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History of the Church of the Ascension, Chicago, Illinois 1857-1982

By George C. Giles, Jr.

Aberdeen, South Dakota: North Plains Press, 1984.

Chapter I. The Early Years

In 1834 the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church appointed a young Connecticut clergyman, the Rev. Isaac W. Hallam, as missionary to Chicago, at the time a frontier community of 2,000 inhabitants. On November 2, 1834, the parish of St. James was formally organized by Mr. Hallam and six communicants. The following March clergymen and lay delegates from three parishes met in Peoria to frame a constitution and canons for the diocese of Illinois. The Rt. Rev. Philander Chase, retired bishop of Ohio, was elected bishop of the new diocese, which was admitted into organic unity with the Church at the General Convention of 1836.

St. James, Chicago's first Episcopal church, was consecrated by Bishop Chase on June 25, 1837. During the next twenty years the growth of the parish paralleled the exceedingly rapid growth of the population of Chicago. Between 1852 and 1857 the number of communicants and Sunday school scholars doubled, and confirmation classes were unusually large.

Late in the year 1856 some of the parishioners of St. James Church went to the rector, the Rev. Robert Harper Clarkson, to ask permission to found a mission north of the parish. The official reason given was "overcrowding at St. James," but the real reason, according to all sources, was that this group found St. James "too High Church." On the first Sunday of January, 1857, the new mission, with the Rev. Cuthbert C. Barclay in charge, began meeting in a borrowed church on the corner of LaSalle Avenue and Erie Street.

By May 8 the Rev. John W. Cracraft was appointed first rector and took charge of what was now called the parish of the Church of the Ascension. On May 17 the Rt. Rev. Henry J. Whitehouse, second bishop of Illinois, made his first visit to the parish, which was meeting in the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church on Superior Street between Wells Street and LaSalle Avenue. Two lots had been purchased, and the parish of St. James, which was rebuilding, had promised their old building to be moved to the site.

On September 9, 1857, the first vestry was elected; the parish was admitted to the Diocesan Convention of 1858. On Christmas Day, 1857, the congregation met in the Westminster Presbyterian Church at Dearborn and Ontario Streets. The baptism of Mary Allingham, the first in the parish, took place that day, and the rector issued a plea for building funds as the offer from St. James had been withdrawn. The Rev. Mr. Cracraft left the Ascension at the end of February, 1858.

The Rev. Henry Hobart Morrell, second rector, arrived on March 1, 1858, and began work on building the first church, a 36-by-60-foot frame building with a 20-foot high arched roof on a rented lot on Oak Street between Wells Street and LaSalle Avenue. It had a vestry room in the back, 70 pews and seating for 300 people. The church was completed in two months, opened by the Rev. Mr. Morrell on April 22, and visited on June 13 by Bishop Whitehouse, who laid hands on Eliza Bently, the parish's first confirmand.

In June of 1859 the Rev. Mr. Morrell left the city after denouncing the bishop, standing committee, and diocesan missionaries for being "opposed to the truth as it is in Jesus." During his brief but popular rectorate, the church held Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays and conducted a Sunday church school. In the twenty months from the founding of the parish until September, 1858, Holy Communion was celebrated only five times.

On October 16, 1858, the Rev. William Fulton was called as the third rector. Aside from the fact that he lived at 68 Oak Street, later moving to Elm and Wells Streets, and continued weekly Morning and Evening Prayer and the Sunday school, little is known of Mr. Fulton. His rectorate continued until October 15, 1860.

The church, now experiencing financial difficulties, did not find a new rector until March, 1861. After having been closed most of the winter, the church reopened on March 3 with the Rev. William H. Cooper in charge of the parish. He built a parsonage next to the church on Oak Street at a cost of $700. In November the church was carpeted, and a new pulpit and stained glass windows were added at a cost of $400. For the first time Holy Communion was celebrated once monthly. In June of 1863, after a tenure of two and one-half years, longer than any previous rector, Mr. Cooper left Ascension a much improved church.

