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A History of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament
in the United States of America

By William Pitt McCune

Published for the Confraternity by Holy Cross Publications, 1964.


ONE OF THE first three Associates admitted by Grafton was a young priest, Thomas McK. Brown. He had just been ordained and three years later was to found in New York the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Meanwhile he was associated with several parishes and priests in the city, and among them with Ferdinand C. Ewer. At that time Dr. Ewer was rector of Christ Church, from which he resigned in 1871 to found the Church of St. Ignatius. The early history of the Confraternity in America is closely associated with these two priests and parishes, and their names occur very often in its records from the beginning.

The first meeting, at which Father Brown was admitted as an Associate, was, he wrote later, its formal introduction into this country, "with a view to spreading it, and bringing it into shape and use." The next meeting was held the next year, at Trinity Chapel, New York, on June 11, 1868. It began with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, at which Father Brown was celebrant. This was significant, and also the date. June 11 that year was the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. This meeting has been followed by almost a century of Annual Conferences, all beginning with the Holy Eucharist, offered on the feast of Corpus Christi or within its Octave. This was one of many ways in which the Confraternity, in America as in England, began to bear witness to its faith in our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood. After the service there was a meeting, at which Father Brown presided, and the Rev. Francis Harison was elected acting secretary. This young priest, an assistant in Trinity Parish, had done this work since he was admitted as an Associate with Father Brown. He was now requested to continue it. The one work specified in the request was to continue to forward "papers." These were the Intercession Papers sent to Associates in this country, as in England, to help them in their prayers. It is significant, again, that the work of the Confraternity from the beginning was a work of prayer. It has carried on such work longer than any other organization among us. The approach of its Centenary is a reminder that it is the oldest devotional society in the American Church.Two more meetings were held in the same year. At the first permission was received from the English Council of the Confraternity to organize in this country; at the second the organization was effected. For constitution, laws, and offices, the meeting adopted the English Manual, published in its third edition at London that year. It was adopted "entire," with the change of the words "English Church" into "Anglican Church in the U.S.A." Election of Officers followed: Superior-General, the Rev. Nicholas Hoppin; Secretary-General, the Rev. Thomas McK. Brown; Treasurer-General, Mr. Thomas G. Brereton. The Constitution also provided a Council of Priests-Associate, and Wards in different places, first temporary, then permanent, each with a charter and officers. With the Constitution the American Confraternity adopted all of the English Manual, and the Manual, as Carter had pointed out at the beginning, "shows what our principles were." They still stand in all our Manuals, and familiar as they are to all Associates, must stand here in this history as the Confraternity's statement of principles. These are the "Objects" for which it was founded, and for which it has worked during the hundred years of its existence:

1. The Honor due to the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

2. Mutual and Special Intercession at the time of and in union with the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

3. To promote the observance of the Catholic and primitive practice of receiving the Holy Communion fasting.The wording has been slightly changed in the course of time, but the thought and the principles are the same now as then.

With the Manuals the Confraternity adopted Medals, like those used by Associates in England. Concerning the Medals and their use there were certain rules adopted at the same time. And after these, in the record of the meeting, follows: "Resolved that a proper secrecy and reticence be observed with reference to all Confraternity matters, when in the presence of persons not Associates of the C.B.S." This is interesting, even after many years. To some readers it may seem amusing. But in 1868, both in this country and in England, it was serious, and the resolution doubtless nccessa35 to protect the Confraternity from friend and foe alike. Critics, however, seized upon it as another weapon with which to attack the new organization, and one of the charges most frequently and violently made against it was that of being a secret society. Its members were suspected of sinister designs against the Church, and action was urged against them and all who agreed with them. General Convention met in New York in October, 1868, the month in which these two meetings were held there to organize the Confraternity. In the House of Deputies a canon was introduced on the manner of conducting divine worship, and in the House of Bishops a committee was appointed to report later to Convention. The Bishops' Pastoral Letter discussed Eucharistic doctrine and condemned Eucharistic adoration. This was a stormy period in the history of the American Church, and there are many echoes of the storm in the records of the Confraternity. They are most frequent in these early years. It was a time in which those who believed in the principles of the Confraternity might expect trouble, and might well be put on guard against it.

The next meeting, and the First Annual Conference, of the Confraternity was held the next year, "in the Octave of the Thursday after Trinity Sunday." The place was Christ Church, New York, and the rector, Ferdinand C. Ewer, not only celebrated the Eucharist but presided at the meeting, and was elected Superior-General. Nicholas Hoppin, the first Superior-General, served only one year, and the records of the Confraternity throw little light on his coming and going. Elsewhere we learn that he had graduated from the General Theological Seminary in 1837, and became rector of Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1841. There he may have met Father Grafton in his early years at Harvard and in Boston, and later been influenced by him to become first an Associate and then Superior-General of the Confraternity. Or perhaps it was friends in New York who were responsible. This is mere conjecture. The facts are that he was Superior for one year, also a member of the Council, and an Associate till his death in 1886.

