Project Canterbury

Reminiscences of a Parish Priest.
by Archibald Campbell Knowles

New York: Morehouse, 1935.


I HAD OFTEN THOUGHT of the Sacred Ministry. Long before marriage I had wished to study for Holy Orders but when my father objected, Dr. Nicholson, then the Rector of Saint Mark's, which I attended for years, advised following my father's wishes and seeing what would develop. I have always thought that his counsel proved to be most wise. I was five years married and had just moved into a beautiful place which we had built at Chestnut Hill, when once again, I felt that I was surely called to the Ministry. Then there was no objection: my wife, my parents, my friends all encouraged that which seemed to be my vocation.

So I began to study under the guidance of Bishop Nicholson and Dr. Mortimer. On October 18, 1898, I was made Deacon and on November 12, 1899, I was ordained Priest, both functions taking place at Saint Luke's Church, Germantown, with Dr. Mortimer and Dr. Upjohn the preachers on the respective occasions.
Dr. Nicholson, the Bishop of Milwaukee, came on from Milwaukee to officiate at each Ordination, with the permission and approval of Bishop Whitaker. Dr. Upjohn, the Rector of Saint Luke's, arranged very beautiful and impressive services. A rather unusual thing, at that time at least, was Bishop Nicholson following out certain ancient customs, such as "the Tradition of the Instruments" (the formal bestowal of the Chalice and Paten), the vesting of the Candidate in the Chasuble, and the asking me to make a public declaration that I accepted the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and infallible word of God.

Being well known in Philadelphia and entering the Ministry when I was over thirty, my Ordination created considerable interest, especially in those circles in which I had moved. The newspapers had a lovely time! There were no "publicity agents" in those days, so the reporters wrote what they pleased, and fact and fancy made most of their articles picturesque if not exact! In my case, some of the particularly choice "bits" were: "Society man ordained Priest," "Prominent layman," "Well-known resident of Chestnut Hill," "Has recently completed a course at Oxford" (where I never studied!); "Well known in social and club circles" (I rarely frequented clubs!); "Has spent many summers abroad in study" (not literally true !); "A writer of wide celebrity" (an amusing comment, considering my modest adventures in literature!), and so on, even to a column and a half in one paper! It was true of the event however, that: "it was an ecclesiastical function of great dignity," thanks for which were due to Bishop Nicholson and Dr. Upjohn and those who were in charge of the service.

My going to Olney and taking charge of Saint Alban's, then a Mission, was eventful for all concerned. I had never heard of Olney or of Saint Alban's! Who would have thought that I would have gone there or stayed there, with other opportunities opening and attractive calls elsewhere! Yet Olney and Saint Alban's were my choice then and now--and who knows if God's hand was not clearly shown by the results: in the building up of a most delightful Parish, in the possession of a most beautiful Church, standing in the clearest way as an exponent of Catholic Faith and Practice, in having everything that the Catholic Revival has brought to the Church, and in a charge and Rectorship of the most affectionate and cordial relations of over thirty-five years.

Of course my old friends in Society and business and many members of my family could not understand why I would consent to go to Olney and take over this little Mission of Saint Alban's! Nothing but fields and farmhouses! Only muddy roads and unpaved streets! A pretty little Church to be sure, but standing in an open lot, with nothing to relieve its bareness! And only a small group of people, living in a modest and humble way! From a worldly point of view, from the considerations of self interest my action in going there was certainly unwise. I think that I must then have had a touch of the real missionary spirit, or was it that I wished to be a bit original! At any rate I went to Olney and perhaps one can say that Saint Alban's did not make me but that (under God) I made Saint Alban's. I stayed there. I refused all calls. I worked for both the material part and the spiritual part. Olney grew and became one of our loveliest suburbs for refined working people. Saint Alban's grew and became a flourishing Parish of the Catholic Faith. The little Church costing $8,500 that stood in a bare field is there no longer. Now a beautiful group of buildings valued close to $250,000 stands amid lovely shade trees and bushes, one of the distinctive landmarks of Olney. When I took charge of Saint Alban's as a little Mission, and began my in-gathering of prospective parishioners, the people who were then at Olney were quite simple and unsophisticated, very different from the present Congregation. Then mothers quite naturally nursed their babies before the Clergy and treated the Priest quite as confidentially as they did the Doctor. I have always remembered with a laugh several good souls whose remarks were most naive and innocent, without a thought of suggestion. One was a woman who was always in her working clothes when I called, who once said: "Father, you always come to see me when I'm undressed!" Another was a very religious woman. She did not answer the bell when I rang, upon which I opened the front door and called out to find if she was at home; to hear the reply, "O! Father Knowles, is that you? Don't come in, I'm in my bath!" Truly those dear good people of my early ministerial days could have had applied to them the words of the poet: "Where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise," for their ignorance was innocence, so much better than the present-day over-sophistication!

