Project Canterbury

Reminiscences of a Parish Priest.
by Archibald Campbell Knowles

New York: Morehouse, 1935.


THE CHURCH in Philadelphia has changed much in recent years through the drift of many of its members to the country and suburbs. It seems almost like ancient history to recall conditions here in the "eighties" and "nineties," before the coming of motors, trolleys, telephones or radios, when distance counted, and yet people went long ways to the churches of their choice and this, not once, but many times every Sunday.

I was baptized at Saint Clement's, and confirmed at Holy Trinity and then almost immediately went to Saint Mark's. At Holy Trinity the Reverend Dr. McVickar was then Rector. He was quite a friend of our family. He never looked me up for Confirmation. I looked him up. I said that I thought that I would like to be confirmed. "Archie," said he, "do you know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Commandments?" Satisfied that I possessed that profound learning, I was told to "come around when the Bishop came." And so I received "the laying on of hands" from Bishop Stevens, although practically unprepared for receiving this Sacrament, having received no definite instruction upon any subject. I fancy that this was typical of our "Low Church" friends in those days and I would not be surprised if things are not much better now in some places.

Everyone has heard the old, old story of Holy Trinity, of how an old coloured woman in the gallery once got excited and began to call out, "Amen! Glory Hallelujah!" Julius, the sexton, ran up to her and asked, "What's the matter, Aunty?" "I'se got Religion! I'se got Religion," said Aunty. "Well you can't get it here!" cautioned Julius.

Having myself desired Confirmation, I naturally longed for something I could not get at Holy Trinity. I found it at Saint Mark's, where under the instruction of the Reverend Isaac Lea Nicholson, then Rector, and the inspiration of the very beautiful church and services, I imbibed the Catholic Faith and very probably started along the path that eventually brought me into the Sacred Ministry. The Reverend Isaac Lea Nicholson, the Rector of Saint Mark's, became a great friend. He was a very forcible preacher with a hasty temper but a saving sense of humour. His letters, of which I possess quite a few, and which I value highly, were delightfully frank, too picturesque for publication sometimes! How he would lash a person disapproved of by him! And yet underneath was a most charitable disposition. Once, one of his most fashionable society women walked out in the midst of a sermon, later saying to her friends "that she liked to be told of her sins politely!"

Dr. Nicholson preached written sermons usually. Once, before a service, he was most provoked at seeing some Choir Cassocks and Cottas much the worse for wear. As he started to preach his written sermon on the text: "Your garments are moth-eaten," he suddenly stopped, as he seemed to sense the amusement of certain women in front who had charge of the Vestments--and then with a broad smile, went on with the sermon he had prepared beforehand.

Saint Mark's then as now, in a way, was "sui generis." It had a succession of splendid Rectors, the most notable of whom were Dr. Hoffman, who later did so much for the General Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. Nicholson, who really established the Catholic Religion in this Parish on firm foundations, and who was beloved as a Priest by all sorts and conditions of men, and Dr. Alfred G. Mortimer, who contributed to the learning of the day, whose books were many and valuable, and who brought up the Parish to its high standing. The music of Saint Mark's was always notable. It would be beyond this little sketch to mention the various Choirmasters who made it so, but Minton Pyne will always stand out as the one who established the standard. In those days when the English chant was the vogue, it was Minton Pyne who taught his Choir Gregorian chanting which they rendered in a manner probably never since equalled. Saint Mark's was fortunate in its Curates and Assistants. Many Priests who are prominent today started at Saint Mark's.

