Project Canterbury

Mahlon Norris Gilbert: Bishop Coadjutor of Minnesota 1886-1900.

By Francis Leseure Palmer
with an Introduction by Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, Presiding Bishop of the American Church.

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1912.
London: Mowbray, 1912.

Chapter XII. Home and Personal Life

ON ENTERING upon his episcopate, Bishop Gilbert had rented a house at Number 56, Park Place. No provision had been made for an episcopal residence. As rector of Christ Church his salary had been three thousand dollars, with the use of the rectory. As Bishop he received three thousand dollars only, and no increase was ever made in the amount.
Presently, however, some of his many friends in St. Paul determined to give the Bishop a home. He received one day the following letter:

ST. PAUL, Feb. 23, 1888. Rt. Rev. M. N. Gilbert, D.D.

MY DEAR BISHOP: It is with very great pleasure that I transmit to you the enclosed certificate of deposit for $10,000. Please accept the same as a token from your friends, whose names I herewith send you, of the love and esteem in which they hold you, and of their grateful and admiring appreciation of you as a friend, and of the good work done by you while rector of Christ Church in this city, and since then in the larger field of labor to which you have been advanced. They hope that with it you will be able to provide yourself a house in which, as they all wish, may you pass a long, useful, and happy life, cheered by the consciousness of work well done, and by the friendship and esteem of all who know you.

Very sincerely yours, JAMES GILFILLAN.

At the time the letter was written, Bishop Gilbert, with some assistance, was holding an eight days' mission in St. Cloud. On his return to St. Paul, he found this delightful letter and wrote in reply:

ST. PAUL, Feb. 28, 1888. The Hon. James Gilfillan.

MY DEAR JUDGE GILFILLAN:--I cannot fittingly express my gratitude for the generosity of my friends in St. Paul, whose familiar names are before me. My heart is filled to overflowing by this expression of their thoughtfulness, confidence, and love. The friendship of years is cemented the more firmly by this token, and I thank our Heavenly Father that my lot is to be hereafter, as heretofore, cast among a people whom I love with a peculiar tenderness.

In the thick of the cares and perplexities of a life burdened ever with the sense of its responsibilities, I shall always be cheered and strengthened by the memory of an affection which the years may not diminish. May God help and reward them one and all.
Believe me, with highest esteem and affection, most gratefully your friend, MAHLON N. GILBERT. [Minnesota Missionary and Church Record, March, 1888.]

It is a matter of record that this sum was given by no less than one hundred persons. Most of them belonged to Christ Church, some to other parishes, but several were not members of the Episcopal Church.

The residence purchased with this gift was a comfortable frame house at Number 18, Summit Court, a short, quiet street leading from the well-known Summit Avenue. The house is finely situated, and commands a wonderful view for miles of the winding valley of the Mississippi.

Bishop Gilbert's home life was very beautiful. As has been said, Mrs. Gilbert was of a retiring disposition. She was quiet and self-contained, and objected to prominence, though she might easily have attained it. One of her closest acquaintances says of her: "Mrs. Gilbert was a very superior woman. She made few friends, but those she loved dearly. She was a good business woman, and had a fine mind."

Two children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert. The older daughter, Frances Carvill, was born at Christ Church Rectory; the younger, Lucy Pierpont, was born at 18 Summit Court. Both the girls were educated at St. Mary's Hall, in Faribault. Frances was married some years after the death of her parents to Lieutenant Robert M. Cheney of the United States Army.

One of the best photographs of the Bishop shows him with his two daughters, one on either side, with their faces close to his. In no other picture is there shown so well the depth and tenderness of his nature.

A letter written to Frances, when a young girl at St. Mary's, shows the Bishop's fatherly love:


Thank you so much for your picture. You look very good, as if you could not do anything naughty. I shall always carry it in my diary, and look at it every day, and hope my dear little daughter is growing to be as good as her picture looks.

Are you getting well settled down to work after the holidays, and are your studies harder this term than last? We miss you so much.

Last night I spent in Minneapolis, and to-day I have been sitting to have my portrait painted by Miss Grace McKinstry of Paribault. I suppose it will be very fine when it is completed.

Your Mama and I went to the Colonial Party at the Ryan this week. I wish you could have seen Musa with her hair powdered, in her Colonial costume, and dancing the minuet. She was very sweet and attractive. Next year we must put a Colonial costume on your mama, and then she could wear the quilted petticoat of her great-grandmother, which she let Mrs. **** wear this year.

Well, I shall be down next week, and we can have a good visit. Give my love to Alice. All send love. Lucy is just giving her dollie supper upstairs. Lucy has a new school dress which is very becoming.