The ideal Parish to my mind is one in which are found not only all classes, high, low, rich and poor, but even "les miserables," who find in the Church the only common meeting place where the love of God embraces them all. Rarely is this found, however, for naturally people have a way of drifting together according to their conditions and characteristics. It has been so at Saint Alban's. There has been a gradual change in the Congregation, almost imperceptible at the time, but now after many years, most marked.

When Olney was in process of development and Saint Alban's was only a little Mission, all "sorts and conditions" of people came to the Church. Now the congregation consists largely of refined and educated people of the so-called working classes who have an intelligent hold upon the Faith and conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Church, and where Fasting Communion, Auricular Confession and Eucharistic Adoration are the rule; where Benediction, the Stations of the Cross, the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament and the Rosary are accepted as a matter of course.

Before I had a Curate, when I took a holiday, I had to arrange for a "locum tenens," or "supply." I have always remembered with amusement one who wished the work and who was really a fine Priest with whom I have later had most friendly relations. He had a mustache and of course would not "fit" in a Parish like mine. When asked by someone why I did not engage him I answered, "I could not have a man with a hairlip!" I rejoice to say that some years later the "hairlip" ceased to be, thanks to the razing (or razoring) of the mustache!

There comes to mind a rather amusing recollection of many years ago, when there had been quite a stir about the arguments of some of the Biblical scholars who seemed to attack many of the long-accepted interpretations. In New York they had a well-advertised dinner, with lots of notoriety. One of my good parishioners, always interested in all that concerned the Church and very ignorant of some of the matters, said to me: "Did you read about the dinner in New York to the heretics?" "The heretics! What dinner! Who do you mean?" And then it flashed upon me. "Oh, you mean the Higher Critics?" "Yes, those are the people I said: the heretics." She was not far wrong in many cases!

In my Ministry I have been more and more impressed with the self-sacrificing spirit of so many of the Clergy, so patient under a system which provides such a meagre income and often not even a bare living. More fortunately situated than others, and therefore not an interested party, I feel that our part of the Church should completely revolutionize its method of compensation of the Clergy and remodel it on a basis similar to that of the Roman Communion. Why should not the Church itself pay to every Priest in Orders a minimum of a thousand dollars a year (assessing the Parishes in proportion to their strength), and have each Parish supplement this for the Clergy officiating there by such sum as each one can pay. This plan would provide Priests with at least a bare living, as Priests of the Catholic Church, while the further support which would come to them as Rectors, Curates or Missionaries from the Parishes or Missions in which they minister, would put them in a position as to be able to fulfill their duties without continual financial worry and anxiety, for all their proper trust in God's providing care.