On September 18, 1863, the Rev. L. Russell Jones became the fifth rector of the parish. In the only existing contemporary record book he summed up his own rectorate: "... the chancel of the church was enlarged and the walls were frescoed, a bell tower and bell were added, and a fine organ by the Pilcher Organ Company of Chicago was purchased." In November, 1864, the church lot was sold by its owners and the church had to be moved to the northwest corner of LaSalle Avenue and Maple Street. The building was set on poles so that a Sunday school room could be added underneath. On January 1, 1865, Mr. Jones left the Ascension to become rector of the Church of the Atonement in Chicago.

The Rev. Hiram W. Beers, D.D., presided over the most prosperous of the parish's early years. Arriving on April 2, 1865, he oversaw the church's enlargement to the dimensions of 37 feet by 100 feet. A new and larger organ was purchased. The Ascension soon gained a reputation for fine music. In September, 1865, members of the vestry purchased the lots on the corner of LaSalle Avenue and Elm Street, where the church now stands, for $8,640.

In the spring of 1867 the church was closed in order to be moved. On Whitsunday it was reopened. That year 450 parishioners were reported to the Diocesan Convention. Dr. Beers acquired the help of the first curate, the Rev. B. F. Fleetwood, a newly ordained deacon from Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin.

On January 5, 1868, the Rev. Thomas G. Carver, D.D., seventh rector of the Church of the Ascension, began his work. The size of the parish dropped considerably. It is of note that during Dr. Carver's tenure, in May of 1869, a convention was held in Chicago to oppose "ritualism," a term used with reference to the liturgical revival in the Episcopal Church. Vestrymen from the Ascension attended, and one signed the convention's declaration opposing the movement.

Dr. Carver left the parish on July 1, 1869, and the vestry again began a search for a rector. In September of 1869 the Rev. Canon Charles Palmer Dorset accepted the vestry's call. Born in Vermont in 1834, he studied at Hamlin College and was trained for Holy Orders by Dr. Edward Randolph Welles, a noted Catholic leader who was later consecrated third bishop of Wisconsin in 1874.

Charles Dorset had been ordained in 1862 in Red Wing, Minnesota, by Bishop Whipple. Shortly afterward he went to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where he founded Christ Church. Working under Bishop Jackson Kemper, he founded and tended many missions. In 1868 he was appointed by Bishop Whitehouse as canon of the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul in Chicago.

The impact of Canon Dorset's rectorate on the Church of the Ascension was decisive, persisting to this day. As a convinced advocate of the Catholic revival in the Episcopal Church, his views were those of the High Church party in the 1860s and 1870s: the efficacy of prayers for the faithful departed; the Real Objective Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; the Eucharist, rather than Morning Prayer, as the main service of the Church and celebrated with vestments, lights, songs, and acts of adoration; the doctrine of Eucharistic Sacrifice; the restoration of religious orders in the Church; and the advocacy of the Sacrament of Penance.

The Rev. Francis J. Hall, noted theologian, author, and seminary professor, described the parish before the time of Canon Dorset in this way:

He came to a parish accustomed to monthly Eucharists, a balloon surplice with tippet, a quartet choir, and sermons on strictly ethical and semi-political subjects. The type of Churchmanship was of a breezy and inconsequential order, distinctly low.

Canon Dorset had two stipulations before accepting the rectorate: (1) weekly celebration of Holy Communion and (2) free seating in the church. Until that time, families were required to rent pews on a yearly basis in order to attend services at the Ascension. Weekly communion began in January, 1870, at which time seating became free.

For Christmas of 1869 Canon Dorset began training some boys in the parish as a choir. On Christmas Day they sat in the front pews and assisted the regular quartet. By Lent of 1870 he had organized them into a choir of twelve boys. (Among them was the future Rev. Dr. Hall.). They sang Evening Prayer each night in Gregorian chant, remaining after each service to rehearse the next night's psalms. At Easter the now vested boys choir replaced the quartet, becoming one of Chicago's first vested parish choirs.

