Monday 21 January 2019

‘Why I stopped sale of Jackie Kennedy letters’

Head of Vincentian Order breaks his silence on row

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy with Fr Joseph Leonard in Dublin. Photo: Sheppards Irish Auction House
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy with Fr Joseph Leonard in Dublin. Photo: Sheppards Irish Auction House
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

THE man whose dramatic intervention halted the sale of letters between Jackie Kennedy and an Irish priest has said he did so "to honour the privacy of those two people".

Breaking his silence on the controversy, Fr Eamon Devlin, the provincial of the Vincentian Order and a trustee of All Hallows College, denied any financial motive and said he acted out of "a strong conviction" the letters should remain private.

The order has been stung by criticism from college staff after its intervention stopped the cash-strapped third level institution from raising much needed funds.

After the sale was dramatically cancelled, the college announced it would close with the loss of 100 jobs.

Its 17-acre campus in Drumcondra, Dublin will go on the market in the coming weeks for €10m, with the money raised expected to part fund redundancies.

The 33 letters, written by the wife of the assassinated US president John F Kennedy to Fr Joseph Leonard in the 1950s and 1960s, had been expected to make anywhere between €800,000 and €3m for the college.

They provoked international interest after it emerged they dealt with key moments in Mrs Kennedy's life, including her engagement and her husband's death. Her unlikely friendship with Fr Leonard began when she met him on a visit to Ireland in 1950 and continued until his death in 1964.

But the auction was cancelled after Fr Leonard's will was found in college archives last month, proving the letters did not belong to the college but to the Vincentian Order of which he was a member.

All Hallows had held the letters for 50 years.

After the will was found, Fr Devlin issued a legal letter to the college, asserting ownership of the correspondence. He personally took possession of the letters and they remain with the order.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he said he was aware there had been criticism of his actions. However, he insisted he had done the right thing and indicated he never wanted the letters to be sold or made public.

"I know we are coming in for criticism. We'll have to just live with that. People are entitled to draw their conclusions if they wish," he said. "I really believe it was a private correspondence and that is how I have thought of it from the beginning. I determined from the moment I became aware of it to respect that."

Fr Devlin said he had been a dissenting voice when college authorities decided to put the letters and other valuable items up for auction earlier this year.

He refused to say what will now become of the letters or whether or not he was engaged in any dialogue with the Kennedy estate.

"I am honestly not trying to be obtuse, but I am not going to answer any questions. That is my own personal conviction about it," he said.

After the auction was cancelled it was announced the college, the religious order and the Kennedy family would become involved in discussions as to how best to preserve and curate the letters.

However, that has not happened and sources say college authorities have been "left in the dark" about the future of the letters.

"All Hallows has been excluded from the process," said an informed source.

An Irish legal firm which 
is acting for the Kennedy estate declined to comment.

Although the Vincentians ran the college as a seminary from 1892 until the late 1980s, the property is now owned by a trust.

The influence of the order over the running of the college had diminished in recent year following the appointment of US-born Vincentian Dr Patrick McDevitt as its president in 2011 and relations are said to have been strained as a result. Dr McDevitt made a number of appointments, bringing in more laity and outsiders.

He also ended the practice of giving free rooms at the college to former professors and Vincentian priests.

"The president has been very much his own man and has been trying work in the best interests of the college as he sees it," one source told the Sunday Independent.

A 10pc pay cut was accepted by staff in the bid to help the college survive and there was a fundraising drive in the US and in Ireland.

However, college sources said there was disappointment at the contribution made by the Vincentians to this.

The college is currently in a 30-day period of consultation with staff in order to negotiate the terms of redundancy.

All Hallows spokeswoman Carolanne Henry declined to comment on the unhappiness expressed by elements within the college about the religious order's actions.

"Our focus is on the wind down and doing the best the college can do for its staff and students. It has been such a body blow and a shock for all involved," she said.

Sunday Independent

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