Of course I joined the "Catholic Club." I never cared much for clubs or organizations, social or religious, but I joined this with its lengthy name: "The Clerical Union for the Maintenance and Defense of Catholic Principles." I served at one time as Secretary and at another time as President, but holding office never specially attracted me. The branch in Philadelphia might be said to have had "a chequered career," in its ups and downs, in the piqued absences of certain members every little while, in the variety of so-called "Catholics" who make up its roll, and in the diverse views of its members, from the "solid gold," "true blue" Anglican, who looks upon the Prayer Book Rubrics as the revelation of God to "the noblest Roman of them all," who is Catholic in capital letters all through. The "Clerical Union" is nevertheless a pleasant society of gentlemanly Priests, its meetings are happy reunions, its literary productions interesting, and its Masses revealing as to what each Parish considers to be a proper Anglican Use! Some of us think its past was better than its present or its promise of the future. "There were giants in those days," when "the Catholic Club" held such a group as Dr. Nicholson, Dr. Mortimer, Dr. Upjohn, Dr. McGarvey, Dr. Robert Ritchie, Dr. Percival, Fr. Conger, and many others, whose views were worth hearing and whose witticisms at the festive board were worth remembering. Today, some always talk and some never talk! And as with moving pictures, some do not like the "Talkies," while others do not see why the meetings should be like an assemblage of deaf mutes!

As with many Priests, there were times when I had to visit Prisons. I am glad to say that such few of my "lambs" or "sheep" who got behind the bars were there, not for crime but perhaps because they had stood too long before the bars. In other words, they had drank too copiously of the "cup that cheers." When I called, their prison companions always seemed to think that "things would be all right," the Clergy being supposed to have persuasion with the powers that be.

Especially I remember one of my "lambs," a man six and a half feet tall, who worked on an oyster boat. Jail had frightened him or else "John Barleycorn" was still with him, for when I was admitted to his cell, down he went on his knees and begged: "Father, save me, oh, save me!" I was not used to that sort of thing, but the attendant said it was quite a common occurrence, called "prison repentance," that soon wore off!

Speaking of Prisons, there was one of my flock who never got there but who should really have been so favoured. He was a clever scalawag. He sang solos in the choir. He came regularly to Church. It was some time before I discovered that the fabled wings were naughty horns. He borrowed money from me. He helped himself to rents which he collected as an agent. He did a lot of strange things, but so far as I ever discovered, he had no fast habits but was sober and moral. One of his acts of which he told me with great glee and which first showed to me that he could not be trusted, really tells as a good story. His father, with another man, had come over as poor boys from England. The other man prospered, became quite rich, bought a fine house in a fashionable suburb, and edged a little into "Society." He decided to have a "family tree," and he engaged the son of the old friend of his father (which son was my scalawag of a parishioner), to get up a genealogical record. Recently there hung in this rich man's house a framed parchment entirely fictitious, purporting to show descent from a Norman Count, coming to England with William the Conqueror, based on imaginary records of New Battle Abbey! My parishioner was a clever scamp. I do not know whether he is alive or dead. "All is not gold that glitters!" And there are family trees and family trees! Generally a real tree is rarely in evidence! One of the most regrettable things in the Anglican Communion is the lack of technical training for a Priest. Many a Priest stands at the Altar to offer the Holy Sacrifice, when he does not know how properly to say or sing Mass! In no other profession could we have such a state! A surgeon, a trained nurse, a doctor, a soldier, a lawyer, are all taught how to go about their various duties and are given the proper technique. Yet many a Priest who is to Minister the Sacraments of the Church often does not know how to celebrate the Mass or to hear Confessions in a right and proper manner according to the traditional use of the Church. All should realize that it is impossible for one to know these things unless he is taught them. I never could understand the blissful content of so many Priests in doing things the wrong way! They often seem to have no knowledge that the Church has its ordered and proper manner of performing every ministerial act with the right Vestments, the right Ceremonial, the right Words. Of course all of these things are not set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. It is taken for granted that the Clergy will learn what is of authority, what is the proper "use." Because they do not learn, because they follow their own individual ideas, because they allow their own idiosyncrasies to have full play, ministrations are often even absurd or ridiculous! It may be "where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise," but to me it seems singularly unfortunate that so many of my reverend brethren seem so content and happy in their mistakes. This is not written in any unfriendly fashion, nor with any claim to superior knowledge further than understanding and obeying the authority, ruling, and use of the Holy Catholic Church.