I knew very well the Reverend Alfred G. Mortimer, the Rector of Saint Mark's who succeeded Dr. Nicholson when he became the Bishop of Milwaukee. Dr. Mortimer married me, guided me somewhat in my preparation for Holy Orders, and preached the Ordination Sermon when I was made Deacon. As a writer and a preacher I greatly admired him, and as none of us are averse to notice, it pleased me that as an older Priest he was always glad to welcome me in his study where he sometimes played over his musical compositions to me. He took a great interest in my Parish and work and often invite'd me to preach at Saint Mark's on Ascension Day. His trouble later at Saint Mark's was very sad and I have always thought a very badly-managed matter. When the Clerical Union put up a Resolution of Condemnation, passed by a little group (for half of those present would not vote), I thought it uncalled for, unchristian and unbrotherly, and left the Club which I did not attend again for a long number of years. After the War, I saw Dr. Mortimer several times in London where he dined with us. He was successful in getting very important work in very prominent Parishes in England. Later, to my surprise, he wrote me all about the "affair at Saint Mark's," and had his wife call and show me the paper and records which proved his valid marriage. His wife wished me to rehabilitate her before her friends at Saint Mark's, but as so many years had elapsed and she was going to England, my counsel was to "let sleeping dogs lie."

At Saint Clement's were the Cowley Fathers. They had decorated the Church. And in those days, when anything connected with religion was to a greater extent than now discussed in society, those decorations were argued upon pro and con. They were really pretty bad! It did not need wall painting, however, to draw people to Saint Clement's. It was looked upon then and now as in the forefront of the Catholic movement. They had some great preachers, not the least being Father Maturin. (It is to be doubted if Father Maturin would ever have gone to Rome, if he had not been subject to moods of great depression and temperamentally impulsive. He is said to have told Dr. Mortimer that he always had a firm belief in Anglican Orders and never felt really at rest or happy in the Roman Communion.)

Father Field was also there, a friend of the friendless, a true Priest, loved and loving, with a memory for faces. His ministry will never be forgotten by those who knew him intimately. (A few years before his death, on coming to Philadelphia, he insisted upon going out to Saint Alban's to look it over and to applaud all that he saw there.)

Saint Clement's at night used to be a favourite place of visit by those from other Parishes, including many young people. Few will forget any of the Clergy who have been there from time to time. One, Father Quin, will always be particularly remembered. He was quite a wit. He was a lover of men and a splendid story teller. And his greatest joy was to sing the late Mass, which he did Sunday after Sunday for many years. He was so sure of his ceremonial that he really resented the changes that came to be introduced later by his own Catholic friends--little things, of course, but variations which Father Quin thought unnecessary.

The Reverend Henry R. Percival, Rector of the Evangelists, was perhaps the most learned man of the day in the Church. He wrote simply, but the amount of knowledge stored up in his mind was profound. He was never in strong health, but through his work, his influence, and his private means, he made his Parish Church not only a centre of the most definite teaching and practice, but also a little treasure house of Art, full of antiquarian and architectural gems. It passes one's comprehension how such a rich diocese as this could have permitted the passing of this Parish, only saved from being turned into a garage through the generosity of a devout Jew, Mr. Fleisher, who, purchasing it, made it into a Musee.

In those days of the "eighties" and "nineties" there was a good deal of religion amongst the young people and controversy was very general. The Catholic Revival or Oxford Movement, then generally called "High Church," had come over from England and by this time had taken a firm hold upon quite a few. Most of the Episcopal Churches were then lamentably bare both in appointments and services. It would be amusing, if it was not so regrettable, to recall the existing state of things, the lack of understanding of the Faith, the drab deadness of the services, the irreverance which obtained. A comparison of today with then shows the tremendous influence of the Catholic Movement and the vast change that has come over everything.

In the Religious Set all of these things were discussed. In fact drawing room conversation often centred on these changes in the Church. Looking back it is amusing to realize how little those who talked knew about the subject. What, however, could be expected when Candles and Coloured Stoles shocked some, when Vested Altars and Vested Priests startled others, and Incense was regarded as beyond the pale! Yet Fasting Communion, Eucharistic Worship and Auricular Confession were being taught and practised in certain places, and for all the lack of understanding and the heat of controversy were gaining headway, especially where earnest advocates won the young!