Several items in the minutes of this meeting in 1869 throw light on the first year of the Confraternity after its organization in America. It was always in touch with the Confraternity in England, which had sent authorization for the American Branch, monthly Intercession Papers, and also a gift of altar linen. To have charge of the work of supplying altar linen "a Lady Secretary and a Committee of Ladies" were appointed. Three wards were recognized, at St. Mary's and at Christ Church, New York, and at the Advent, Boston. And in fixing annual dues at one dollar, the meeting excepts Sisters of Mercy. This is the first mention of Religious Communities in relation to the Confraternity, but far from the last. In this country as in England, from the beginning, the Religious had their part in its work of prayer. In a letter written in 1863 Carter said, "All the Sisters belong," and in October, 1868, the year after its introduction in America, Father Grafton admitted the six Sisters who then composed the Community of St. Mary.

After another Conference at Christ Church, the Confraternity met in 1871 at St. Mary's, and in 1872 at St. Ignatius'. Then for ten years the Conferences were at these two churches, alternately, and the Confraternity's leaders were the two priests who had founded them. Father Brown continued to serve as Secretary-General, and Dr. Ewer as Superior-General. Wards were formed elsewhere, first at the House of Prayer, Newark, and St. Clement's, Philadelphia, then at the Ascension, Chicago, and St. Barnabas', Omaha. The Annual Conferences, however, were all in New York, and the activity of the Confraternity was centered there. Its Objects were clearly defined, but there were difficulties, as always, in deciding how best to work for them. From the beginning there were efforts to divert the Confraternity from its aim, and to involve it in many issues. Pressure came from within as from without, from friends as well as foes. There is ample evidence of this in the records of these ten years.The 70's were a stormy decade in the history of the American Church, even more violent than the 60s. And the storm center was one which concerned the Confraternity, from which it could not escape, even had it wished to do so. When General Convention met at Baltimore in 1871, the Committee of Bishops appointed in 1868 made a report, and a canon was proposed against Eucharistic devotion. It was defeated after long debate, in the course of which Dr. Ewer was mentioned by name. The Catholic leader in the debate, and the man responsible for the defeat of the canon, was Dr. DeKoven. It was at this convention that he made his great confession of faith: "I believe in and this will be printed tomorrow, and I will write it out, if necessary, for any one who wants to use it--I believe in the Real, Actual Presence of Our Lord under the form of bread and wine upon the altars of our churches. I myself adore, and would, if it were necessary or my duty, teach my people to adore, Christ present in the elements under the form of bread and wine. And I use these words because they are a bold statement of the doctrine of the Real Presence, but I use them for another reason: they are adjudicated words; they are words which, used by a divine of the Church of England, have been tried in the highest ecclesiastical court of England, and have been decided by that ecclesiastical court to come within the limits of the truth held in the Church of England." In these last words De Koven referred to the case of the Rev. W. J. E. Bennett, vicar of Frome Selwood, in England, who had been prosecuted by the Church Association for his doctrinal statements concerning the Real Presence. The case was tried in the Court of Arches, and appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It was their judgment which De Koven quoted in his speech at Baltimore. Not only General Convention but the Confraternity was stirred by this issue. In 1873 Father Grafton, come from Boston to preach at the Annual Conference in New York, moved that "the American Branch of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament place upon record its grateful appreciation of the part taken by the Rev. W. J. E. Bennett, of Frome Selwood, England, in the recent vindication of the Anglican Church touching the Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ." A copy of the resolution was sent to him, and "all offertories made during the Octave of the Anniversary in New York." This was acknowledged by Bennett in a letter "expressing his thanks and extending to the American Confraternity his congratulations at its prosperity."

The controversy continued, more bitterly in the General Convention of 1874 than in that of 1871. A canon of ritual conformity was passed, prohibiting "any act of adoration of or toward the Elements in the Holy Communion." Again De Koven led the opposition, in words as bold as he had used before, and even more eloquent: "You may take away from us, if you will, every external ceremony; you may take away altars, and super-altars, lights and incense, and vestments; you may take away, if you will, the eastward position; you may take away every possible ceremony; and you may command us to celebrate at the altar of Cod without any external symbolism whatever. You may give us the most barren of all observances, and we will submit to you. But, gentlemen, the very moment any one says we shall not adore our Lord present in the Eucharist, then from a thousand hearts will come the answer, 'Let me die in my own country, and be buried in the grave of my father and mother.' For to adore Christ's Person in his Sacrament, that is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart. How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies with which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent. The thing itself is what we plead for." De Koven was a true prophet. The canon lasted only thirty years, and in that time there was only one trial under it, that of Father Prescott, of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who suffered an Episcopal admonition.

