A Good Steward of the Manifold Grace of God: The Sermon Preached at the Requiem Eucharist, Celebrated May 26 A.D. 1906, in S. Stephen's Church, Providence, R.I. for the Soul of the Rev. James Windsor Colwell, A.M., Sometime Rector (April 22, 1878 to September 1, 1884.).
By George McClellan Fiske
Providence: Printed by S. Stephen's Parishioners and Other Friends as a Tribute of Respect and Affection, 1906.
“Remember them, which had the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering (the end of their conversation) the issue of their life): Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.” Hebrews XIII: 7, 8.
We are here to pray for a Sacred Soul and to praise a departed priest, who deserves the praise of his brother priests, the praise of his own parish people, the praise of all.
It might seem a presumption for me to take it thus upon myself to speak of him in this public manner for there are others of the clergy who knew Mr. Colwell longer and better than I did.
I recognize their prior claims to perform this gracious office of eulogy. But here, in this parish, in this Parish Church, I feel that I can speak of him as none other can. This is my apology for what might otherwise seem like forwardness. I speak from this important standpoint, I am Mr. Colwell’s successor—in the Rectorship of this Parish, his immediate successor. I regret to say that priests have been known to grudge recognition of those, who preceded them, who seemed to resent it if their predecessors were much and laudingly mentioned. This is not the good way, not the right way. The rector of a Parish is only one in a line. He can afford to be—he must be, generous.
Let him suppress himself. His work is yet in process, and he knows not how it will be reckoned in the end—nor how it will be accounted of at last.
The one, whose work is finished is the one to be considered. [3/4] A course that is finished in Faith is the course to be regarded, is that course which is the proper material for review and for judgment.
There is a certain knowledge of a pastor which comes to none so directly as to those who closely follow him in his office. Between Mr. Colwell’s resignation of the Rectorship of this Parish and the election of his successor only about six weeks intervened. Between the election and the accession of the present Rector an even shorter interval elapsed. So that the echoes of the outgoing Rector’s feet had scarcely died away before the steps of the incoming one were heard. That then incoming Rector in appreciation of his forerunner stands up to speak to you this day—of what he has seen and heard.
The life and history of any parish are most distinctly marked by, and made up of the pastorates it has experienced and those different pastorates are embodied in and personified by those who fill them. With reason therefore did S. Paul utter the admonition of the text “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God; whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”
The sense of the Church has always been that in this text departed pastors were referred to. In the spirit of remembrance and imitation of his faith let us survey him, whom we would honour. James Windsor Colwell was born in Hebronville, Attleboro, Mass., May 31, 1841. He was the son of William Arnold Colwell and Mahala Windsor his wife. His earlier education seems to have been in the public schools, his preparation for college being completed in the High Schools of Woonsocket and Pawtucket. In 1860, at the age of nineteen years, he entered Brown University, from which he was graduated with the degree of A. B. in 1864. During his College course he took high rank as a student and scholar which gained him membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Among his classmates and fellow-students he was held in [4/5] high esteem and affection, and was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity.
Upon his graduation Mr. Colwell became an instructor in English in the English and Classical School in Providence, being engaged in that work until 1870, taking meanwhile in 1867 his Master’s degree. The greater part of the years 1871 and 1872 Mr. Colwell spent in study in Germany, at Hanover and Leipsic.
As a teacher Mr. Colwell rose at once to the first rank, winning a lasting and remarkable reputation. Of his six years’ work in the English and Classical School, the Rev. A. E. Carpenter justly says: “He taught with great success in this school then numbering from two hundred to five hundred and fifty boys, many of whom are now the leading lawyers, physicians and business men of Providence and many other localities. In discipline he was excellent, he seemed to have native ability to impart instruction. His calm but firm good nature and self-control made him particularly successful in his chosen work. Rev. S. H. Webb, himself a veteran teacher, who at one time taught with Mr. Colwell, says of him: ‘He was the finest teacher I ever saw.’”
