The Johnson's Church

When Lady Bird Johnson was at the point of death, according to The Associated Press, her Catholic daughter and granddaughter called a priest to her bedside. The former first lady was unconscious, but the priest led her two daughters and others in the Litany of the Saints. Just as the litany ended, Johnson is said to have died.

The story is perhaps the last among many about associations between Lady Bird Johnson, and more especially her husband President Lyndon Johnson, and the Catholic Church.

Johnson was reared as a Methodist but became an Episcopalian while she was a student at an Episcopal girls' academy in Texas. The former president was reared in the Disciples of Christ.

Lyndon Johnson began his career as a teacher in a small, rural Texas elementary school. He occasionally mentioned his days at the school, most memorably in his historic address to a joint session of Congress in 1964 when he appealed for civil-rights legislation. He said that the poverty and dignity of the Mexican immigrants and their children made a great impression on him.

When he died in 1973, his contacts with the Catholic Church and with its clergy were reported by the U.S. Catholic press. Some of his friends speculated that he first formed an interest in Catholicism when he was teaching in the school, as the Mexican students' religious piety struck him as did their forbearance in bad economic times.

His connection with the Church continued when he attended Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C. -- a Jesuit institution that, in his day, had many Jesuit priests on its faculty.

Elected first to Congress in 1938, and then serving in the Navy during World War II, he was voted into the Senate in 1948 and became Democratic leader in 1953. Several of his closest aides were Catholics. His wife and daughters had many close friends who were Catholics.

Historians say, without much dispute, that the Vietnam War was his greatest political and personal trial. During the war, with its sharp divisions in the country, Johnson regularly went privately to St. Dominic's Church in Washington to pray.

Whispers in Washington at the time said that a Dominican priest at St. Dominic's was instructing the president for baptism as a Catholic. Johnson was never baptized a Catholic, as far as anyone knows, and the priest would never discuss his relationship with the president.

The Johnson's younger daughter Luci, who called the priest to her mother's deathbed, did enter the Church. She reared her children as Catholics.

Johnson accepted his daughter's conversion and privately informed Pope Paul VI of his daughter's conversion a few weeks before it occurred. A priest involved in the conversion told Our Sunday Visitor some years ago that the president even started inviting him to the White House for social visits.

Lady Bird Johnson's autobiography, "A White House Diary," implies that the first lady was not so pleased about her daughter's switch from the Episcopal Church to the Catholic Church. It is said that she felt, as the family left Luci's family, that they somehow were not as bonded as they had been.

Johnson's term ended in 1969, and he and his wife returned to Texas. There he became a close friend of the local Catholic pastor, himself now dead for years. The former president attended Mass regularly, and the priest was a frequent guest in the Johnson home. Johnson was a guest for meals in the rectory.

He died in 1973, apparently never having become a Catholic if, indeed, he was ever so inclined. However, his widow allowed a Catholic graveside ceremony for his burial. She also invited Billy Graham to participate.

Lady Bird Johnson was buried beside her husband -- in Episcopal rites.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.