Postwar Washington dictated the need for an organization of Catholic professionals in the new archdiocese. By 1950, the capital had shed its sleepy southern town image and was assuming the trappings of an international metropolis. The local Catholic Church was undergoing a similar expansion. Washington emerged in 1948 as an independent archdiocese, split off from that of Baltimore. The number of Catholics in the new archdiocese numbered about 150,000.
Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan and two friends, Judge Matthew F. McGuire of the United States District Court and prominent attorney, William E. Leahy, noted the isolation of the city’s Catholic professionals who had no organization similar to the vibrant Catholic Alumni Society of Boston. As a result, the three approached the new Archbishop of Washington, Patrick A. O’Boyle, and proposed the organization of a similar group in the capital. O’Boyle immediately accepted the suggestion and assigned then-Father Hannan to help form the organization.
A year later after much planning, the organization was ready to be launched and on March 4, 1951, the founding meeting of the John Carroll Society, named for the first Catholic Bishop of the United States, took place with 280 lawyers, physicians, educators, congressmen, Administration officials and prominent businessmen in attendance at a communion breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.
The founders’ chief concern during the planning period for the Society was that the group be primarily spiritual, enabling members to grow in their faith and inform them, from a Catholic standpoint, on the vital questions confronting postwar society. The group was not to be a money-raising vehicle nor would it be a political pressure group. Instead, the Society would encourage members to become more active in their particular professions, which, in turn, the organizers reasoned, would benefit both the Church and the nation.
Gradually, the Society became involved in public programs for the Archdiocese. On October 5, 1952, the first televised Mass for Shut-Ins in the nation took place and the Society continued to underwrite this weekly Sunday activity fifty years later. The Sunday program has not only provided religious solace to the aged and infirmed, but also educated many Catholics about their central act of worship.
A short time later, the Society assumed responsibility for the annual Red Mass, which invoked the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the nation’s judiciary and lawgivers. This ancient Church ceremony—denoted the Red Mass after the color of the vestments used in a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit and in reference to the traditional color of judicial robes, had been revived by Catholic University’s law school in 1939. Archbishop O’Boyle decided St. Matthew’s Cathedral would be a more appropriate venue for the event, and the John Carroll Society, which counted many jurists and congressmen among its members, an appropriate sponsor.
On February 15, 1953, O’Boyle celebrated the first Society-sponsored Red Mass. In succeeding years, the congregation has frequently included the President of the United States and leading federal jurists, cabinet officials, congressmen and diplomats. Today, the Red Mass is celebrated annually on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, prior to the opening of the Supreme Court’s judicial year.