Shortly thereafter, Canon Dorset began celebrating the Eucharist facing eastward and using communion wafers instead of leavened bread, both practices considered extremely High Church. In the spring of 1870 Canon George Street was chosen as associate rector of the parish.

In July an important event took place. Fr. Prescott of the Society of St. John the Evangelist came to the parish to give a mission. Earlier that year he had assisted at a mission in London that attracted 50,000 persons. During the Ascension mission there were seven services daily with Holy Communion celebrated each day and twice on Sunday. The Rev. James DeKoven, one of the greatest Catholic leaders of the nineteenth century, preached on Sunday during the mission. DeKoven, parish records indicate, celebrated Mass several times at the Church of the Ascension during Canon Dorset's rectorate.

A report to the Diocesan Convention that fall noted that the Eucharist had been celebrated 92 times, in contrast to 15 celebrations the year before. By Christmas of 1870 the Chicago press had begun to take note of changes at the Ascension. A newspaper reported that not only would there be two communions on Christmas Day, but also "a celebration of the Blessed Sacrament" on each of the three days following. A later report noted that the Christmas services "were of the high ritualistic order."

Canon Dorset spent most of the summer of 1871 in Europe while Canon Street cared for the parish. The rector returned to Chicago on September 17, 23 days before the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871.

Flames crossed the Chicago River at about 4:00 on the morning of the tenth and had reached the Ascension by 7:00 P.M. When the church caught fire Canon Dorset and several parishioners left their own possessions to burn in order to save what they could from the church. They rolled the stone baptismal font out onto LaSalle Avenue where it was found after the fire. (It was later reinstalled in the church.) Canon Dorset brought the communion service--a large silver chalice and paten--out of the burning frame church. He gave these to Louisa Enderly, the young daughter of the church sexton, who wrapped them in her apron as she was pushed northward with the crowd to the prairies beyond the city. There she was taken in by some people but would not let the altar vessels out of her apron until she was brought to Canon Dorset on the West Side two days later. (These sacred vessels were saved in two later fires and are in the church's possession today.)

Ascension suffered the worst effects of the fire of any Episcopal parish in the city. The wooden church was completely consumed by flames in a few minutes and, apart from the font and communion vessels, nothing was saved. The homes of all parishioners and most of their businesses were also destroyed. Although the church was insured, city insurance companies were unable to reimburse claims fully. The parish received $7,000, the exact amount required to pay off the mortgage on the land. In November, 1871, the "Church of the Ascension" consisted of a parcel of land on LaSalle Avenue, a font, a chalice, a paten, and a group of faithful parishioners with very little money.

Thirty thousand dollars was raised in the East to help Episcopal churches in Chicago pay for fire damage. Bishop Whitehouse, who controlled the fund, had strong feelings in opposition to the Ascension's "ritualistic practices," and although the parish was the worst struck, he allocated only $3,000 to it, giving the remainder to St. James and St. Ansgarius, of more congenial Churchmanship. Raising money for restoration was a struggle for the parish, and because of its particular beliefs and practices, it often encountered more trouble than assistance. Commentators have suggested, however, that this period of struggle gave the parish the courage to continue "standing alone" after its rebuilding.

Grace Church and the Church of the Atonement, neither of which had been affected by the fire, invited parishioners from the Ascension to worship with them until rebuilding was accomplished. In November the vestry ran a notice in the newspaper asking any former members of the parish to notify them of their whereabouts so that attempts could be made to reestablish the congregation.

In early January of 1872, Canon Street sailed for England to attempt to raise money for the rebuilding. Canon Dorset traveled to the East Coast for the same purpose. Each priest carried plans for St. Faith's Chapel and Orphanage to be built on the back of the parish lot, with a church facing on LaSalle Avenue to be built later. At Eastertide the vacant lot was the site of the parish's annual meeting.

