Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter III. Old Westminster Days.

THE house in Pleasant Avenue was never thought of as a permanent foundation. The Fathers lived their life there, waiting until God should give some new indication of His will. When therefore in 1892 Miss Lucretia Van Bibber, of blessed memory, offered the Order a house at Westminster, Maryland, it was felt that it was a call from God to begin a new period in the development of the monastic life in the American Church. Holy Cross House, as we called it, was no great foundation. It was a simple cottage in a rural country town in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There was a tender association with it that gave it a consecration of its own. Miss Van Bibber lived with a niece to whom she was greatly devoted, and this house had been erected as their residence. But it was barely ready for occupation when the niece died, and the elder woman determined to offer it to God as a memorial of the loved one who had been called away in the prime of her youth. She offered it to the Order and it was gratefully accepted. We came into residence in the late summer of 1892. It fell out, by the providence of God, that the first Mass said under this roof was on the feast of St. Dominic, August 4th. It seemed a happy omen. The work done by the great Dominican Order was not unlike that to which the Order of the Holy Cross, in its far humbler sphere, felt [14/15] God was calling it. So we seized upon the circumstance, and the chapel in the little monastery was dedicated to the great Dominic, and we placed him amongst those patrons to whose prayers we look for help with God.

The move to Westminster was not without its complications. The Bishop of Maryland, the Right Rev. Dr. Paret, had always been profoundly suspicious of the work of the Catholic advance in the Anglican Church, and his suspicions were strongest where the revival of the monastic life was concerned. We naturally wished to have him for our visitor, and he was willing to act as such, but on conditions which were quite impossible. He wished to dictate what the Rule should be, and to exercise such other authority in the private life of the house as would have made an immediate impasse. Needless to say that only those who were actually living the Rule could know whether it was a practical one.

But Bishop Paret was not without the quality of graciousness in his severity. He did not deny us the privilege of living in his diocese, and gave us the freedom of our life of devotion within the walls of our house in whatever way we found edifying. But he would not accept us as members of the diocese, and while not inhibiting anyone, he requested that we should not minister in Maryland outside of our own premises. And it was no merely formal request. He saw to it that it was carried out. On one occasion where a member of the Order was called [15/16] in a sudden emergency to minister to a dying person, a report was made to the Bishop immediately of the act, and the manner in which he received it made it clear that he was still suspicious of an unnecessary zeal on the part of the priest who had been thus unexpectedly summoned. But we had not made any connections in the diocese, and had no reason to wish to evade the Bishop's request.

In many respects, the location and environment in Maryland was ideal. We were in a parish,--the Ascension, Westminster,--which had for forty years been served by leaders of the Catholic Movement in America. Bishop Grafton and Father Prescott, two of the first members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, had as young men, been associated with it. Dr. Isaac Lea Nicholson, who was for years rector of St. Mark's, Philadelphia, and later Bishop of Milwaukee, one of the outstanding members of the bench of Bishops, had been rector of the Ascension, and when the Order took up its residence this Catholic regime still persisted.

The particular site of the monastery was interesting, and I would venture to suggest that no town in the United States was to be found which so recalled the conditions common in ancient European seats. The town was small; there was one long street; the houses in most cases abutting immediately on the pavement, with gardens behind. For a distance of two or three squares only, there was one street parallel to the main road on either side, and immediately [16/17] beyond these lay the wide stretches of farm lands. In the lower part of the town a street ran about three hundred yards east, to the Court House Square. Here in the midst of the square stood the great massive court house, with its high tower dominating the situation. Around the four sides of the square were built houses so disposed as to give a mediaeval flavour rare in our western world. On the west was the parish church and the rectory. On the north stood the monastery, and two of the judges of the state court had their residences on the opposite sides. A little distance away on the edge of the fields, which came up close to the houses, stood the prison. Here Church and State were disposed, each in its place. It was indeed a little flock that took up its residence at Westminster in that summer so long ago. The Order had two professed members and one novice. It was a little community in a little house. After all, with only three members in the tiny community, the house was relatively not so small, but things had to be disposed carefully to secure the organization necessary to the good ordering of the life. There were nine rooms in all, besides a big attic which a little later was cut up into cubicles, and accommodated the novitiate. The cells were of the smallest you could imagine as habitable. During the greater part of the two years and four months of my postulancy and novitiate, I occupied a cubicle so small that I could sit at the narrow drop-shelf which did service as a desk, and reach anything in the room. [17/18] The length over all was but a few inches more than that of the single cot which covered just half of the total floor space. A broad dormer window, such as one finds in old attics, occupied almost the entire end of the cell, affording ample light and air. But there were many compensations in the small compass of one's quarters. Sweeping and dusting were reduced to a minimum, and it required only the briefest space of time every morning to put things in apple-pie order.

And the place was clean, you may be sure. We had for novice-master, Father Sargent who had been professed in 1894 by Bishop Quintard in the Otey Memorial Church at Sewanee, Tennessee, upon whom we used to practice the virtue of Christian charity, forgiving him from our hearts for what seemed to our youthful spirits a nagging policy. From the summit of the years one realizes with grateful memories how it was exactly what we young cubs needed in order to be licked into Religious shape. He had, I think, the most charming social faculty I have ever known. Had he lived in the world, he would have been the most delightful host that society could boast. No one who lived at the Westminster house fifty years ago will ever forget the all-day hikes he used to organize among the high folds of those glorious Maryland hills, through the vistas of which shone the gleaming line of the Blue Ridge, set in lofty outline against the bluer sky, twenty miles away to the west.