One of my most amusing memories is that of my taking a Sunday School Class toward the end of the "gay eighties." At the suggestion of Dr. Nicholson, the Rector of Saint Mark's, I took a Class at the Church of the Holy Comforter, where the Reverend Stewart Stone was in charge. Those were the days of frock coats and silk hats, and in such guise I used to go to the Sunday School, for after it was over I either went to the service at Saint Mark's or took one of the fair sex for a walk, according to the then popular Philadelphia custom. Fancy a Sunday School teacher today so dressed! Yet for all that "Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these," no one seemed to think it strange. Perhaps the boys liked a teacher with a "topper." Times have certainly changed! Yet possibly young men today often care more for cocktail parties than for Sunday School Classes. At any rate, after a good laugh at a teacher in a frock coat and a silk hat, it is refreshing to remember that in England but a little before that time, gentlemen played Cricket in high hats! It was as a Layman at Saint Mark's that I first saw Father Huntington, probably the most beloved Priest in the American Church and the one who by his life, teachings and counsel has been of untold influence for good in the lives of so many. Father Huntington had been giving a Mission at the Holy Comforter, the Memorial Church built through the generosity of Miss Margaretta Stocker Lewis (an aunt of Mrs. Knowles), and a Church long associated with the name of the Reverend Steward Stone. Dr. Nicholson asked Father Huntington to give a talk in the Guild House of Saint Mark's. I have never forgotten my wonderment of how Father Huntington sat, apparently oblivious to the little crowd collected, the hum of conversation, and whispered comments upon himself! For the "Religious" were a novelty in the "Episcopal Church" of that day.

My regard for the "Religious," for Monks and Nuns, has always been of a kind of romantic nature. I always remember my visits to Monasteries abroad, sometimes in the most fascinating localities, and I never quite forgot my reading of the Monastic Orders in the various ages of the Church. Present-day "Religious" are quite different in many ways I know. We do not come across a Saint Benedict, a Fra Angelico, a Thomas Aquinas, an Abelard, a Saint Bernard or the multitude of others, men and women who as Monks or Nuns added interest and romance to their times and by their consecrated labours left an undying record. Yet today, the Church is enriched beyond measure by the newly-born "Religious" in the Anglican Communion, who follow in the footsteps of those who lived in more romantic times, under very different conditions. The spirit of Saint Francis d'Assisi still lives on in the Church!

One of my personal experiences, although entirely a private matter, may be of real interest. When I gave up business and started to study for the Ministry, my income naturally suffered. A very generous aunt, knowing this, gave me a little family dinner, at the conclusion of which all present received "little favours" or presents. I was presented with a little statue of a fat little Monk, with smiling face and hands clasped over a very fat "tummy." I did not know what to do with it until my good aunt said: "Open him--look inside!" And obeying, I found a cheque for a thousand dollars! Is it a wonder that I keep my fat little Monk in my study, smiling down at me from the top of a bookcase, or that I have a tender place in my heart for the "Religious," especially one with a fat "tummy!"

Most of the Clergy in charge of important Parishes had a degree. They were "D.D." or "S.T.D." In fact, so many were "the Reverend Doctors" whose Degrees often came from insignificant colleges (as the polite recognition of gifts to those seats of learning), and so rarely were these Degrees conferred "in course" or for "honoris causa," that in the minds of some they began to be considered more of a liability than an asset! Of course some of the "Doctors" had really desirable Degrees and were quite worthy of the honour. Perhaps it was the prevalency of these Degrees that led to that so general use of addressing a Priest as "Doctor So & So" instead of "Father" or "Your Reverence"!

As exponents of the Evangelical Party or "Low Church" group stood Dr. Phillips Brooks and later Dr. McVickar at Holy Trinity, Dr. Morton and Dr. Nichols at Saint James's, Dr. McConnell at Saint Stephen's and Dr. Kinsolving at the old Epiphany. Old Saint Peter's, then and now, may be said to be a kind of connecting link between the two groups, for Dr. Davies then and Dr. Jefferys now represent an historic type of the old "High Church" party. Many of these Rectors later on became Bishops, a compliment not only to those chosen for this high office, but to our Parishes then so ably staffed. In fact, in those days one might see in Philadelphia a "happy hunting ground" for the sport of rounding up game for Bishops!