Not ancestrally a Churchman Mr. Colwell became one from mature personal study and conviction, being baptized in Trinity Church, Pawtucket, July 23, 1863, by the Rev. G. W. Brown, D. D., Rector, and on June 5, 1864, was confirmed in the same Church by Bishop Clark. At the Diocesan Convention of 1871 the Standing Committee report as one of their official acts during the year past, the recommendations of James Windsor Colwell, as a Candidate for Priest’s Orders, and on October 23, 1872, he was ordered Deacon in the Church of the Redeemer, Providence where he had long been very useful as the teacher of a Bible Class. His Diaconate was a full and real one, and illustrates his thoroughness and his humility, for he continued in the inferior office until Jan. 17, 1874, when he was ordained [5/6] to the Priesthood by Bishop Clark in the Church of the Redeemer, Providence.
In 1873 this highly qualified Deacon was in charge of S. Gabriel’s, Providence. In the years 1874, 1875, 1876 and 1877 Mr. Colwell appears as Rector of S. Gabriel’s and Missionary of S. Thomas’, Providence. In the autumn of 1877 he was invited to take temporary charge of S. Stephen’s, Providence, and at Easter, April 22, 1878, was elected to and accepted the Rectorship of this Parish.
We reach here the point in this life where our interest in it, as a Parish begins.
S. Stephen’s Parish, Providence—as I knew long before I had ever seen it—has long enjoyed a fair fame in the American Church. Dating from 1839—as a Mission of Grace Church, and planted in the hill-country known as the East Side, and finally by the erection of this present edifice, having its habitation permanently fixed in the very choicest part of Providence—it was destined to become a conspicuous and important field of Pastoral life and work. Its Rectors were distinct personalities. Its founder and first pastor was the most distinguished of his distinguished family, the Rev. Francis Vinton, D. D. For many years Dr. Vinton was one of the most outstanding figures among the clergy of the American Church. He was orator, scholar, and divine. One of the foremost in the cluster of great priests, who formed the staff of Trinity Church, New York, and Professor in the General Theological Seminary, Dr. Vinton occupied in our Church life a commanding position, equal to that of his illustrious brother the Rev. A. H. Vinton, D. D., whom many yet remember as Rector of Grace Church in this city. After him came one who in aftertime was widely known in Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as a model priest, courtly, learned, elegant, and holy, the Rev. George Leeds, D. D. After him came Dr. James Henry Eames, a native of Providence, and long associated with the Diocese of New [6/7] Hampshire, a priest known and honoured throughout the Church. And then both before and after Dr. Eames—his two terms as Rector of this Parish aggregating twenty-seven years—was the Rev. Henry Waterman, D. D. He too was a native of Providence, of the oldest and most representative Rhode Island stock.
In the nature of things no other name is ever likely to be so luminous in our parochial history as his. Though not the founder of the Parish, he was its re-founder, as it were, and its re-creator. Dr. Waterman was a type of whom we have far too few examples. Learned, meek, and wise, a true Shepherd, a worthy representative of the earlier Tractarians, a devout soul, of the School of Keble and Pusey, Dr. Waterman led the way into the old paths of the Church and into the treasures of the Catholic Religion. As the beautiful inscription in our Sanctuary reads, he “Restored to the Church in Providence, some forfeited treasures of primitive piety—notably the Daily Service in the Season of Lent, and the Weekly Celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It was given him also to teach to some penitents the joy of absolution and to some mourners the comfort of prayer for the faithful dead. In such works of restoration which could not but trouble some quiet hearts, he himself was called to endure grief deeply to the shortening of his days, for Jesus’ sake.” The circumstances of this sad allusion and the history of this wounded heart are now to this congregation quite ancient history, but it is well for us to be reminded that our privileges here have been obtained at a great cost. At that time feeling ran high in the Church and the reaction against Dr. Waterman’s teaching resulted in the choice, as his successor, of the brilliant but erratic Charles William Ward. It was on the close of Mr. Ward’s brief Rectorship of two years that Mr. Colwell appeared upon the scene. We can well imagine that after what had passed, there was smarting, a sense of disturbance, and perhaps a sense of [7/8] weariness. Mr. Colwell had peculiar and providential qualifications for the position which he was called upon to fill. He was, to begin with, thoroughly familiar with the temper and habits of the people of the community.
