Saint Stephen’s Church in Providence: The History of a New England Tractarian Parish

By Norman Joseph Catir, Jr.

Providence, Rhode Island: St. Stephen’s Church, 1964.



Foundation Cracked and Repaired



FEW INSTITUTIONS, ecclesiastical or secular, experience a totally untroubled development, but the Catholic life of Saint Stephen’s had continued to grow with few storms or battles. From the day in 1841 when Bishop Griswold censured the Reverend George Leeds for reading prayers with his side to the congregation, up to 1874, the end of Doctor Waterman’s long rectorate, Saint Stephen’s was noted for its Catholic teaching and ceremonial development.

Probably the combination of a scholarly and pastoral rector with a wise and forbearing bishop contributed toward maintaining the peace. Certainly, Bishop Clark was a Broad Churchman rather than a Tractarian,[1] yet he always showed restraint and respect in his dealings with Catholic-minded churchmen such as Doctor Waterman.

During the four or five years following 1873, Saint Stephen’s experienced genuine problems over churchmanship for the first and, as far as we can see, the last time. The growing pains of the Waterman era were not manifest until after the retirement of this devoted pastor. Then parish problems that arose seemed to coincide with the national opposition to the Catholic Movement in the 1874 General Convention. At that time a memorial was put forward prohibiting such contemporarily common uses as processional choirs, crosses, and altar lights. Bishop Clark was not personally anxious to promote ritualism; indeed, he spoke out against it in his 1874 diocesan convention address.[2] Yet he did not attempt to persecute the Tractarians; rather, with the majority of the General Convention of 1874, he preferred to give them enough rope to hang either themselves or their opponents, according to the will of Almighty God. The latter seems to have happened, for everywhere today the basic Catholic principles of the Oxford Movement form the Anglican norm. Deviations do exist, but the majority of Anglicans recognize them as deviations rather than as the accepted standards of faith and practice.

Saint Stephen’s problems started innocently enough in its search for a new rector. On March 26, 1874, the corporation unanimously voted to call the Reverend J. V. Lewis, D.D., rector of Saint John’s Church, Washington, D. C., to become the rector of Saint Stephen’s at the unusually large salary of $4,000 per annum.[3] Judging from the known Low Church tradition of Saint John’s, Washington, and from the absence of the name of Doctor J. V. Lewis among the Tractarians of his day, we must assume that he was not a High Churchman. Whether his churchmanship or his desire to stay at St. John’s—the reason he stated in a letter—was the motivating factor for his refusal, we do not know; but on April 23, 1874, the corporation received word from Doctor Lewis declining their call.[4]

On April 6, 1874, Doctor Waterman was asked to supply until the arrival of a new rector, but he declined without offering a reason.[5] We know that his health was good enough to permit him to run for delegate to the General Convention of 1874. Probably health was not the basic cause; more likely he was determined to avoid the political storms then gathering on the parochial horizon.

During the long period from late April until early October, 1874, Saint Stephen’s corporation took no steps to procure a new rector. In April, Messrs. R. M. Sherman and S. C. Blodget had been appointed a committee to nominate a new rector,[6] but apparently either their search for a suitable man was fruitless or internal parish problems had become so severe that a reasonable decision could not be made.

On October 5, 1874, the corporation voted, with one dissent, to call the Reverend Henry Freeman Allen of Grace Church, Amherst, at a salary of $3,000 per annum.[7] The amount of this salary, $1,000 less than the corporation’s offer to Doctor Lewis, probably indicates that Lewis had achieved greater eminence in the Church than had Mr. Allen. Certainly Saint John’s, Washington, enjoyed a greater reputation than Grace Church, Amherst. Once again we may assume that Allen’s churchmanship was not Tractarian, judging both from the churchmanship of the parish in which he served and from the absence of his name in Catholic writing of his day. On October 17, 1874, Mr. Allen wrote to decline the call. He stated that his duty lay with the ten-year-old Amherst parish.[8]