The portrait referred to was finished a few weeks later, and was considered a speaking likeness and a true work of art. The artist, Miss Grace McKinstry, had studied in Paris and elsewhere, under recognized masters, and twice exhibited pictures in the Paris Salon. Of this portrait there was a descriptive account in the Pioneer Press of St. Paul, March 20, 1898:

Miss McKinstry has realized in this last work the mental and moral vigor that is in Bishop Gilbert's countenance, the spiritual refinement in his bearing, and his office. She has accordingly painted the alert strength of his face so as to fix attention the more because of the delicate gray atmosphere within which appear the white lawn sleeves of the Bishop's rochet, the black silk of his chimere, or gown. The expression is earnest, vivacious. The face reproduces accurately the "clean cut" lines which foreigners justly admire in handsome Americans. . . . Holding a Bible in his crossed hands, the Bishop appears in a characteristic attitude. His friends will think they see him . . . about to address a congregation.

This portrait was purchased by friends of the Bishop and presented to Seabury Divinity School. Another portrait, painted from photographs, after the Bishop's death, hangs in Morgan Hall at Shattuck School.

One physical characteristic, not mentioned in the description of the painting, was the power and beauty of his clear, blue eyes. There was a look in them, especially when he was speaking, which charmed and held his hearers. In any assembly Bishop Gilbert's fine, erect figure gave him distinction. At a gathering where several military officers were present, one of them, who had not learned the Bishop's title, asked him, "To what regiment do you belong?"

The natural refinement which marked Mahlon Gilbert grew with the experience of life, and shines forth more and more in his later photographs. At Shattuck School he once preached to the boys from the Fifteenth Psalm, on the theme, "The Requisites of a Gentleman." This sermon made a very deep impression, and has never been forgotten.

He was a very rapid speaker. At times his thoughts seemed to come faster than words could be uttered, and reporters found it impossible to keep pace with him. Bishop Millspaugh once cautioned him not to use so loud a voice in speaking in a small church. "You ought to save your strength." "I know it," was his reply, "but when I get interested in my subject, I am carried away."

Mr. William H. Lightner, for many years a near neighbor of the Bishop, and a most intimate friend, bears high testimony to the Bishop's financial integrity: The Bishop and his wife had invested $2,000 in the Bank of Minnesota which failed in 1896. It was a pitiful failure, and caused great suffering. I was appointed receiver, and had to collect the double liabilities from many. Some paid promptly; some had to be sued. The Bishop asked me simply how soon he would need to pay the $2,000. I told him that it would take a year or more to bring some of the suits, and he said that would give him time. He sold some Montana sheep belonging to Mrs. Gilbert and himself, and paid their liabilities, without a word of complaint. He never complained of anything.

When he died I was administrator, and a few months later, Mrs. Gilbert's will made me executor of her estate, with the care of the property for the children. Except small current bills, I found no debts whatever. Bishop Gilbert had always lived within his income, and paid all obligations promptly. He owed no one. On the other hand, several persons owed him small sums, and some of them had not even paid the interest.

Bishop Gilbert was not a clerical wit, though he enjoyed good stories, and sometimes told them. He was ready at repartee. At a birthday party given to a very old lady, her grandson entered the room carrying a great cake with ninety lighted candles upon it. "How easily he carries it!" said one. "Yes," said Bishop Gilbert, "because it is so light!"

Among his very dear friends were Mr. and Mrs. Alexander H. Cathcart, who were most active in Christ Church. Mrs. Cathcart used to keep the Bishop's lawn sleeves in order for him, as she excelled in such work. Once she remarked to him, "Bishop, I hope I shall live to see you have a valet some day, to carry your robes for you, and wait on you." "I hope you will, Mrs. Cathcart," replied the Bishop promptly, "for then you will live to be a very old woman!"

A letter written from the General Convention at Baltimore shows something of his lighter vein:

BALTIMORE, October 25, 1892.

MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND:--How good you were to write me, especially on the day so memorable in my life (the anniversary of his consecration). I wish I could write you a satisfactory reply, but it is not easy to write when the Bishops are all talking and the reading of reports is going on, with the noise and confusion attendant. The House of Bishops is not as noisy as the House of Deputies. We try to be more grave and reverend, but do not always succeed.

My own seat is in the second row, next to the Bishop of Nebraska. Ten new Bishops have pushed me out of the roar row. How fast the complexion of the House changes; new faces come in, and old ones disappear. Opposite me sitting side by side are to bo seen the strong face of Bishop Brooks and the youthful one of the "baby Bishop" Sessums of Louisiana.

