Project Canterbury The Earliest Acolytes' Guild
By Clinton Rogers Woodruff
The Living Church, February 8, 1939.
THE GUILD of St. Vincent at St. Clement's church, Philadelphia, dates back to' the '80s. One former member of the guild, now a priest in the diocese of Maine, sets the date at 1885, though he is by no means positive.
"This," he writes, "is how I come to the date. I became an acolyte at St. Clement's in 1882, when I was 10 years old. Mr. Downing, who was in charge of us, lived in the clergy house with the SSJE. There were already rules of prayer and sacraments, etc., which the acolytes were taught to observe. These rules gradually developed and took fuller form, so I cannot distinguish in memory the exact date when the organization became the formal Guild of St. Vincent, with its printed rule, offices, and constitution."
It has been suggested that the guild at the Church of the Advent, Boston, preceded it, though the testimony of the priest from Maine and of other persons, who joined the St. Clement's guild in 1890, is in favor of St. Clement's being the older. There was a guild, it is certain, during the rectorate of Bishop Grafton.
Applicants for admission to the guild had to pass the chaplain, Fr. Longridge, SSJE, and the warden, Mr. Downing, who had his own ideas about who would make good servers. Not all who offered their services were accepted, according to Sheldon P. Ritter, whose great-uncle was Bishop Potter. Mr. Ritter was identified with the parish for many years and until a few years ago was its efficient accounting warden.
A service of admission was held from time to time, and such as were deemed worthy were formally admitted. During his years of service, Mr. Ritter never knew of anyone's being allowed to serve, even as banner bearer, who was not a member. If there were not enough acolytes, then the number of banners was reduced, but it was a "closed corporation."
"I well remember the long discussions over the matter of forming the guild and adopting its rules, having its office printed, an\l selecting a medal," the priest from Maine has written. "Every proposed rule and constitutional principle was debated individually at several monthly meetings until they were all finally adopted.
"I would think this was about 1885. Bishop Stevens, I know, had died before that, and Fr. Maturin was still rector at the date of founding. I remember well the famous blizzard of March 12, 1888. The day before it was a Sunday on which we had our annual St. Vincent's retreat. It poured rain throughout the day, and when at night it was time to go home it was raining cats and dogs. The next morning we awoke to find the city buried in snow. I can recall that this was not the first retreat of the guild. They had been the established thing for several years, and were the usual thing at that date.
"Some time after the guild had been in existence with printed rule, medal, and name, we were told by the fathers at a monthly meeting that the rector of the Church of the Advent, Boston, had written to the fathers of SSJE to ask about the guild and had requested that a copy of the rule and constitution should be sent to him as he was thinking of forming such a guild.
"Later, we heard he had adopted the entire rule, offices, name, and medal. This is why I feel sure that the guild of the Church of the Advent was an offspring of the guild at St. Clement's. In fact, the present rules of St. Vincent's guild throughout the American Church are exactly the very wording (with one or two exceptions) of our guild. It was over them that we had labored to express ourselves. As I read these over today, I have the whole scene of those old, old days, and personalities and voices as they come back to me in memory. "This may seem a lot of trifling detail, but it left a sense of importance on the minds of those who lived through it because the work was pioneer work and the fathers and Mr. Downing and the acolytes were forging what was then a new thing, and a new way, which had to be invented as we went along. Besides, the guild turned out to be a happy and glorious blessing for all who belonged to it."
There used to be a picture in the guild room, taken before Mr. Ritter's time, in which several men were shown, including Caleb F. Wright and his brother. Because they served on weekdays and did a great deal of work, they continued as unattached servers after the guild started to function.
VERY FEW of the boys of the days of the picture are living. Erskine Wright (a priest), Arthur W. Howes, and Walter Reed are all we know about.
The rules of the guild were well kept. There were prayers before and after serving, silence while vested, no light talk about the Church or its ornaments, attendance at meetings, and a monthly Communion. The duties of acolytes were many and varied, besides those of serving once or twice on Sunday. There were meetings of guilds, stations of the Cross, and daily Masses to be served.
The sacristan called on various members to help change the hangings at the high altar, and all the boys helped at Christmas. Twice a year all the brass and lamps had to be polished; the lamps (14 in all) had to be boiled in lye before they could be handled and some pieces of brass had to be taken apart to clean the cracks. There was often carpenter work to be done. Any acolyte handy with tools was pressed into service.
Besides all this, there were special calls. If a body was kept in the church over night (there was then no crypt), the acolytes kept watch, two at a time. At 2 A.M. with no light but the six .candles, St. Clement's is a weird place, with more creaks and cracks than one could imagine. There was very little heat, so the acolytes borrowed cloaks of the priests.
At funerals the crucifer stood with the cross raised at the foot of the casket during the entire service and often went to the grounds in rain or snow.
Another duty was Rogation intercession. The acolytes took the hours from 7 P.M. to 7 A.M. Younger ones had a half-hour turn until 10 P.M.; then the older ones took an hour each, and after 12 P.M. those to go on duty slept in the vestry room on cots. A long rope was stretched from the chancel to the vestry. It was tied to the ankle of the next man on duty, and about 10 minutes before time was up, the man on duty gave a tug which awakened his successor. The chain of prayer could not be broken.
On Ascension morning at 7 o'clock, there was a Solemn Mass, when all the acolytes who served received Holy Communion.
There was an all-day retreat on Passion Sunday, pretty well attended. Silence was kept all day. In later years a general retreat for acolytes from outside was tried, but the visitors were not sufficiently trained in spiritual matters to understand it, and it was not continued.
For about a month in summer, the members of the guild had a cottage at Point Pleasant. They went down in relays, each paying his own board. Some of Mr. Downing's friends paid the rent.
So far as we know, St. Clement's spent nothing on St. Vincent's guild; its services were entirely free.
The guild office was sung, but Mr. Ritter says "singing was not our best work; one Lent we were called upon to sing hymns at mission service at night. They never had a choir that worked as well as we did, but the singing was something else."
About 1891, Fr. Longridge had to provide burial for a former parishioner who had died in the almshouse. From that occasion developed St. Vincent's burial guild. There was enough collected from outside to buy a lot at Mt. Moriah. The members attended Mass on the day of the funeral and, where possible, went to the grounds in the undertaker's wagon. The guild also kept the lot in order, and in time put up a large crucifix and iron crosses on the graves.
In after years the work was kept up outside of the guild, and eventually the lot was given to the city mission. The purpose of the burial guild was to provide Christian burial for baptized members of the Church who died in the almshouse without means or with insufficient funds to care for them. As the almshouse chapel was a miserable place, funds were collected to refurnish it.
Among the first servers were Bishop Francis of Indianapolis and the Rev. Charles L. Steele, rector emeritus of Calvary memorial church.