Toward the end of the November 2, 1874, corporation meeting, the storm, which had been held back for nearly a year, finally broke with gale force. General Ames, the junior warden, announced that the music committee had received many complaints about the music, especially against the choral recitation of the psalter and the chanting of responses.[9] At this time very little of the liturgy was sung in the average Episcopal parish. Most of the then objectionable chanting is common today, but for the year 1874, a surprisingly large amount of the liturgy at Saint Stephen’s was rendered chorally. During solemn celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, the Introit, the Kyrie, the Offertory, the Sursum Corda, the Sanctus, the Gloria, and all Amens were sung. On great festivals a recessional hymn was also included. At Morning and Evening Prayer, the musically rendered portions included the Processional Hymn, the Versicles, the Venite, the Psalter and Gloria, all canticles including the Te Deum, the Preces, anthems and selections from Hymns Ancient and Modern, and all Amens. On greater festivals and holy days, the litany was chanted.[10] After a discussion of the music, the music committee was advised not to change any musical part of the services.[11] So one portion of Saint Stephen’s Catholic foundation remained firm.

After this preliminary skirmish the corporation went to work again in its search for a rector. On November 23, 1874, the corporation voted 17 to 7 to call the Reverend William Kirkus, assistant minister of Grace Church, New York, at a salary of $4,000 per annum with moving expenses included.[12] Mr. Kirkus was a London priest who had lived in the United States for only a few years, working under the rector of Grace Church, New York, the well-known Doctor Potter. Mr. Kirkus’s connection with Grace Church, New York, places him, along with the two men called earlier, in the Low Church camp. On December 4, 1874, William Kirkus wrote to decline the rectorate of Saint Stephen’s on the ground that he was better fitted to work in a large city such as New York than in Providence. Strangely enough, his letter was not presented to the corporation of Saint Stephen’s until March 22, 1875.[13] This repeated delay in the attempt to secure a new rector leads us to suspect a lack of charity among the members of Saint Stephen’s parish. Although the parishioners still loved and revered Doctor Waterman, Doctor Fiske tells us that some of them had reacted against his teaching.[14]

At the same corporation meeting in which Mr. Kirkus’s refusal was read, March 22, 1875, the Reverend Charles W. Ward of Christ Church, Oyster Bay, Long Island, was called after a vote of 17 to 9. The vestry decided to pay him a salary of $3,000 a year plus moving expenses.[15] Unfortunately, the corporation displayed a more decisive cleavage in the Ward election than it had in the three previous elections, and this boded ill.

Well over a year after the Reverend Henry Waterman had resigned the rectorate of Saint Stephen’s, the twenty-six-year-old Charles W. Ward accepted the thrice-refused position.[16] He was a graduate of the General Seminary, New York, but a Low Churchman.[17] Doctor Fiske, a removed and impartial observer, tells us that Ward was a brilliant, erratic man and that his election was a direct reaction against the Tractarian-ism of Doctor Waterman.[18]

During the first year of Mr. Ward’s rectorate the trouble and unrest in the parish continued to grow.[19] Very likely he was attempting to change the ceremonial and musical standards of Saint Stephen’s; and for a time, at least, the vestry seemed amenable. On April 17, 1876, the vestry gave the rector permission to make any changes in the position of the altar that he deemed expedient.[20] We cannot be certain exactly what Mr. Ward wanted to do with the altar. Originally it stood free of the east wall, with the Bishop’s throne east of it. Perhaps Mr. Ward wanted to place the altar snugly against the east wall. A Low Churchman would probably have little appreciation of Saint Stephen’s basilican arrangement. On the other hand, this change in altar position may have been contemplated in order to set in motion the plans for the redesigning of the choir and sanctuary along the more elegant lines proposed shortly after the completion of the George Street edifice. In line with this, on June 1, 1876, a committee made up of General Ames, Messrs. B. B. Adams and Lyman Klapp was appointed in order to procure plans for choir stalls from a competent architect.[21]