During the next year the parish continued to meet at the Atonement or the Epiphany. By March, 1873, sufficient funds had not been raised to build, and the congregation began meeting in the parlor of the Clarendon Hotel for Sunday Mass. Later, a third floor hall on Clark Street near the river was rented where Mass was celebrated for several weeks. In May a storefront on Wells Street was rented and served as the church for nearly a year.

In June the struggling parish began its first educational efforts. In the upper floors of the rented building on Wells Street, members of the parish opened an industrial school to teach sewing and singing to girls. The parish also became involved in the founding of a downtown mission--St. Peter's. Both were significant and expensive failures.

In July of 1873 ground was finally broken for the chapel. Disagreements concerning financial matters arose, and several members of the vestry resigned. By September work had to be stopped for lack of funds. Although these difficulties were resolved and work resumed shortly, the Tribune published a derogatory article concerning the parish's problems.

Many of the allegations contained in the article, which must have been supplied by the disenchanted former vestrymen, were partly true, but phrased in ways which implied wrongdoing. The article reported that "out of many thousands of dollars contributed by benevolent Christians, only a few hundred dollars were forthcoming." Also noted were the following "facts": that the expense of collection had been great; that considerable sums had been left in a bank in New York that went out of business; that a large sum had been paid out to support the rector and his family when there was no church building or congregation; that $1,000 intended to build the orphanage had been used by the rector to buy a residence for himself in Wilmette; that the bishop was investigating these irregularities and would allow no further mortgage on the church lot until the funds were replaced; and, finally, that many considered the rector's handling of the matter as "equal to misappropriation."

Capt. Joseph B. Hall, senior warden of the parish (and father of Francis J. Hall), answered the editors in a lengthy letter to the Tribune. Capt. Hall explained that less than $5,000 had actually been collected for the rebuilding and much of that was not "contributed" but earned by means of a fundraising effort associated with Canon Street's lecture tour of England, where he had presented "magic lantern" slide shows of the Great Chicago Fire.

Although Canon Street had earned more than $3,500, Capt. Hall continued, the cost of his trip and equipment left only $700 for the fund. The vestry had reviewed all his work and voted him a special thanks for his efforts. Four hundred ninety-two dollars had been deposited in a New York bank while Canon Dorset was collecting funds there. At the time it appeared to be a sound institution, but the bank later went bankrupt, causing the loss of the deposit. Further, less than $500 had been given to Canon Dorset to support his family in the nearly two years following the fire. The $1,000 that was in the fund to build an orphanage could not be used because plans for the orphanage had been dropped. The sum, on deposit in a bank at six percent interest, had been loaned by Canon Dorset to his wife to buy some property in Wilmette. The rector had taken security on the loan and the church received ten percent interest on its repayment. It had now been voted that the money could be used for building the chapel.

A new mortgage was taken on the lot and construction of the chapel was completed. On February 8, 1874, St. Faith's Chapel of the Church of the Ascension was dedicated by Bishop Whitehouse. The building (now St. Michael Hall), designed by Mr. John Addison of Otis Block Company, was of stone 76 by 31 feet, with a vestibule and sacristy wing that was 16 by 16 feet. The roof was of slate. The interior was frescoed by a noted artist, Louis Kohn. Pine pews provided seating for 400. The chancel furniture consisted of a marble altar, reredos, sedilia and two lecterns given by friends in New York. Friends in England contributed a brass cross, two candlesticks, and two vases.

The completion of St. Faith's Chapel was made possible by Canon Dorset's leadership and his congregation's dedication. Recalling this period, the Rev. Francis J. Hall wrote: "At a time when we knew everyone in the parish individually and were all well aware of their private means we discovered by careful computation that, aside from outside help, no less than one-eighth of the total income of all the parishioners was contributed ... to parochial purposes."

