Skip to content

Catholic World — History of a Conversion

September 1887

Perhaps no conversion ever occurred in this country which was so unexpected and surprising, and attended with such great consequences as that of Miss Letitia P. Floyd. She was the eldest daughter of the elder John Floyd, then Governor of Virginia [1830-1834] and living with his family in the executive mansion in Richmond, and she inherited the great mental gifts, which produced so many brilliant men and women, and was remarkable for her powers of conversation, in which she equaled any of the distinguished men of the day. She took the same interest in public affairs that her husband did, and kept well informed about them during her whole life.

Governor Floyd lived in Montgomery County, in the southwestern part of Virginia, which was then a remote and rather inaccessible region. There was no Catholic church in Virginia west of Richmond, and only a small chapel there, attended twice a month from Portsmouth. No Catholic priest had ever been in any part of Southwest Virginia, no Catholic resided there, and no Catholic books were to be found in the whole region. Governor Floyd, his wife and children, all had literary tastes, and there was quite a large library in the house, but it was Protestant altogether. The children, therefore, had no opportunity there of learning anything about the church or its tenets or practices.

But Mr. Floyd, before he was made governor, had been for a number of years a member of Congress, and, in order to have his sons near him, had caused two of them to be educated at Georgetown; and though both of them afterwards became Catholics, it was not until some time after the conversion of their sister, and resulted from it and not from their stay at Georgetown.

Mrs. Floyd was fond of the society of able men, and, not being at the time a member of any church, was in the habit of going where she could hear the best sermon regardless of denomination. Two priests came alternately to Richmond, one of whom was Father Shriber, who was a very able man, and whose sermons Mrs. Floyd delighted to hear, merely, however, as an intellectual treat. So whenever it was his Sunday to preach in the little chapel to the mere handful of Catholics then constituting the congregation, she usually attended and often took her daughter with her. Of course the presence of the wife of the governor and her daughter could not be unknown to Father Shriber, and an acquaintance thus sprang up between the priest and his visitors.

Father Shriber’s health having failed, it was decided to send a resident priest to Richmond and Father Timothy O’Brien was selected. The sermons of Father Shriber, together with what she learned from her two brothers, then recently returned from Georgetown, had roused a strong interest in the mind and heart of Miss Floyd, and she applied to Father O’Brien for books and instruction, which he gave cheerfully. Under these influences she made up her mind to become a Catholic; and though such an event , in the then state of feeling in Virginia, as the daughter of a governor entering that could could not fail to excite surprise and create unfavorable comment, yet she met with no opposition from either of her parents. She was baptized by Father O’Brien, who stood her godfather; Mrs. Branda, who afterwards became the Countess of Poietiers, being godmother.

This occurred just at the expiration of Governor Floyd’s term of office, and his health not being very good, he took a tour through the South accompanied by his wife, his three daughters , and one of his sons. At New Orleans, where they had relatives, the party remained some time, and there Miss Floyd was married to Colonel William L. Lewis of South Carolina.

The fruits of her conversion soon began to show themselves. Very soon after her baptism, her sister Lavalette was also baptized. She is still living [1887], and is the wife of Professor Holmes of the University of Virginia. Later on her younger sister came into the church. She is also still living, the wife of Hon. John W. Johnston, who represented Virginia for thirteen years in the United States Senate. Mr. Johnston also joined the church and was the second Catholic ever elected to the Senate–Charles Carroll of Carrollton being the first.

Within a year after his marriage Colonel Lewis likewise entered the Catholic church; and some years afterwards Mrs. Floyd and three of her sons took the same step.

Mrs. Lewis’s influence led to the conversion of John P. Matthews, clerk of the County Court of Wythe County–a man widely known and highly esteemed and respected–and that of his wife, and twelve out of thirteen children. One of his daughters became a Sister of St. Joseph, and before she was twenty-one was made superioress of the convent in Wheeling. The daughters of Col. Harold Smyth entered the church by the same influence, and one of them is now a Sister of St. Joseph at Charleston, West Virginia.

In the year 1842, Bishop Whelan, and Father Ryder, S. J., paid Mrs. Floyd a visit in Tazewell County, where she then lived and were Mrs. Lewis was also a guest. They were of course much interested, and the bishop determined to erect a church at Wytheville. This was done, the Protestants contributing very liberally towards its erection. Another church was soon afterwards built at Tazewell Court-House, where Mr. Johnston then resided, and others at Bristol and Cripple Creek. In 1867 Bishop Whelan founded a Convent of the Visitation at Abingdon, and though there were not twenty Catholics in the county, it has had great success. The sisters own the building and grounds and are free of debt.

Col. Lewis removed from South Carolina and settled at the Sweet Springs, then in Virginia, now in West Virginia. That part of the State was very much in the condition already described, but. Mrs. Lewis set to work and succeeded in erecting a church there, which now has a fair congregation.

Thus we may say with truth that the conversion of Miss Floyd was the direct cause of that many other persons, and of the founding of five churches and one convent. She died on the 16th day of February, 1887, having given much of her life to charity and good works. Both rich and poor found her always to attend to their wants, and more than once, not being able to reach them otherwise, she walked in the midst of winter several miles to see the sick.

In what estimation she was held can be judged by the fact that many Protestants believed that she had been canonized, not knowing, of course that this could not be done in her lifetime.