The Anglican Communion is very much like Heinz's Pickles! It has so many varieties: in Clergy, in Peoples, in Parishes, in Practices, in everything! How the "High," "Low," and "Broad," or more exactly the "Catholics," the "Protestants," and the "Modernists" hang together and manage to be included in one Communion is a mystery! No wonder that "the man of the street" is puzzled! He sees the Mass reverently celebrated in a Catholic Parish, with proper Vestments and Ceremonial, and then he sees the same service under another name offered up in a Protestant Parish, in a most uncouth, unchurchly and strange manner, disregarding all of the traditional observances. Or he hears a sermon or attends a function, first in a Catholic Parish, then in a Protestant one--and he finds the teaching and the worship totally at variance! And apparently this diversity extends even to material things. An English Bishop was about to entertain his Clergy at dinner and he so informed his butler. To his astonishment the butler said: "Your Lordship, are they 'igh or low?" "What do you mean, Holmes, by asking such a question?" asked the Bishop, quite provoked at what he thought was impertinence. "I beg your pardon, your Lordship, but you see it is this way: more 'igh more wine, more low more wittles!" answered the butler. And yet we keep together and legislate at the same Conventions!

There was a very good story once current about Bishop Whitaker, who, although a very dear old gentleman, had somewhat prejudiced views. It goes that he visited a little Mission Church and to the Priest in charge objected to the two Candles on the Altar. The Priest, assuming a very humble attitude, removed the Candles from the Altar, and bringing them to the Sacristy, placed them on a shelf above which was a picture of Our Lady. "Are they all right there, Bishop, under the Blessed Virgin?" "No," said Bishop Whitaker, "that looks like mariolatry." The Priest took the Candles and put them in the only other available place, on the rear part of the Vestment case, over which was a framed photograph of Bishop Whitaker. "Will that do, Bishop?" "No; put them back on the Altar," said Bishop Whitaker, who had the saving sense of humour. And back on the Altar went the Candles to stay!

A good but well-known story of Phillips Brooks seems always worth repeating. He was a most lovely character, of fine presence, most devout in his life, and most gifted as a Preacher. It seems regrettable that there was opposition to his consecration as Bishop. The story, however, shows the cause. Bishop Seymour once asked Dr. Brooks if he would not read such and such Theological Works if loaned to him. Assenting, Phillips Brooks received the books, read the books and then returned them to Bishop Seymour, saying that he did not doubt that they were all right but that he could not understand them!

Bishop Nicholson, with his great, tall figure lounging in an easy chair, with his hands folded over his "episcopal apron," used to love to tell stories, as much to his own amusement as that of his hearers. One of his favourites was about " 'Arry and 'Arriet," a cockney Englishman and his wife. Harry greatly abused his mate, but when she died he was a very penitent and lonely man. Once in London he came upon an advertisement saying that for half a crown a "spirit" could be brought up. Harry went in, paid his " 'alf a crown" and presently he saw the misty shade of his wife. "Oh ! 'Arriet," he said, "I'm the lonely man! Are you 'appy 'Arriet?" "Not very 'appy, 'Arry," replied Harriet. "Are you 'appier than with me, 'Arriet?" "Ah! Yes, 'Arry, far 'appier than with you 'Arry!" "Well, 'Arriet, where are you?"

My Ministry has brought me into contact often with five Bishops--Bishop Whitaker, Bishop Mackay-Smith, Bishop Rhinelander, Bishop Garland and Bishop Taitt. My relations with my Diocesan have always been happy and cordial. The visits of these Bishops to Saint Alban's were generally to minister the Sacrament of Confirmation at Solemn Evensong on Ascension Night. The preliminary was generally my trying to persuade them to wear Cope and Mitre, my efforts always unsuccessful except with Bishop Rhinelander, who wore a Cope but refused the Mitre I His general greeting upon arrival was: "Well! what are my orders tonight?"--which I suppose was Episcopal pleasantry. It always seemed to me inexplicable why a Bishop should be terrified at Cope and Mitre, or why he should prefer the hideous "Magpie." He knows, of course, that the first two are the customary Church Vestments of a Bishop, and the latter is only a relic of the pre-Reformation street dress.

