was a strong secular wing of the Democratic Party that thought Catholics were not to be trusted on issues related to church and state, whether it was aid to Catholic schools, which Catholics tended to support, or on issues like marriage and the Catholic, firm line that divorce was not accepted," said Thomas Carty, author of "A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics and John Kennedy's Presidential Campaign."

Kennedy helped diffuse the concern in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He told those in attendance that it was not important in the campaign what kind of church he believed in but what kind of country he believed in.

"I believe in an America where separation of church and state are absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote," Kennedy said. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

Although Kennedy won only a narrow victory over Richard Nixon, he was a popular president. He was young, handsome and energetic. His wife, Jacqueline, was beautiful. Their children were adorable. His presidency brought a new vibe to the country.

Then in the span of a few seconds, in Dallas, three rifle shots rang out.

That day in Dallas

Word of the assassination attempt spread quickly in Dallas and throughout the country.

In a four-page pamphlet that he wrote at the request of President Kennedy's brother Robert Kennedy, "Around One O'clock," Thompson outlined the events of his day on Nov. 22, 1963.

He recalled sitting in the rectory when he saw the news on TV that the president had been shot. He remembered standing up and saying, "Somebody's got to go." Parkland Memorial Hospital was part of Holy Trinity's parish and the priests went there regularly. Thompson readied the car as Rev. Oscar Huber gathered his sick-call kit, and Thompson drove them to the hospital. Neither knoew how seriously injured the president was.

Thompson remembered they met no resistance from security when they arrived. Mrs. Kennedy apparently had asked for a priest to be called. Thompson dropped Huber off at the emergency room entrance, and parked the car before going inside.

Thompson recalled the scene in Trauma Room One: "Father Huber was standing at the President's head reading the prayers for the dying. The President's wife, holding his right hand, was beside the President, standing there immobile as a statue – I did manage to offer a Sign of the Cross in absolution and one as a blessing. Then Father Huber began to pray aloud the Lord's Prayer, and all answered in articulate response, the President's wife seeming to lead us in response."

The assassination attempt took place at 12:30 p.m. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1 p.m.

Looking back

Thompson and Huber consoled Mrs. Kennedy before she departed the hospital. Then Thompson and Huber left, no doubt saddened and shaken by what they had seen and heard.

The priests took solace in knowing that the rites and rituals they performed and the prayers they said provided consolation to Mrs. Kennedy in her moment of crisis. Those rights, rituals and prayers also provided solace for the Kennedy family and Catholics across the country as they came to grips with the tragic loss in the days ahead.

The rosary beads that were always present in Thompson's pocket, the ones he prayed with, the ones he utilized while performing important Catholic rituals, were with him as he administered Last Rites to a dying president. Now those beads have been sold to the highest bidder. They fetched a price of $13,401.

That sounds like a lot. But it isn't really. The beads were priceless to Rev. Thompson, their former owner. And now, they are a stunning religious relic from one of the most tragic days in American history.

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(c)2019 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.)
Visit The Pueblo Chieftain at www.chieftain.com
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