He was a Rhode Island man—at every point in touch with its institutions and its sentiments. He knew well, and was well known to, the City of Providence. His long and phenomenal success and popularity as a teacher had given him a large acquaintance, especially among men, and more especially young men. S. Stephen’s is domiciled hard by Brown University,—his Alma Mater. Mr. Colwell’s Academic career and his work as a professional student placed him “en rapport” with the fullest and highest intellectual life of the town and entitled him to the most profound intellectual respect of the most cultivated minds. He was a man of matured character and habits, orderly and administrative. He was a man of independent judgment and of settled convictions. Gentle, modest, yet firm, rooted in principle and in sincerity and steadfastness of purpose, genial, sympathetic and well-bred, travelled and accomplished, a faithful pastor and a devout Christian man, Mr. Colwell exhibited an assemblage of traits and qualities, gifts and acquirements which made him the priest for the parish at that juncture. Mr. Colwell’s Rectorship was an era of restoration. A sound, conservative Catholic Churchman, he relaid Dr. Waterman’s foundations. He took up the thread of Catholic life and teaching where Dr. Waterman dropped it and with correct discernment saw that in this were the real continuity and tradition of S. Stephen’s Parish. When the present Rector received his invitation to the charge of this parish the statement was made that the Parish was long under the revered and saintly Dr. Henry Waterman, and received its stamp and impress from him. This was the impression which Mr. Colwell’s Rectorship deepened in the minds of those most devoted to the maintenance and welfare of S. Stephen’s that the Catholic [8/9] position taken by Dr. Waterman was the true and logical one and the one in which were involved the peace and efficiency of the Parish. This quiet, steady constructive work of Mr. Colwell paved the way for ever-increasing progress.
He was a wise sower and those who came after him have but reaped where he has sown. It is for this reason that as his next successor I desire to do homage to his labours. He made it easy for others to follow. And I feel to-day, and indeed from the very first day of my coming among you I have felt grateful to him, who worked this field before me. Everything lay ready to my hand. Records, accounts, visiting-lists, were in order and up to date. And everywhere I went, especially among the poor, the sick, and the friendless, I felt the kindly hand, the loving heart,’ the pastoral faithfulness which had ministered before me. During this period of his clerical life and connection with this Diocese, Mr. Colwell served for three years as Registrar of the Diocese, for three years as a member of the Board of Missions, and for five years as Assistant Secretary of the Diocesan Convention. He was also, in association with his friend, the Rev. George Herbert Patterson, who, with special appropriateness is the Celebrant of the Holy Sacrifice on this occasion, one of the founders and original incorporators of the Berkeley School, in which, an ever-congenial task, he also taught. He was also an incorporator and one of the first Trustees of S. Mary’s Orphanage, founded by another intimate friend of his, the Dev. Daniel Ingalls Odell, B. D. On his resignation of S. Stephen’s on September 1st, 1884, Mr. Colwell spent a year in Europe, occupied in travel and study, mostly in Dresden and Leipsic. On his return he accepted the Head-Mastership of Shattuck School, Faribault, Minnesota, which he held for two years, relinquishing it to assume, for one year, the headship of Washington College, Tacoma, Washington.
In 1888 from this “ultimate bound” of the West, he retraced [9/10] his steps Eastward, becoming Head-Master and Chaplain of the College of the Sisters of Bethany, Topeka, Kansas, where he found a congenial home for six years in association with his friend, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas, then Bishop of Kansas, and also a Rhode Islander, whom we shall always hold in honour. From 1890 to 1894 Mr. Colwell held the dignified position of Dean of Grace Pro-Cathedral, Topeka, during which time he was also Lecturer on Liturgies and Exegesis in the Divinity School of the Diocese.
In 1894 Mr. Colwell accepted a call to the Rectorship of Grace Church, Colorado Springs, where he spent one year. In 1895 Mr. Colwell decided to return to his old home State, and Diocese, whither ties of family and property seemed to call him. On All Saints’ Day, 1895, he began what was to prove the closing work of his life, the Rectorship of S. Thomas’, Greenville. This charming rural parish, with its beautiful stone Church; nestling in its green vale, among the hills of Western Rhode Island, was a fitting scene for the last years of a serene yet laborious life.