In the midst of this battle the Confraternity, like De Koven, took its stand for "the thing itself." Eucharistic Adoration was its first object, always, and after that, prayer in union with the Eucharistic Sacrifice. At its Conference in 1874 it adopted resolutions on Eucharistic Adoration and the Real Presence. These included not only statements of doctrine, but approval of "the late act of the Council in publishing a statement in view of the many ruthless attacks upon the Confraternity and groundless misconstructions of its objects and teachings." Dr. Ewer told the Conference of this statement, prepared by the Council and sent to every Bishop, Priest, and Deacon in the American Church. In it they were told that a distinction was to be made between the acts and words of individual members and the Confraternity as an organization, that it was not a secret society, that it did not interfere in the late Episcopal election in Massachusetts, that it was not organized for politics, that it was averse to intrigue, and that its only purpose was to promote the Objects and to conform to the rules in its Manual. This statement is only one indication of the harm done to the Confraternity and its Objects by some of its members. Caution was urged repeatedly in recommending applicants for admission, and Associates were reminded at this Conference that "wrangling in connection with its solemn Objects is distasteful to the Confraternity." In the midst of the turmoil of 1874 and on the eve of General Convention Dr. Ewer in his annual address said: "Whatever means we may lawfully use as separate individuals to promote the Catholic truth as set forth by our Church, we should bear in mind that as a Confraternity our great means to that end is combined prayer."

The Confraternity may not have interfered in the episcopal election of Bishop Paddock, in Massachusetts, but it was involved in another episcopal election during these years. In this it found itself associated not only with the Community of St. Mary, but with the General Seminary. For some time the Seminary had been under attack as not being truly "general." The focus of this attack was one of its professors, the Rev. George F. Seymour. Not long before this Dr. Seymour had defended a senior in the Seminary, who had been censured for a sermon in which it was declared that our Lord "deigns to be upon our altars and to be handled by sinful men." Now he had been elected Bishop of Illinois by the convention of that diocese, and there was bitter controversy over the election being confirmed. Debate in the House of Deputies in 1874 lasted eight days, behind closed doors, and Dr. Seymour's request to be heard was denied. One of the charges brought against him was that he had become chaplain to the Sisters of St. Mary. Another was that at the Seminary he had encouraged students in non-communicating attendance at the Communion Service. Still another was that he permitted Father Grafton, "an active agent of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament," to address the students in a private room in the Seminary "on his peculiar views of the Holy Eucharist." It has been proved that Dr. Seymour did not give Father Grafton permission to address the students privately, and did not know till afterwards that he had visited the Seminary to interview a prospective curate. The election was not confirmed, however, and Dr. Seymour was not made a Bishop till 1878, and then of the new diocese of Springfield. Meanwhile the controversy was heard throughout the Church, and appears in the records of the Confraternity, "Resolved that the members of this Branch of the Confraternity congratulate the three Lay Associates, members of the General Seminary, upon the grace of steadfastness vouchsafed them by God, during their trying experience now happily ended."

The years that followed were quieter, in the Church and in the Confraternity. Annual Conferences were held in New York. A proposal to change the time of meeting was rejected as inexpedient. Evidently the observance of Corpus Christi was still considered a part of the Confraternity's witness to Eucharistic truth. A committee was appointed "to make the High Celebration more of a service, with clergy as choir and service of male members," but it was several years before the service became "Solemn High," with deacon and sub-deacon. Associates reported an increase in Eucharistic worship, throughout these years and throughout the Church. The Intercession Papers gave thanks for this increase, especially "for the daily celebration at Trinity Church, New York, an object for which the Confraternity has been praying." Mutual and special intercession continued to be one of its chief Objects, in this country as elsewhere. There is mention in the records of intercession Papers being "interchanged with the Canadian authorities." The Confraternity's work, and its witness to Catholic faith, also included instruction. Sermons preached at the Conferences were published. The Council was requested to provide tracts on Catholic teaching, but decided not to do so at this time. Assistance was given to priests, in grants of altar linen and vestments. Four women were appointed for this work, and Associates were asked for offerings, to help poor churches and missions in this way.

The American Branch continued to keep in touch with the Confraternity in England. Letters were read, telling of the state of the Church there. At the Conference in 1881 "the Rev. Superior-General delivered some thoughtful remarks upon the value of Passive Obedience, its Victories, and the two Victories won this year by the imprisonment of the Rev. Messrs. Dale, Enraght and Green, in England, referring to the admissions of the Archbishop of Canterbury about the Public Worship Regulation Act." Three letters were sent to these priests in England, "to express the sympathy of the Conference for them in their incarceration for conscience's sake." In his address the next year Dr. Ewer called attention to the fact that "the Arch-Bishops and Bishops in England were now asking the Revd. Father Green to come out of prison." He also reviewed the history of the Confraternity in this country, contrasting its condition with that in England, and noting "the survival of the Confraternity from the animadversions of the Church Journal in years past, the fears of the General Convention and of some Bishops, the moral strength which the existence of the C.B.S. gives to isolated Catholics, ... the fact that the American Branch had not suffered persecution amongst its Lay Associates, and that the general Church was permeated with the Catholic spirit, and that this influence was slowly growing."

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