There’s a Piece of the True Cross at the Truman Library in Missouri


Archbishop Athenagoras awards President Truman the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, including a piece of the True Cross, Feb. 10, 1947

Yesterday, I published an article about the ouster of Ecumenical Patriarch Maximos V. In that article, I mentioned that on February 10, 1947, the Greek Archbishop Athenagoras awarded President Harry Truman with a piece of the True Cross. I tracked down the cross, and it turns out that Truman held onto it, and it eventually ended up in the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

The actual award given to Truman by Athenagoras was the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, an honor given out by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It seems, then, that Athenagoras must have been acting on behalf of Jerusalem when he gave the cross to Truman. According to a Chicago Tribune article the next day, “The President was honored in recognition of his ‘great Christian work’ and that of America in feeding, clothing, and aiding peoples all over the world.”

A representative of the Truman Library and Museum was kind enough to send some photos of the cross, along with this detailed description:

Grand Cross of the Order of Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, Greek Orthodox Church, conferred upon President Harry S. Truman, February 10, 1947.

Decoration (a) consists of the gold cross of the order suspended from a red silk neck ribbon. Badge consists of gold cross suspended from gold crown which in turn in suspended from gold loop on neck ribbon. Cross is superimposed on green enamel wreath. Small ball-tipped screw at base of cross is removable, allowing obverse side of badge to hinge upward, revealing hollow interior containing small fragment of the “True Cross.” Obverse of badge features circular enameled center showing nativity scene in color. Wording around nativity scene is “Jerusalem Mere Des Eglises” (Jerusalem Mother of Churches). Black lettering in Greek on arms of cross translates to read “By This Sign Conquer” and “Founded 312.” Reverse of badge has circular enameled center showing figure of Christ in color with small Greek lettering around circumference. Arms of cross on reverse side are devoid of lettering.

(b) Presentation case, rectangular covered with burgundy leather, with initials “H.S.T.” in gold on lid. Lid hinges at the back, and is padded and lined with white silk. “William Barthman New York” printed in gold in center of lining. Base of box is lined with black velvet with inset to hold badge. Small gold-metal button clasp on front of box.

Archbishop Panteleimon (Jerusalem Patriarchate), presenting a portion of the True Cross to President Warren G. Harding in 1922

Truman was not the first American — or even the first American President — to be awarded the Order of the Holy Sepulcher and a piece of the True Cross. Back in 2009, I wrote about Archbishop Panteleimon of Neapolis, a bishop of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem who was active in America in the 1920s. And while he was here, Panteleimon gave out a lot of pieces of the True Cross. Recipients included:

  • President Warren Harding
  • Episcopalian Bishop William Manning
  • Soterios Nicholson, a lawyer in Washington, DC
  • A. Theodoracopulos, a merchant in Chicago

According to the Chicago Heights Star (4/12/1923), Archbishop Panteleimon gave the relics “in recognition of the aid given by the people of the United States in relieving the distress of the Greek people who were murdered, outraged and rendered homeless by the Turks.”

A quarter-century later, President Truman would prove to be a similarly critical friend of the Greek people: a month after receiving the True Cross from Athenagoras, Truman addressed Congress and articulated, for the first time, the famed Truman Doctrine: “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” And the immediate impetus for this new foreign policy was to aid the Greek government, which needed both financial and military aid in its civil war against the Greek Communist Party. The earliest articulations of the Truman Doctrine are all framed in the context of aiding the Greeks and Turks against Communist threats.

I don’t know what happened to the various pieces of the True Cross handed out by Archbishop Panteleimon in the early 1920s. But if you happen to be in the metro Kansas City area and are so inclined, you can make a pilgrimage to visit President Truman’s piece of one of the holiest objects on earth.

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