By a singular coincidence, it is linked with S. Stephen’s by its associations with the Waterman family, whose ancient home it was, and out of whose patrimony, the venerable Resolved Waterman, father of Dr. Henry Waterman and patriarch of our own parish, gave the land on which S. Thomas’ Church and Rectory and Parish House now stand, and in whose memory the late lamented Mrs. Elizabeth Brenton (Waterman) Jackson, presented the golden Cross which glows upon the tower and hallows the picturesque landscape to the traveller’s eye.
This Parish, quiet though it is, was no bed of slothful ease, no sinecure. The missionary instinct, native in Mr. Colwell, and sharpened by his Western sojourn, soon found scope for its exercise in the establishment in 1897 of services in the mission room at Centredale. Under Mr. Colwell’s tireless and loving care an enthusiastic congregation was organized, and on [10/11] June 22d (the real S. Alban’s Day), 1899, the corner-stone of the present sightly and Catholic-looking S. Alban’s Church was laid. By the kind invitation of Mr. Colwell, the Rector of S. Stephen’s made one of the addresses on that occasion, Mr. Colwell having previously called attention to the fact of our mutual connection with S. Stephen’s and also to the additionally interesting fact that Dr. Eames, another former Rector of S. Stephen’s, when once also in charge of S. Thomas’, Greenville, had held services in Centredale. The opening service in the new Church was held on February 21, 1900, and in the evening of that day, by special invitation of Mr. Colwell I had the great pleasure of preaching in the new S. Alban’s, whose Rector was assisted in the services by the Organist and a portion of the Choir of S. Stephen’s Church. Though I could never claim, what might be called intimacy with Mr. Colwell, I can say that the warmest feelings of sympathy and friendship always existed between us. His letters and conversations with me abounded in kindness and cordiality. I have here the very note he wrote to me in regard to the occasion just mentioned, and I beg to be allowed to read it as an evidence of the likemindedness which drew us together and made us feel near to one another.
Greenville, R. I., February 12, 1900.
“My Dear Dr. Fiske: I am writing this word, in the first place, to tell you that I hope you can be with us at the opening service, S. Alban’s Centredale, Wednesday, February 21, 10.30 a. m. That is the third anniversary of the beginning anew of our services in that little village, and you can imagine how glad we are to get into the new Church and feel that we are to have a suitable place for worship.
Then, in the next place, I want to ask you if, on the evening of that day, you could preach for us at an eight o’clock
service, and would be willing to come out to Centredale for that purpose? I want it to be a marked day in the history of the little parish, and if you can come may I have your permission to ask Mr. Arnold to come out and bring with him a delegation from his choir to take the musical portion of the service. You see, my dear Doctor, I want the best that I can have, in every way, and you will appreciate the fact that I do not desire it for a selfish purpose, but to give my people an ideal; to strike the right note, at the beginning.”
And on my part I am glad to say that I always felt Mr. Colwell’s presence here a refreshment and a blessing. When he came and took part in any service, or spoke to us it was an unalloyed pleasure to me no less than to our people. I am thankful for, and cherish the recollection of these occasions, and he was asked more often than he was able to come. I recall, with especial pleasure and gratitude, the address which he made on that notable event of our parish history, the laying of the corner-stone of the Webster Memorial Guild House on Holy Cross Day, 1899. I always told Mr. Col-well that I regarded him as a part of S. Stephen’s Parish, as one of our parochial household, as holding a permanent relation to us, and in this spirit he was always welcome by me here. The final record of Mr. Colwell’s sacerdotal and pastoral life in Greenville and Centredale is a beautiful one. It is one which will grow in beauteous distinctness as time goes on. It is a record of the Good Shepherd, a record of diligent and affectionate feeding and guiding of the flock of God in the green pastures and beside the still waters. He was a lover of good men and a lover and seeker of all souls.
