Project Canterbury

William West Skiles

A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina 1842-1862

Edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper

New York: James Pott & Co., 1890.

Chapter VI.

BUT while the work of Missions was thus moving happily onward, dark clouds were gathering over the Diocese of North Carolina. In the month of June, 1847, Bishop Ives passed two weeks at Valle Crucis, and during that time a new religious element was introduced into the work. This was the Order of the Holy Cross, planned by himself, and which he intended, it was said, to develop into a monastic institution, connected with the Divinity School. The Bishop was to be General of the Order. The members were to be divided into three classes, one at the valley, taking the three mediaeval vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience; a second class, with lighter vows, and a third to become general in the Diocese. Both clergy and laity might belong to either class. Celibacy was enjoined on all members at the valley, but might cease after a time, unless the individual wished to make the vow perpetual. [62/63] The Rev. Mr. French was appointed, by the Bishop, Superior of the new Order, that appointment having been declined by the Rev. Mr. Buxton, to whom it was offered. As might have been foreseen, many of the divinity students, with the glow of youthful devotion, became connected with the Order. And the newly ordained Deacon, William Skiles, also assumed its obligations. This was a step which, under the peculiar circumstances, might have been expected from a man of his character. All that was excellent in the spirit of the Order, the self-denial, the devotion, the charity, must have been attractive to his religious nature. The dangers from exaggeration and superstition, from what may be called private fancy--a very common abuse of private judgment in this century--he could not foresee. The history of the Church in past ages, its mediaeval history, must have been very imperfectly known to him. But it is a happy truth that what might have become dangerous to this good man, in the new Order, authorized as it was by his Bishop, would seem never to have disturbed his faith or his practice. No trace of [63/64] superstition can be found in his private life or in his public teaching. He was ever a devout, simple-minded Christian, a perfectly sincere Churchman. And here we may also observe that no member of the Order from Valle Crucis abandoned our Church.

From this period the course of Bishop Ives was such as to cause great anxiety to his friends. There gradually appeared a vacillation, a contradiction, an irritability, in his language and action, which those who knew him most intimately attributed in a great measure to his physical condition. Of his earnestness, his zeal, his disinterestedness, there could be no doubt. But discretion and judgment appeared to waver. Valle Crucis, the institution founded by himself, and the seat of the new Order of the Holy Cross, of which he was the General, naturally felt the ill effects of this state of things. Misgiving, doubt, grave suspicion, increased rapidly. As might have been foreseen, there was much exaggeration, and even injustice, floating about the Diocese as to the state of things at the valley. These unfavourable reports naturally affected the financial support of the Divinity [64/65] School and the Mission. A time of severe privation was at hand.

The community had worshipped but a short time in the basement Chapel, after its improvement, when the whole building was destroyed by an accidental fire. What was to be done? There was no other room on the Mission grounds at all suitable for a Chapel. But the question was soon decided. The brave little band determined to build for themselves. They knew that money for Valle Crucis was now raised with great difficulty. Funds that had been confidently expected were not received. The institution was very poor. Without delay they began to work with their own hands, every member of the Mission taking part in the labour, which was severe. The plan was drawn by the Rev. Mr. French. The foundation was dug, the lumber prepared, and the work carried on by the young men themselves. The practical experience of William Skiles was of great service on this occasion; as we have already said, in his youth he had been employed in important mills; he was a good judge of lumber, and skilful in preparing it. The position [65/66] chosen for the new Chapel was in a grove at the foot of the hill. The design was Gothic in character. The unhappy experience in previous years with crumbling adobe walls in that climate decided the nature of the material--it was to be entirely a wooden building. The appearance of the little Chapel when completed was very neat. The sides were weather-boarded with planks nailed vertically to the frame. The floor was laid with undressed planks, not jointed; so that it was rough and open. The windows were simply frames, with canvas nailed across them. Sashes, and glass, were too expensive to be thought of.

At six o'clock every morning the bugle was heard summoning all to the new Chapel, and fifteen minutes later the morning service began. All were required to be present, unless absent from necessity. Summer and winter the hours for the services were the same. And it happened frequently that the little community met for the early Prayers, during the cold winter mornings, in this open Chapel, which could not be heated and where the windows were unglazed; while the [66/67] thermometer reached perhaps ten or twelve degrees below zero. A number of the students were not absent from these services once during the entire year.