From our knowledge of the continued interest shown by the parish in beautifying and completing the church, we may judge that its reaction against Tractarianism was not deep-seated. On April 2, 1877, the fund for the completion of the tower was reported to have reached $13,549.51. Ten thousand dollars of this money was placed in the Rhode Island Hospital Trust to be used only for the tower. The amount remaining was employed to pay for the repair and improvement of the pipe organ.[22] If the parish had lost interest in the developments of the Waterman era or was positively antagonistic toward them, certainly the corporation would not have spent time and money renovating the church interior, collecting a tower fund, and improving the organ. Interest in ornamentation or enrichment during this period is an almost certain indication of ritualistic interest.

Slightly more than a year and a half after the corporation had called Mr. Ward, on October 15, 1877, he submitted his resignation as rector of Saint Stephen’s parish. In his letter of resignation Mr. Ward said that “the time has now arrived ... for me to relinquish my long cherished hope of reuniting Saint Stephen’s Parish.” He asserted that unrest and contention in the parish began some time before his rectorate and that both still remained, and he advised the parish that its only hope lay not in the ascendency of one party but in the cultivation of a nonpartisan spirit. Mr. Ward requested that his resignation take effect on December 1, 1877, or as much earlier as “I may hereafter signify.”[23] Although the parish could not have been entirely without fault, we judge from Doctor Fiske’s later remarks that Mr. Ward himself caused some problems by an erratic handling of contentions and by a Low Church partisan spirit.[24]

The resignation of the youthful rector was referred to a committee composed of R. M. Sherman, Zachariah Chafee, and E. B. Carpenter. After brief consideration they recommended the acceptance of Mr. Ward’s resignation to take effect on December 1, 1877, or as much earlier as he might signify.[25] At the meeting of the vestry following this corporation meeting, R. M. Sherman, William Ames, and W. B. Blanding were made a committee to recommend a new rector and to provide locum tenens services.[26]

After the Reverend Charles W. Ward left Saint Stephen’s he went to Winona, Minnesota, and later to Englewood, New Jersey. He died in Englewood, where he was rector, on May 4, 1887, at the age of thirty-eight.[27]

The departure of Charles W. Ward did not mark the cessation of trouble for Saint Stephen’s. Several people in the parish must have been staunch supporters of Mr. Ward, for during December, 1877, S. C. Blodget, treasurer and vestryman, Doctor and Mrs. Stephen Keene, and Mrs. Martha H. Burrough transferred to other parishes in the area. Mr. Blodget went to Saint John’s;[28] Doctor and Mrs. Keene and Mrs. Burrough transferred to the Church of the Savior.[29] These parishes both immediately adjoin Saint Stephen’s parish. There can be little doubt, considering both the date of the transfers and the location of the parishes, that the departure of the Reverend Mr. Ward prompted these transfers. Both Mr. Blodget and Doctor Keene had been active church members. In addition to his duties as treasurer, Mr. Blodget was a member of the committee to recommend a new rector during the interim between the ministries of Doctor Waterman and Mr. Ward. Perhaps Mr. Blodget was largely responsible for the Low Church stripe of the four candidates suggested for the rectorate. And perhaps after the total failure of Charles Ward, he decided to give up a losing battle—the attempt to drive Saint Stephen’s from the Tractarian camp.

Certainly the unrest rife between 1874 and 1878 had brought about cracks in the Catholic foundation of Saint Stephen’s parish laid by Doctor Waterman. The urgent task which stood ahead of the parish in 1878 was the repairing of her damaged foundation. From December, 1877, to April, 1878, the Reverend James W. Colwell, a former candidate for Holy Orders from Saint Stephen’s, acted as locum tenens.

On April 9, 1878, the vestry recommended Doctor Colwell as a suitable person for rector of Saint Stephen’s;[30] and on April 22, 1878, the corporation voted 16 to 6 to call him.[31] At this time the vestry voted a salary of $2,500 per annum and also agreed to place the music entirely under the control of the rector-elect.[32] This genuinely Anglican approach to the direction of musical and service matters was finally adopted, no doubt, to avoid the contention and bitterness of the preceding four years when a special committee was in charge of all music.