[19] We took our lunch with us, of course, and ate it as we lay reclining along the bank of some little river in the woods, and in the basket was always one or more books, and as we rested after our refection, we would read aloud. Sometimes it was a bit of fiction, more often some dear, familiar poem, or extracts from some old literary classic. We took our time, and so the day drifted by, full of loving fellowship, and congenial conversation.

On these junkets, of which there were always two or three each summer, we carried the life of the monastery chapel with us. Offices were sung at the proper hours in deep woodland dells, to the accompaniment of the pleasant sound of running water; or in some shady corner of the ripening fields, sweet with the fragrance of a thousand flowers, while the birds joined us in the happy praises of God. Passers-by sometimes wondered at the strange melodies which came to them from the deep of the woods, or dropped from the height of some adjacent hill. Had our Maryland neighbours been endowed with a little more wholesome poetical superstition than usually flourishes in this age, who knows what strange legends might have grown up in the countrysides of unearthly visitants chanting amid the wooded hills.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the reactions were of a highly amusing character. One afternoon we found an abandoned quarry hollowed deep in a hillside, which offered a natural choir like the high apse [19/20] of a church, and we sang vespers in it. There was a cabin not far away, and our appearance in our habits created some consternation in the very large family that inhabited it. A small boy was commissioned to spy out the strange performances of the visitors, and report. He peeped over the top of the quarry just as we were singing the vesper hymn, and shouted excitedly to the waiting crowd, "They are preaching the Gospel!" It is hardly necessary to remark that the vesper hymn was not sung with as much recollection as it might have been.

Holy Cross House was built for summer occupation, and in the uplands of Western Maryland the winters were fiercely cold. Bitter winds swept down from the slopes of the mountains, and getting up at five o'clock in the morning and breaking your way through the ice to get a bath made living a bit austere. I recall an English priest who spent several weeks with us one winter, and who was appalled at the zero weather which he had never felt before. One afternoon he got a small bottle of medicine from the local drug-store and placed it on the table in his cell. The next morning it was found that the contents had frozen and split the bottle which lay in fragments on the table while the medicine stood defiantly in the midst of the wreck, a slender, solid column. I doubt if our guest ever stopped talking about it.

The property at Westminster was a half acre in extent, and a very pleasant half acre it was. It was a [20/21] gracious place in which to live, and though the little town with its noise and hubbub, lay close by, one would have to travel far to find a quieter shelter for prayer. The adjacent roads were thoroughfares to nowhere, and there was little coming and going to break in upon the tenor of one's thought and meditation. But such fair surroundings are found everywhere where men love to cultivate simple beauty. The unique thing about the house at Westminster was the life within the walls. Religion there was indeed "right well kept." Since those days I have visited some of the great monasteries of the Christian world, and I do not hesitate to say that nowhere have I found a stronger current of monastic devotion than that which was kept in steady flow by the little group of consecrated men who were making the first beginnings in this obscure establishment. I can recall many impressions which I received on visits I paid there when I was in parish work in Philadelphia, and it was these impressions of the profound reality of what I saw that aroused and made compelling the vocation that God was gracious enough to give me to the Religious life. One morning I was reading in the library a little while after breakfast, when I heard the sound of singing from the chapel across the hall. I hastened in, and to my surprise there was one of the Fathers, by himself, singing the office of Terce as lustily as though he was being supported by a choir of fifty monks. This principle marked everything in the life of the house. There was the [21/22] unfailing routine of prayer; seven times each day, the praises of God ascended to heaven, and all work was done in the same spirit. Westminster was not very accessible, pocketed as it was, on a spur of a small country railway, but it was this spirit in the house which sent its influence far afield, and made men beat a pathway to its doors. How many were the souls who, bruised and fainting from the struggle with a world which had proved too much for them, found a return of calm and peace in that haven.

But the very virtues which were there exemplified, and which drew men to this happy place, worked to bring those idyllic days to a close. We had been at Westminster but a few years when the house was filled to bursting, and it became evident that it would no longer hold the growing community. At this juncture, again God's hand was evident, as it was when we found our way to western Maryland. In the summer of 1898, the French steamship Burgoyne, was rammed by a collier off the Newfoundland banks, and in a few hours sank with over a thousand of her helpless passengers. Among them was the Rev. W. G. Webster, who was still in deacon's orders. He had not studied for Holy Orders until middle life, had graduated at the General Seminary the previous year with one of the most brilliant records that the history of the institution had ever known, and occupied a curacy in his own parish of St. Stephen's, Providence. When his will was read, it was found that he had left the Order $3,000. It was [22/23] the largest legacy, up to that time, that the community had received, and there was no doubt as to how it should be used. The purchase must be made of a property which could be a permanent foundation as the mother house of the Order. A little while before, Mr. Neidlinger, the owner of the property at West Park which has since been developed as "Wiltwyck," had purchased what was known as the Butterworth farm in order to protect his own adjoining property. The late Father Charles Mercer Hall interested himself in the matter, and through the influence of Judge Alton B. Parker, Mr. Neidlinger sold the farm to the Order at a very reasonable figure. The history of the building of Holy Cross Monastery, and of the subsequent work which has been done there, and which has branched out into other foundations, both in this country and beyond seas, does not need to be told here. It is as yet an unfinished chapter in the history of American monasticism. In May, 1904, with many regrets for the people of Westminster whose neighbourliness and kindness had for twelve years contributed so much to our happiness, we dismantled the house and removed to West Park. Since that time a generation has passed. There are probably not many left in the old Maryland town who remember the Fathers who bade them farewell near the turn of the century, but they are not forgotten by us, and we never think of old Westminster days without a sense of gratitude to the good God who, amongst these dear people, [23/24] gave us so much of blessing, and showed us the way out of many problems.

May He have them all, both living and departed, in His holy keeping.

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