Study for three hours followed Prayers and breakfast. The meals were, of necessity, becoming more and more frugal. Very frequently the dinner consisted of a good-sized piece of bread, and an ample supply of milk from the herd in which Mr. Skiles, "Brother William," as he was now frequently called was so much interested. The Rev. Mr. French was usually addressed as "Father William." After dinner came the work on the farm, often very hard work. By the Rules of the Mission two hours of labour were required of every member of the community. But funds had now failed entirely; nothing reached Valle Crucis from abroad, and so entirely were the young men thrown on their own resources, their daily bread depended so entirely upon the produce of the farm, that during the harvest season, days, and even weeks, passed without study. Manual labour was needed from all, throughout the summer day. As a rule, when the work [67/68] was not very pressing, the young men were still allowed two hours for study, in the afternoon. But, as the poverty of the Mission increased, the labour for daily bread became so engrossing, that a portion of the students deemed it a duty they owed to the Sacred Ministry for which they were preparing, to withdraw from the Institution, and seek situations where they might provide the means of living by teaching, a portion of the time, and thus secure more hours for carrying on their studies with regularity. Bishop Ives never refused his consent to an application of this nature, though he always endeavoured to dissuade the young men from leaving the House, holding out hopes of a speedy improvement in the condition of the funds. All who knew him remarked that he was a very sanguine man, counting too largely upon favourable results. Such was the condition of affairs in 1848.

The Diocese at large was becoming very anxious on the subject of Valle Crucis. There were painful rumours as to the working of the Order of the Holy Cross. Nevertheless, the [68/69] Committee on the State of the Church, at the Convention of '48, meeting at Wilmington, made a favourable Report with regard to the Institution:

"The importance of this Institution to the Diocese is immense as the nursery of a future Ministry. It appears to possess peculiar advantages for this work, not only from the retirement for the time being of its students from the distractions of society, and the hardy and useful discipline to which they are inured, but also in the great economy with which it can be conducted, your Committee being informed that $50 apiece, per annum, may be made to cover all necessary expenses, except those for clothing. It has been placed under the charge of a highly capable presbyter, and is supported by the self-denying labours of a body of young men who have literally left all for Christ. Still it needs the fostering care of the members of the Church."

Owing to severe illness, which lasted two months, the Bishop was absent at his home. His record of Episcopal acts was read to the Convention. This long illness, which prevented attention to official duties until the autumn, was said by his physicians to have weakened his whole system, and in some measure, to have destroyed the healthful balance of his mind. From that date there appeared in [69/70] manner, in word, and in action, a peculiar inconsistency, and vacillation, which was remarked by all in frequent intercourse with him. The agitation, and anxiety in the Diocese were much increased by this condition of the Bishop.

Meanwhile, in the midst of trials and privations the work at Valle Crucis was carried on with regularity and encouraging results. The Rev. Mr. French reported

"Added to the Church 22 souls." "Confirmed 6." "Much of our success as Missionaries is due to the years of patient labour of Mr. Prout, among the mountaineers. He has been the sole priestly representative of the Church for a long sea-son. And now we have the earnest, and zealous co-operation of Rev. Wm. Passmore, Deacon."

Rev. Mr. Prout reports:

"Much improvement has been effected in the religious condition of the people in this section within the year. The Church is felt to be permanently fixed here, and is consequently exerting a steady influence on the population. The hopes of the members, and friends of this Mission, are beginning to be realized, and we are cheered, while we wish only to work in quietness, and faith. We derive new confidence of final success in our work by widening continually the entire adaptation of the arrangements of the Church, to the wants, and capacities of a plain, uneducated people."

[71] Rev. W. Passmore, Deacon, reports assisting at the services at Valle Crucis three times daily, also,

"Sunday services at South Fork on New River; at Lower Watauga; on the Linnville; and on North Fork of New River: Baptisms 15, Confirmed 4; Communicants added 6. At Lower Watauga the Church is now firmly established, and is growing rapidly. At other places the prospect is brightening as the prejudices of the people have been in a great measure removed."

At the ordination of the Rev. Mr. Passmore to the Priesthood, which took place later, an incident occurred which shows the illiterate condition of the people, the great want of schools. The signatures of ten communicants were required, for the testimonials of good standing, and moral character. Only five among the lay communicants of the different Mission stations could be found capable of writing their own names. Five of those worthy men made their marks, instead of writing.

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