In a letter dated May 10,1878, the thirty-six-year-old James W. Colwell accepted the rectorate.[33] As a Greater Providence man and as a seasoned scholar, Doctor Colwell was thoroughly familiar with the temper and habits of the parish and community which he undertook to serve. From 1874 to 1877 he had been in charge of Saint Gabriel’s and Saint Thomas’, Providence.[34] His previous success teaching English at Classical High School made him popular, and his academic career, at Brown and also at Hanover and Leipzig, Germany, made him highly respected at his nearby alma mater, Brown.

It is evident from subsequent history that Doctor Colwell saw his primary task to be one of repair and restoration of the Catholic foundation laid down by Doctor Waterman. Financial problems stood immediately in the way of any real progress in the parish. For several years prior to 1879 Saint Stephen’s had been unable to meet parochial running expenses, and in that year the corporation had to borrow $2,500 in order to meet current expenditures. At the annual Easter Monday corporation meeting of 1879 one important measure was recommended in order to relieve the financial emergency. A weekly offering was approved for the support of the parish, unless otherwise designated.[35] We know that as far back as January, 1844, the parish had adopted a system of weekly offerings.[36] In fact, collections of alms were taken up on holy days as well as Sundays from at least 1850 onward; however, most of the money was used for purposes outside the parish.[37] From 1879 on, the weekly offering was employed for the support of the parish as well as for missionary and charitable work.

In the annual vestry meeting of 1879, following the corporation meeting, a further economic measure was adopted: the music budget was cut from $2,000 to $1,000 a year. But the rector still retained complete charge of the music.[38]

For several years Doctor Colwell labored, quietly restoring the teaching and ceremonial practice of Saint Stephen’s even as he improved her financial position. On Easter Monday, 1882, Lyman Klapp reported for the committee on the rearrangement of the chancel, presenting plans drawn by the well-known Boston architect, Henry Vaughn, for choir screen, a pulpit, clergy and choir stalls, communicants’ kneelers, a credence table, altar, reredos, and floor. These plans were approved, and the committee was instructed to proceed with the work so long as no debt was contracted.[39]

Henry Vaughn was born in England, as had been Saint Stephen’s architect, Richard Upjohn. Vaughn, however, represented a later and more pure school of Gothic design than Upjohn ever had. The superb gem of Vaughn’s parish churches is Christ Church, New Haven, which was designed at the very end of the nineteenth century and stood as a seldom-surpassed ideal for many twentieth-century Gothic Revival churches. Vaughn also was the initial architect of the Washington Cathedral. He always nurtured a deep love of the Church. With Vaughn’s combined assets of ability and affection, it is natural to suppose that his additions to the choir and sanctuary greatly enhanced the Gothic charm of Saint Stephen’s Church.

On Saint Stephen’s Day, 1883, the new altar, reredos, rood screen, pulpit, and other appointments were consecrated. The Reverend Lucius Waterman, son of the Reverend Henry Waterman, preached the sermon.[40] All the new work in the choir and sanctuary was provided for by private gifts; consequently the parish did not need to expend funds for this project.[41] The delicately carved oak altar and reredos, without the paintings or tabernacle, were given in memory of the Reverend Henry Waterman. The pulpit was a memorial to the Reverend James H. Eames, fourth rector, given by his wife. The rood screen, without the calvary, was given in memory of the Reverend Freeborn Coggeshall, a former parish boy and a brilliant member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, who had died at Oxford in 1876.[42] Each of these pieces is carved in the Decorated Gothic style. Their rich detail and authentic proportions contribute toward conveying a more medieval Gothic appearance in Saint Stephen’s interior. Indeed, pictures of Saint Stephen’s interior before and after the new choir and sanctuary show slight resemblance.