He went about doing good—cheering, comforting, counseling. He was a servant of God and of the people. As a citizen he was a leader. The town of Smithfield honored him by making him its Superintendent of Schools. Never sparing himself, he literally plodded on in loving perseverance and in [17/18] patient continuance in good works. Literally, I say, for the long four miles road between Greenville and Centredale was trodden by his feet, as he walked from one place to another, to preach glad tidings of good things, as he walked the selfsame day on which he was stricken in November last. His was a beautiful life, it seems to me, full of humility, free from ambition, contented, consistent, a Christian life. Yet think what he was. How few people who were about him, how few of his brethren among the clergy stopped to think what he was. He was learned—far beyond the average of our clergy. Probably none among the clergy could compare with him in scholastic attainments. He was a very accomplished man, a lifelong scholar, enriched by travel, association, and worldwide observation. His experience had been a most varied one. Read over the list of important positions he had occupied, and which he had adorned. His was really a very distinguished career. He had traversed the breadth of the Continent. From his birthplace on this Atlantic coast, he had gone teaching, preaching, and working, unto the farthest confines of the West, to the Pacific strand. And then, after all that, he was willing, as the world would say, to bury himself, in a little country Parish, in a remote hamlet, “far from the madding crowd.” All the more honour to him. He is worthy to be written with those ever-blessed spirits, of whom our Mother Church of England has so many—like Keble and Church in their country parsonages, all the greater for their lowliness of mind, for their taking the lowest place.
Blessed were those years, along the Rhode Island countryside, to the people who received the benefit of such a pastor. The end of his conversation was “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.”
The Kindly Light was leading the Shepherd on, while that Shepherd led the sheep. One of the blessings and charms of Mr. Colwell’s earthly days, was his domestic life. On [13/14] November 21, 1864, he was united in marriage to Miss Sarah Maria Saunders, of North Scituate, Rhode Island. Only one of the children, which were God’s heritage and gift coming to this union, survives, one daughter. He lived to see her happily married, established in a happy home, and to see her children.
But on October 1, 1901, came in an instant the blow of sorrow in the sudden death of Mrs. Colwell. It was a blinding and an abiding grief. And though the desolate husband went bravely on and smiled though his heart was hurt to death, it was the beginning of the end. The pastor went on with his work. It prospered beneath his hand. His last material monuments are the Parish House at Greenville, and the clearing from debt of S. Alban’s Church.
One morning in November last I was approached by a parishioner of Mr. Colwell’s, with the startling news that on the previous day the beloved Rector had been smitten with paralysis. Partially recovering, able once more to be among his flock—and then retiring to his own home-circle—like our Lord at Emmaus, he sat down to break bread, and as it were vanished out of their sight.
The silence fell. Such is the story of this life—the story of a life given to the most elevated pursuits—a life rich in all that most richly embellishes and hallows, a life to be remembered—whose faith let us follow—remembering the aim and the end, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.”
In Mr. Colwell’s life, and character, and ministry, we see one of the fairest examples of pastoral fidelity and completeness pictured in those words, which we shall now be using in Ascension-tide: “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth; that God in all things may [14/15] be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
How beautifully and exactly those sayings were fulfilled in James Windsor Colwell. As he had received the gift, so he ministered. Every gift of Nature and of Grace he ministered as a good steward of the manifold Grace of God. Sound in the faith he spoke as the oracles of God, “according to the Scriptures.” There was naught neglected, misspent, misused. He made the most of the Master’s goods entrusted to him. He ministered in Sacrament, in Worship, in priestly duty, in preaching in public and in private, as of the ability which God giveth. And to-day the voice of his life comes back to us in a clear note, with no uncertain sound. “By faith—he being dead yet speaketh.” God in all things pertaining to this loving faithful life of good stewardship has been glorified through Jesus Christ. Confidently indeed may we say, as we point to this dear and gracious record—“whose faith follow.” There come to my mind, as I close, words which on the occasion of the laying of the corner-stone of the Guild House Mr. Colwell said of Mr. Webster, “I say “Farewell, but all the while welcome.” He started a beautiful work, a work ever increasing, a work to endure before God.”