The great occasions of Saint Alban's were when the Bishops of Fond du Lac or Milwaukee, or certain other Catholic Bishops, were present, not afraid to be vested in Cope and Mitre, or to dignify the Episcopal Office. Our people always particularly appreciated the visits of Bishop Weller and of Bishop Ivins, who always graciously seemed pleased to be there.

A very good story is of a visit of Bishop Garland. Mrs. Garland was with him. She looked round at the walls of the Sacristies and saw large pictures of the Lord Bishop of London, Bishop Nicholson, Bishop Webb, Bishop Weller, Bishop Grafton and others in Cope and Mitre. "Tom," said Mrs. Garland, addressing "her" Bishop: "If you wore things like that, Father Knowles would hang up your picture!" She was right! A Bishop in a "Magpie" would feel uncomfortable being so pictured on the walls of Saint Alban's!

At Saint Alban's, it has generally been my custom to go to the entrance door after service. Once after a late Mass I saw a young girl going out, and after the customary handshake, on being told that she had come to Olney to live, I said that I would call upon her. Imagine my amusement at her answer: "I am awfully sorry but I have a young man!" (I certainly did not mean to qualify for that!)

One very interesting member of my Parish was an Englishman who had been a British cavalryman and had served under General Kitchener in the Soudan Campaign for the relief of General Gordon. He showed me two crosses which had been personally pinned on him by Queen Victoria.

Some of my experiences with Confirmation have been rather unique. Once I had a young married woman, a widow, the daughter of a dear, old, uneducated Scotch Presbyterian, who wished to be Confirmed but "Mummy" said: "No. Saint Alban's was a ferry, ferry dangerous place." The daughter said that my going to see her mother would do no good, but I went. At first the old Scotchwoman was very polite but quite firm in her refusal. I had given up hope and started to "talk Europe" and how I loved Scotland! (I do, in a way, but I think my special love for the land of the heather at that moment was mingled with expediency!) Then my name came up! (I have no Scotch blood or ancestry. My name is only a name given for a great friend of my father.) My name, however, did it! "So you're Archibald Campbell, a fine Scotch name! But you must say 'Campbell,' " (she accented the "p") "and not Archie but 'Aerchie'!" Suddenly the old woman, dear old soul, said "I think I have changed my mind. My daughter may have it done!" And "done," as she called Confirmation, it was when the Bishop came.

Once a man got frightened! He had been a difficult "catch"--not "a brand from the burning!" but a good man, who had never practised Religion. The night came. He was too timid to go to the Guild House, join the others who were going to be Confirmed, and enter with them. He decided to walk around to the front door. Then in fright he went home! It took a year to bring him around again, but this time he "had the nerve to go through with it."

I generally try to get the young ready for Confirmation at about nine or ten years old. I have also presented some quite on in years, one as old as eighty-eight! It is always the custom at Saint Alban's for those to be Confirmed to use the Sacrament of Penance. To go to Confession and receive Absolution seems to be in accord with the Prayer Book, where the Bishop prays: "Almighty and everliving God, Who has vouchsafed to regenerate these Thy servants by Water and the Holy Ghost" (Baptism) "and hast given unto them forgiveness of all their sins" (Absolution). Very few, when the matter is properly presented unto them, ever object. Once a father of two boys who were to be Confirmed complained to Bishop Rhinelander of the requirement. His answer, as reported, always seemed most considerate. It was in effect, "These matters are left to the Parish Priest. See the Rector." The boys were Confirmed and the father was sorry that he wrote.

At Saint Alban's, all the "gentler sex" wear white, including white veils and wreaths of lilies of the valley. An elderly woman once pleaded to be allowed to wear black! In a desire to please, consent was given but it was most unfortunate. Some wit said that the poor soul looked "like a black sheep amongst the lambs!" It took about a year to convince her that the Rector had not been the guilty wit! Since then, all to be Confirmed invariably wear white!