Financial difficulties were to trouble the Ascension for years and, even more, its identity as a Catholic parish was to place a heavy burden on its clergy and people. In the 1870s the Episcopal Church was being pulled in two directions. A strong Evangelical spirit was growing among some Churchmen and clergy who called for a closer union with Protestant churches in order to enhance efforts to bring the Gospel to the new frontier. The Evangelicals attempted to rid the Church of its old ties, especially to Catholic tradition, the sacramental system, and apostolic authority. Canon Dorset and other like-minded clergy and laity, strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, stood in opposition to the Evangelicals and advocated the revival of Catholic doctrine and ritual.

Evangelicals attempted to convince the General Convention of 1871 to approve eleven canons forbidding ceremonial practices such as the use of incense; placing or retaining a crucifix in any part of the church; carrying a cross in a procession in the church; the use of lights on or about the holy table; and the elevation of the elements during Holy Communion in such manner as to expose them to view of the people as objects of adoration. The defeat of the eleven canons is attributed to a moving speech by the Rev. James DeKoven. Dr. DeKoven's strong and unambiguous statement of his Catholic convictions lost him the opportunity of admission to the episcopate.

Canon Dorset stayed at the Ascension only a little over a year after the chapel's dedication. During that time he introduced several practices the Evangelicals had attempted to forbid in the proposed canons. In the summer of 1874 the rector began celebrating Mass at 6:30 A.M. daily. This was the first daily Mass in an Episcopal Chicago parish. Candles were placed on the altar, though left unlighted. Receiving a complaint concerning this instance of "extremism," Bishop Whitehouse ordered them removed. That summer the young Francis J. Hall, the parish's first acolyte, served the rector at Mass.

As noted, since Canon Dorset's arrival there had been no pew rent; the offertory collection had provided the parish's only means of financial support. In a sermon he preached on July 26, 1874, Canon Dorset pleaded for contributions. Five hundred dollars was needed that week or the sheriff would execute an order to seize the parish furnishings and close the chapel. The money was somehow raised. On September 21 a system of pledging was instituted as the vestry sent parishioners a letter requesting them to make written promises to the treasurer of how much money they would contribute in the year to come; with some idea of anticipated income, budgeting would be possible.

Late in November, while on a hunting trip in Wisconsin, Canon Dorset was accidentally caught in a deer trap and shot in the hand. Two of his fingers had to be removed, and his health was badly damaged. In late January of 1875 the rector's friend, Bishop Charles Todd Quaintard of Tennessee, visited and celebrated the Sunday Mass. The purpose of his visit was to convince Canon Dorset to move to the diocese of Tennessee, where the climate would be better suited to the rector's health. On February 14, 1875, for reason of poor health, Canon Dorset resigned his rectorate.

Canon Dorset presented the parish with a brass altar set of crucifix, two candlesticks, two vases and a book marker. He also gave the church a complete set of stoles, burses and chalice veils in the colors of the seasons (which, however, were not used for some time). The vestry presented Canon Dorset with a chalice and paten of silver lined with gold, and a resolution was adopted noting the vestry's regret that Canon Dorset was leaving and thanking him for his service.

The Rev. Canon Charles Palmer Dorset had been rector for five years, four months, and twenty-nine days, the longest period of a rector's tenure up to that time. When he left, the Church of the Ascension, which had been known for its Low Churchmanship, was the most advanced Anglo-Catholic parish in the diocese of Illinois. Daily Mass was celebrated. The priest was vested in eucharistic vestments, though they were still of plain white linen. Water was added to the chalice at the offertory, and the sacred vessels were abluted at the altar. An acolyte served the celebrant and a vested boys choir sang at the Sunday Mass. Fasting communions were encouraged.

By means of the work of Canon Dorset and his people, the Ascension parish survived near total disaster and firmly set itself on a course of witnessing to Catholic faith and practice.

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