Doctor Colwell did much to improve the musical tradition at Saint Stephen’s, as well as the artistic and architectural resources of the parish.[43] In addition to a widespread selection of music of the late nineteenth century, the Saint Stephen’s choir of men and boys sang Gregorian chant and plain song during his rectorate.[44]

By 1883 the Sunday schedule included a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on the first of the month at the late service, as well as an early celebration on every Sunday. At the late service on the other Sundays, Morning Prayer and Ante-Communion were used.[45]

Under Doctor Colwell’s watchful eye the tower fund continued to grow—to $14,296.21 by Easter Monday, 1884.[46]

Rather suddenly, on September 1, 1884, the Reverend James W. Colwell tendered his resignation to the corporation of Saint Stephen’s. He stated that he desired to change from pastoral work for at least a year and felt than an absence might hurt the parish.[47] The vestry accepted the resignation of this good priest, who had spent nearly seven years with Saint Stephen’s, to take effect October 1, 1884.[48]

Doctor Col well’s rectorate “was an era of restoration.. . A sound, conservative Catholic Churchman, he relaid Doctor Waterman’s foundations.”[49] He had taken up the thread of Doctor Waterman’s teaching and saw in this the real continuity of Saint Stephen’s tradition. In practical matters he made it easy for others to follow. His records, accounts, visiting lists, all lay ready for a successor. Everywhere Doctor Colwell’s pastoral work was evident; for it was through good pastoral relations that he had accomplished the repair of the cracked foundation of the parish life. During his time at Saint Stephen’s, Doctor Colwell had been registrar of the diocese for three years, a member of the Board of Missions for three years, and assistant secretary of the convention for five years.[50] Both as an expert pastor and as a devoted diocesan worker, he restored Saint Stephen’s to its former stability.

Doctor Colwell, with the Reverend George H. Patterson, had founded and taught at the Berkeley School on Benefit Street in Providence. He also had incorporated and acted as trustee of Saint Mary’s Home, Providence.[51]

After leaving Saint Stephen’s, Doctor Colwell spent a year in Europe, mainly in Leipzig and Dresden. Upon his return to the United States he became headmaster of schools in Minnesota and Washington. He was also dean and rector of parishes in Kansas and Colorado. In 1895 he returned to Rhode Island and became rector of Saint Thomas’, Greenville, a parish linked to Saint Stephen’s through the Waterman family and through the Reverend James H. Eames.[52] During his years in Greenville Doctor Colwell returned to visit Saint Stephen’s and functioned on many occasions. On Thursday, April 26, 1906, he died in Mansfield, Massachusetts.[53] A month’s mind Requiem Mass for the repose of his soul was celebrated at Saint Stephen’s on May 26, 1906.

Doctor Colwell left the parish in a sound and healthy state, with a communicant list of 325 and with ninety families[54] Once again Saint Stephen’s stood firmly in the Catholic camp, at the heart of a growing neighborhood, close to a fine university. To the new rector would fall great responsibilities and exciting challenges. Almost certainly, under the direction of a strong man the parish awaited an era of growth.

[1] Dudley Tyng, Rhode Island Episcopalians (Providence, Rhode Island: Little Rhody Press, 1954), p. 41.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Corporation Minutes, March 26, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 158 and Vestry Minutes, March 26, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 159.

[4] J. V. Lewis, to the Wardens and Vestry of Saint Stephen’s, April 18, 1874, in Corporation Minutes, April 23, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 164.

[5] Corporation Minutes, April 6, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 162 and Henry Waterman, to General Ames and Doctor Keene, April 9, 1874, in Corporation Minutes, April 23, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 164.

[6] Corporation Minutes, April 23, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 166.

[7] Corporation Minutes and Vestry Minutes, October 5, 1874, Record Book 2, pp. 167-168.

[8] Henry F. Allen to General Ames, October 17, 1874, in Corporation Minutes, November 2, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 170.

[9] Corporation Minutes, November 2, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 171.

[10] Ibid., p. 172.

[11] Ibid., p. 171.

