Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy
Devout Mother of a President
Though Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy is remembered mostly as mother of slain President John F. Kennedy, and matriarch of the widespread Kennedy Clan, she might well have preferred to have been known as a devout daughter of the Roman Catholic Church. For it was likely her faith which gave her the stability and purpose to live a life of accomplishment but also tragedy for more than a hundred years.
Born in July, 1890, in Boston, Massachusetts, Rose Elizabeth was the eldest of the six children of John F. Fitzgerald, known as “Honey Fitz.” He was a state senator, Congressman, and mayor of Boston and major political personality for the large Boston Irish community.
When Rose was seven the family moved to live in the Boston suburbs where Rose attended the local Girls’ Latin School. Their home in Dorchester later burned but was marked with a plaque, dedicated in 1992 with an address by her son, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.
Rose then traveled to the Netherlands to study at a convent school, and returned to graduate from Dorchester High School in 1906. Though she wanted to attend Wellesley College her father did not approve so she attended a Catholic college in Manhattan. Not attending Wellesley was a lifelong disappointment for Rose, but she did agree that the training she got at the Manhattan school was worth it.
Then it was no doubt a major inspirational time when she and her father had a private audience with the Pope in 1908. Rose met Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy on a family vacation, not unusual since the many Irish immigrant families were often close. However, Joe was a political rival of Rose’s father and perhaps that had something to do with Joe’s opposition to the match.
Finally in October, 1914 Joe and Rose were married at the residence of Archbishop William Henry O’Connell and established homes in Brookline and later a large vacation home in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. They eventually had nine children.
As it turned out, Joe supported his family well, even though he was not a faithful husband. Among Joe’s paramours was actress Gloria Swanson when they were planning and producing several pictures together. Then in 1920 while Rose was pregnant with her fourth child, and Joe was not at home and after coping with sick children with only the company of servants, something snapped. She fled to her parents’ home where she received little consolation. She was told that their Catholic beliefs precluded divorce, and that if she divorced Joe she would become a social pariah. Also, she had a duty to her husband, no matter his philandering. “You’ve made your commitment and you must honor it now.” Her father told her,”Your husband needs you and your children need you…So go now, Rose. Go back to where you belong.” In short, as one author puts it, “Rose knew it was up to her to make things work out, and she returned home, to her children.”
Perhaps as a means of survival, Rose chose to see Joe’s affair, as him just helping Gloria Swanson with her finances. Even when Swanson and her child stayed with her family Rose did not seem to notice the connection between her husband and their guest. Though according to one report, as she coped with Joe’s continued flings, she often relied on medications.
Her lifelong Catholic faith no doubt provided a great sense of comfort and purpose. In fact, as she entered her second century, she regularly attended Mass. Though her children did not always share her sense of morality.
Being a wife and mother gave her great satisfaction and she discussed it in her 1974 autobiography. She said: “I looked on child-rearing not only as a work of love and a duty but as a profession that was fully as interesting challenge as any honorable profession in the world…and one that demanded the best I could bring to it…”
When her second son John became U.S. President in 1961, Rose “became a sort of quiet celebrity,” according to one source. She remained active in women’s groups and in favorite charities, staying fit by regular swims in the ocean near her Cape Cod home.
After suffering a stroke in 1984, Mrs. Kennedy spent her remaining years in a wheelchair, cared for by private nurses at her various homes. She died in January, 1995 after a bout with pneumonia at age 104, and was survived by five of her nine children.
Rose’s lifelong devotion to her church was honored in 1951 when Pope Pius XII awarded her the Papal rank of countess “in recognition for her exemplary motherhood and other charitable works.”
However, though her nine children provided great satisfaction, there were also challenges. Her first son Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. who held such great promise and hope to his family, died in a plane crash during World War II. Her second son was President John F. Kennedy who was tragically assassinated in 1963. Daughter Eunice Shriver, whose husband Sargent was a one-time vice presidential candidate, became known for her founding the Special Olympics, athletic games for the mentally disabled. Rose’s daughter Patricia later married actor Peter Lawford, and they had several children. Her third son Robert Francis known as “Bobby” served as attorney general under JFK, and was himself later assassinated as he sought the presidency. Daughter Jean Smith also worked with the disabled and was later American Ambassador to Ireland. Her youngest son Edward (Ted) was Massachusetts senator and also presidential candidate.
However, there were two daughters who proved challenging for different reasons. Rosemary was reportedly mentally disabled and possibly epileptic, afflictions that (at the time) brought a stigma to those in politics. Eventually her outbursts proved so disruptive that Joe Kennedy, without informing Rose, arranged for her to have a lobotomy. This was a common brain surgery of a sort that made someone like Rosemary less violent but that also made her almost a vegetable. She spent the rest of her life, in a home Joe provided, tended by nuns. However, it was only after Joe’s 1961 stroke, that Rose discovered what had happened.
Though Rose rarely saw Rosemary, through the Kennedy Foundation, she was able to sponsor research toward mental disability.
Another daughter, Kathleen also caused family disruption. When Joe was American ambassador to the United Kingdom in the late 1930s Kathleen made her social debut in London. While in the U.K. she met and married British peer William John Robert Cavendish, Marques of Hartington who was in line to be the Duke of Devonshire. However, Kathleen was married in a civil ceremony, not a Catholic event, which caused Rose great disappointment. After Cavendish died, Kathleen remarried but she and her husband were killed in a plane crash in 1948. Reportedly, few members of the Kennedy family had anything to do with Kathleen.
Sustained by her faith and with pride in the accomplishments of her children, Rose Kennedy was certainly a survivor.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.
First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents by Bonnie Angelo, Harper, New York 2001