Holy Trinity reminds me of an amusing experience with the late Rector, the Reverend Floyd Tomkins. It was at one of the Receptions, then given by the Bishop to the Delegates to the Convention. I was talking with two other Priests, all of us in some way having been associated with Holy Trinity, and all of us known as "advanced men," when Dr. Tomkins approached and in his effusive way embraced all three of us in his arms and said: "Well, what are you three good brethren talking about?" "Of what splendid Catholics you turn out at Holy Trinity!" Dr. Tomkins is witty but this time he had no sense of humour!

I have always been a believer in the "germ theory." I go even further than Koch, Pasteur, Lister and others. For I claim that the Episcopate seems specially susceptible to infection! Apparently many of those consecrated become changed beings, so much unlike their previous characters that it can only be explained by "germs." When one who has been a sound Churchman, a well-balanced Priest and a gracious personality, as a Bishop permits in his diocese all kinds of false doctrine, heresy and schism, while fulminating against faithful Clergy who swing a Censer and teach Confession, it is simply because of this germ ("prejudicitis"). Or when a Bishop dons the sacred "Magpie" and looks askance at Cope and Mitre or Cappa Magna, it is all on account of a germ ("ignorantitis ceremonialis"). So too, when his way of saying Mass varies in almost every respect from the proper rubrical and conventional manner followed by properly-taught Clergy, it is also the fault of a germ ("contraryitis"). When so infected, the dear Bishop cannot help it. He simply has "it" but in his case "it" is not the real "IT," but is a nasty, horrid, little Episcopal germ! Fortunately many of our Right Reverend Fathers in God are not so affected, being immune through their hold of Catholic Faith and Practice.

If one has any sense of humour, he must often be amused, of course in a kind way, at the meetings of the "brethren," especially at "functions"! It will shock some of the self-important for me to refer to a Convention as a kind of Clerical Circus, of which, of course, I am a part when it is a Diocesan event. As a rule those who can speak well on the subjects in debate rarely utter a word. Often many of those present have no idea of what is going on. Some seem to be sleeping the sleep of the just.

And the regular speakers, like "hardy annuals," do their little stunts year by year! One dear, good man in this Diocese every year presented a resolution about the Armenians. Another very cultivated Priest had his great part (and he always seemed to be listened to!) in announcing and repeating the hour for luncheon!
One of the funny things at "functions" is the "fear" on the part of many, as to whether they will make a mistake as to the use of the Biretta, when to wear it, when not to wear it! One would think that all would know the simple rules and the right custom which govern the use of this headpiece. Watch the Clergy, however, when they attend a service and sit vested in front of the people, and see how many glance at some Priest who is supposed to know so that they can follow! Of course, it is not the "cap" but what is under the "cap" that counts! Yet one may regret, that instead of "uneasy is the head that wears the crown" (in this case a Biretta), the head could not have a clear understanding of the little things as well as the big things in the Church's life.

The Right Reverend Leighton Coleman, one-time Bishop of Delaware, while I did not know him very intimately, was always a warm friend. His was a delightful personality. He was blessed with a fine, commanding presence, and a rich, deep voice, and his flowing beard gave him quite a patriarchal appearance. He favoured me by writing a preface to one of my books. Once when he was to take a Confirmation at Saint Alban's, he was dining informally with us, and seeing me glance at the clock as something was passed to him again, said, "Dear Father, don't you know that they have to wait for us!" He never seemed to be hurried and always acted with a charming dignity.

Good Bishop Whitaker was also an easy person to entertain. He always seemed to enjoy himself and he always insisted upon addressing the ladies as the "girls"! He probably thought Saint Alban's was beyond the pale but he never faulted anything there and did his best to "fit in." One of the stories he loved to tell was when he was the Bishop of Nevada he was visited by a delegation who pressed him to run for Governor!

One night I was returning home from Church in a trolley car, reading a religious book. Next to me was seated a lady who suddenly, to my surprise, put into my hand a tract headed: "Do you know that you are going to Hell?" I saw that the woman was some fanatic and I resolved to call her down. Beckoning to the conductor I asked: "Conductor, where does this car take us?" "To Germantown, Father," he replied. "Madame," I said, "you see you are mistaken. I am going to Germantown!"

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