Saint James the Less was then more like a country church. The city had not encroached upon its properties as now. It was the joke that it was the largest parish in Philadelphia but that most of its members were underneath the ground. It was the resting place of many and the trysting place of others. For the beautiful "God's Acre" surrounding the lovely little church was quite an attraction to many for a Sunday afternoon walk. The Reverend Robert Ritchie was in charge and in a way he introduced the Catholic Movement to this Parish.

One of the most significant changes is the attitude of the more fortunate ones towards their poorer brethren. Now there is a sense of duty and responsibility, some recognition at least that rich and poor, high and low, are all one family, one people in the eyes of God. Now charity is dispensed and philanthropy practised in a very kind and practical manner, and welfare organizations of various sorts discharge their duties as a social obligation. When some of us were young, however, the many good works of really consecrated persons were generally done in a kind of patriarchal manner, with apparently the thought of the great condescension shown in ministering to the poor. Philadelphia still remembers a group of well-born ladies who left an enduring record of their good works in their benefactions and in the minds of many of those helped, but their labours were always in this spirit. It is still recalled with amusement, how one of these, a most charming, kind and cultivated gentlewoman of one of the best families, once remarked in apparently perfectly good faith: "You know the rich and well-born are really the chosen people of God!" And there were Churches, some of our most prominent Parishes, who then welcomed the poor at Sunday School and Bible Class, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas to receive turkeys and well-filled baskets, but really did not expect them to come to Church where "their betters" sat snug and comfortable in their rented pews-! All of this is fortunately past--yet these souls, now long since gone to their rest, were often beautiful Christian characters in their way.

Bishop Potter had a famous story told of him, of a Priest going to him and saying: "O Bishop, I am going to get married again and I am in such trouble!" "My dear fellow, why do you marry if it troubles you!" "O! It isn't that, Bishop, it is that on my first wife's grave I had inscribed: 'My light has gone out!'" "My friend," said the Bishop, "don't worry. Just add the words: 'I have struck another match!' "

In 1893, while still a layman, I was married to Miss Mary Clements Stocker and went to live at Chestnut Hill, a delightful suburb of Philadelphia. We were not very long there, when never dreaming that again I would feel my vocation to the Ministry, we built in a very lovely situation next to the woods and overlooking the valley of the Wissahickon, a colonial house modelled partly after Mount Vernon and partly after the Upsal Mansion. We did not then foresee that in 1900, after a year in the Priesthood, I would feel it my duty to sell our home and remove to Germantown.

We had two daughters both of whom married. The eldest, Margaretta Lewis (named after Mrs. Knowles's aunt, a member of Saint Peter's, who built the Church of the Holy Comforter), was educated entirely by governesses and was an exceedingly fine musician and linguist. The younger, Mary Clements, named after her mother, went to the "Springside" and "Shady Hill" Schools of Chestnut Hill and was a very talented girl.

When I entered the Ministry I made a point of not permitting my wife and daughters to engage in the work of my Parish but encouraged their labours elsewhere. Most loyal and devoted to the Church and to Saint Alban's, they were also in perfect accord with my views. I firmly believe that the married Clergy avoid many an unpleasant complication if their families only attend services and keep out of the Parish activities. The result of my experience justifies my convictions, for I have a Parish where perfect harmony obtains and where all of the members of my family are universally liked.

The happy home of my father and mother was duplicated in ours. Few families have been more devoted to one another than have been my wife, my daughters and myself. We have been constant companions, at home and abroad.

After my marriage I attended services at Saint Paul's and Saint Martin's-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, Dr. Harris being Rector of the first, and The Reverend Jacob LeRoy of the other. And I soon went very regularly to the late Mass at Saint Luke's, Germantown, where Dr. Samuel Upjohn, an old warhorse for the Faith, ministered as Rector. In a way I was sorry not to go to Saint Paul's, Chestnut Hill, for its Rector, Dr. J. Andrews Harris, who had married an aunt of Mrs. Knowles, was a most charming and dear old gentleman. An old-fashioned Evangelical, he yet ever championed the Catholic party in Convention, as he thought they were unfairly treated. He was a very much loved and respected Priest.

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