The picturesque figures are Bishops Williams, Whipple, Doane, and Coxe. The chief speakers are Bishops Doane, Paret, Burgess, Coxe, and Hare. Your humble servant is occasionally on his feet, but his speeches are short and prosaic, and you need not fear that secret sessions are causing the loss to the world of any great amount of eloquence from that source.

This has been the best Convention I have attended. The spirit has been excellent, and the results satisfactory. The Prayer Book revision is finished, the new Hymnal adopted, and seven Missionary Bishops elected. . . .

I have met many old friends and have had a very good time, and certainly feel in much better spirits than when I left. I shall try not to get back into the depths again. . . .

I am so glad you spent the "Chick's" birthday at 18 Summit Court. I thought of you all, all day. . . .

I am as ever, affectionately yours,

In Bishop Gilbert's episcopal ring was a beautiful sapphire, valued at six hundred dollars, which he highly prized. The ring and stone had been given him by Mrs. Rensselaer Russell Nelson. One evening in Duluth, the Bishop was preaching in a hall for a mission which worshipped there. After the service, but not till he reached the home where he was entertained, he missed the stone. It was winter; there was snow on the ground, and it was thought that the stone had probably fallen from the ring on his way home. He was troubled at the loss, but nothing could be done. In the morning, however, when the Bishop came to breakfast, he said, "I have had a remarkable dream. I thought I was in the mission hall, and found the stone." He described the place; they went to the hall as soon as possible, and there, just where he had seen it in the dream, the stone was found. It has been suggested that while absorbed in preaching, he may have seen the stone, half-consciously, and that this sub-conscious recollection came to the surface in his dream.

It is impossible to record the names even of the Bishop's close friends, but besides those elsewhere alluded to, mention must be made of the Gilfillans, and the McMasters. Judge Gilfillan was a leader in the Diocese as well as in Christ Church; Mr. Stirling R. McMasters was a son of a former rector of Christ Church, Mrs. Gilfillan being a daughter. In their homes Bishop Gilbert was as a brother, rather than a Bishop. When the Bishop in 1893 visited the battleground of Bannockburn, he made inquiries as to the Gilfillans of that vicinity, knowing that the boyhood home of his friend the Judge was nearby. In a letter written from Stirling, Scotland, he said:


I want to tell you a little about my visit to Bannockburn. Beyond the historical associations of the place, I felt drawn to it because of its relationship to your own life. After visiting the famous castle on the heights of Stirling, Mr. White and I walked out of the city, through the village of St. Ninian's, to the battlefield. We stood on the stone where Bruce erected his standard and fixed the positions within sight of the Scotch and English Armies.

After this was done, I entered into conversation with the man who seemed to be in general charge of the sacred spot, and I asked him how long he had lived there. "All my sixty-one years," was his reply. I then asked him if he remembered a family of the name of Gilfillan, and he replied, "Very well." I soon discovered that he probably remembered you, as he, in his very early life, went to school with a James Gilfillan, and he pointed out the locality where you formerly lived. His name was Ewing. Of course, it may have been another family whom he knew, but he said the boys he remembered were living somewhere in America.

The Bishop's father, Mr. Norris Gilbert, died at his home in Morris, August 12, 1877, while Mahlon was rector at Deer Lodge. The death of his mother was strange and pathetic. At the age of 78, she came in the fall of 1891, to visit her son Mahlon. She arrived on a Monday, greatly fatigued by the journey, and her mind seemed to wander for some days. On Saturday morning early, her dead body was found on the walk, below an open window, through which she had passed, probably mistaking it for a door. This was the last day of October, the eve of All Saints' Day. The Bishop was greatly affected by this sad event; it was a grief too great for words. The record in his journal is: "November 3d, laid my mother to rest by the side of my father in the old church cemetery in Morris, New York."

There remained two strong ties to bind together his happy childhood and his mature years; there was still his brother Frederick, in Montana, whom he visited nearly every year, and in the East, in Morris, and New Berlin, in New York and Philadelphia, there were many relatives and friends who followed his career with affection and pride. New friends were added, year by year, in increasing numbers, but the old friends were "kept close, and not forgotten."

Bishop Gilbert's last visit to Morris, the home of his boyhood, was marked by special honors. It was in 189Y. On Saturday, February 6th, he addressed the Woman's Auxiliary, and "a rousing reception" in his honor followed. On Sunday morning, he preached to an unusual congregation from the text, "Consider the lilies." One hundred and thirty persons received Holy Communion at this service. The rector, Rev. G. H. Sterling, said the Bishop was wonderfully surprised and gratified that so many in the old home town should come to hear him.

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