[12] Ibid., November 23, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 173 and Vestry Minutes, November 23, 1874, Record Book 2, p. 174.

[13] William Kirkus, to S. C. Blodget, December 4, 1874, in Corporation Minutes, March 22, 1875, Record Book 2, pp. 176-177.

[14] George McC. Fiske, A Good Steward of the Manifold Grace of God, sermon preached at Requiem Mass for the Reverend James W. Colwell, May 26, 1906, at Saint Stephen’s, Providence (n.p., printed by parishioners and friends, n.d.), p. 7.

[15] Corporation Minutes and Vestry Minutes, March 22, 1875, Record Book 2, p. 178.

[16] The Living Church Annual 1888-1889 (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Young Churchman Publishing Co., 1889), p. 118.

[17] The Church Almanac No. 50 (New York, New York: Pott, Young, &Co., 1880), p. 88.

[18] G. Fiske, A Good Steward, op. cit., p. 7.

[19] Charles W. Ward, to the Corporation of Saint Stephen’s, October 15, 1877, in Corporation Minutes, October 15, 1877, pp. 194-195.

[20] Vestry Minutes, April 17, 1876, Record Book 2, p. 185.

[21] Vestry Minutes, June 1, 1876, Record Book 2, p. 185.

[22] Corporation Minutes, April 2, 1877, Record Book 2, pp. 190-192.

[23] Charles W. Ward, to the Corporation of Saint Stephen’s, October 15, 1877, in Corporation Minutes, October 15,1877, Record Book 2, pp. 194-195.

[24] G. Fiske, A Good Steward, op. cit., p. 7.

[25] Corporation Minutes, October 15, 1877, Record Book 2, p. 195.

[26] Vestry Minutes, October 15, 1877, Record Book 2, p. 196.

[27] The Church Almanac, No. 46 (New York, New York: Pott, Young, & Co., 1876), p. 82 and The Living Church Annual 1888-1889, op. cit., p. 118.

[28] Corporation Minutes, December 1, 1877, Record Book 2, p. 200 and Parish Register Book 2, p. 141.

[29] Church of the Savior Parish Register, Book 1, p. 98.

[30] Vestry Minutes, April 9, 1878, Record Book 2, p. 202.

[31] Corporation Minutes, April 22, 1878, Record Book 2, p. 205.

[32] Vestry Minutes, April 22, 1878, Record Book 2, p. 205.

[33] James Colwell, to William Ames, May 10, 1878, in Corporation Minutes, Easter Monday, 1879, Record Book 2, p. 207.

[34] G. Fiske, A Good Steward, op. cit., pp. 4-8.

[35] Corporation Minutes, Easter Monday, 1879, Record Book 2, p. 210.

[36] Vestry Minutes, December 1843, Record Book I, p. 41.

[37] Parish Register No. I, pp. 300-339.

[38] Vestry Minutes, Easter Monday, 1879, Record Book 2, p. 211.

[39] Corporation Minutes, Easter Monday, 1882, Record Book 2, p. 223.

[40] Vestry Minutes, Sunday after Christmas, 1883, Record Book 2, p. 228.

[41] Corporation Minutes, Easter Monday, 1884, Record Book 2, p. 230.

[42] Plaques commemorating each of these memorials.

[43] The S. Stephen, Vol. 24 No. 2, January 1909, p. 3.

[44] Saint Stephen’s Service List No. 1, December 2-30, 1883, pp. 1-2.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Corporation Minutes, Easter Monday, 1884, Record Book 2, p. 230.

[47] James Colwell, to the Corporation of Saint Stephen’s, September 1, 1884, in Corporation Minutes, September 2, 1884, Record Book 2, p. 223.

[48] Corporation Minutes, September 2, 1884, Record Book 2, p. 233.

[49] G. Fiske, A Good Steward, op. cit., p. 8.

[50] Ibid., p. 9.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] The S. Stephen, Vol. 21 No. 6, May 1906, p. 3.

[54] Scrapbook 18, Rhode Island Historical Society, December 27, 1909.