Project Canterbury

Fifty Years: The Sermon Preached by Father Palmer, SSJE, at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston on September 12, 1970, at the Jubilee of the Profession of Father Williams, SSJE.

No place: no publisher, 1970.


That is what the people of Thessalonica thought of the first Christians! The refusal of the Christians to be assimilated to the Graeco-Roman world in the midst of which they lived led to their persecution. They refused to “get with it”. After three hundred years of this failure to become integrated, a great lady, St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor, became a Christian, and the Emperor Constantine himself became a catechumen. Persecutions ceased. The world—society—sought to enter the Church. As a result the world, began to turn the Church upside down. The permissiveness of a new morality began to seep into the Church. It was then that a movement, started sometime earlier, came to the rescue of the Church. Men and women sought among the hermits and monks of the desert a place where the old virtues could be maintained. What came to be known as the “Religious Life” gained strength and numbers. The monks and nuns came to the rescue of the Church. They helped to prevent that Holy Ark from being turned upside down. They maintained the life of prayer and of study, especially of the Scriptures. They set devout standards of worship. They became the great missionaries of the Church to the barbarians who were pressing in to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the old Roman Empire. They made their way out into the surrounding wilderness itself to convert the barbarian peoples—north, south, east and west. They carried on our Lord’s practical works of mercy. They preserved the learning of the Hebrews and the Greeks, and they helped to formulate the great expressions of the Christian Faith which we have in the Councils and the Creeds.

Just over a hundred years ago, Richard Meux Benson, a young priest, Rector of Cowley, a country parish near Oxford, was lead into the religious life. He founded the first permanent community of men in the Anglican Communion. The first house consisted of two workmen’s cottages in a new suburb of Oxford. Here something of the life of the desert fathers was restored by the tiny group of priests and laymen. They did not shake off all their Englishness. They were not aware of it. The habit covered it up! All of the first group, however, were not English. Father Grafton was an American and Father O’Neill came from the Church of Ireland. Houses were established in the United States and India, and Father Grafton and Father O’Neill went off to them. Later on, South Africa was added. Control of these houses was largely centered in Oxford. It was some time before an Indian, American, or African novice persevered in the austere Mother House at Oxford, where alone novices were trained and tested. After thirty years it was seriously considered whether the American House should go on. Father Bull was sent to Boston to be Superior with the idea that he might close the American House. He was a large minded man and was persuaded that it should be maintained, and that if possible novices might be trained there instead of in England. One brave, young American priest had persevered through the long years of a novitiate at Cowley. There was no junior profession in those days. He had to wait until he was thirty to be professed. The house was sometimes considered too warm at 58 degrees, in spite of the damp Oxford climate! The food was heavy; plenty of potatoes and watery cabbage, followed by a suet pudding, all eaten off noisy and chipped enamel dishes. That brave young man was Spence Burton. On his profession he returned to America and at once pleaded for an American Novitiate. No money was available, and the older fathers were doubtful of the wisdom of such a venture. Father Powell, the Superior, however, gave his permission. Father Burton had to find a house and money to run it, and aspirants to train. A ramshackle old house on Winthrop Street in Cambridge was rented. It had been well worn by a Harvard fraternity. The essential pieces of furniture were gathered and a few young men appeared to try their vocation. Among them was Frank Gavin, a young priest from Cincinnati, who came bringing some young people from his parish. The boys entered our novitiate, and the girls that of St. Anne. Frank Gavin was a prodigy. He was adept in languages, ancient and modern, a musician, a theologian; he had been graduated from a Hebrew as well as a Church seminary. He did not persevere to final profession, but he left his mark on the new novitiate, and through that on the American Congregation. A few young priests and rather more young laymen came along. There were times when there were twenty or so of us in the Novitiate. An additional house was rented.

Among the laymen who came was Granville Mercer Williams. He was a graduate in science of Columbia. After starting a successful scientific career in New York and Pennsylvania, he was led to offer himself as a layman to try his vocation. The old St. Francis House must have been a shock to him, and a great change. I know my consternation when I first came, and I had been working in the wilds of Northern Ontario! A friend paid the wages of a cook, but as numbers increased, we had to be our own cooks, and use the wages to get the food. One cook novice fed us on flounders and carrots. Dear Father Forbes gave us vinegar pie and snowpudding seasoned with ashes. Brother Edward’s usual dinner consisted of potatoes boiled in their skins with some grit and salmon plopped out of the can at the last minute. The dishes were full at the top of the table, but the juniors at the bottom had to scratch out the remnants. The bath-room accommodation was scanty and primitive. An interesting piece of biological information was pasted up in one lavatory, “Dirt Breeds Rats”: spontaneous generation! We were kept in touch with the professed Fathers, for on Sundays we walked the four miles to attend High Mass and have dinner at the Mission House in Boston. Then we walked the four miles back again for Vespers. This was before the days of Pope John, XXIII. As we passed St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, all wearing the Habit, the little Romish urchins would shout after us “Dirty Protestants”.

Granville Mercer Williams had the benefit of a good education and of a fine mind. He was able to take advantage of the facilities of the Harvard Divinity School. It was obvious that he ought to be a priest. He was ordained and set a new pattern in our society. Hitherto those who came as laymen remained as lay brothers. He was professed along with Father Forbes. That was half a century ago. A house was, opened in San Francisco and Father Burton went there to be Superior. Father Williams was made novice master in his place and the novitiate moved out to the farm at Foxborough. Those we’re happy days.

The years went by. Father Williams became one of our leading preachers and retreat conductors. He was called to a long ministry in Metropolitan New York; first at St. Paul’s, Brooklyn, and then at St. Mary the Virgin, Manhattan. St. Mary’s had a reputation for fine preaching. Father Williams maintained it. In addition to parish work there was an extensive ministry to students and to the many visitors who came from all over the United States and beyond. There was editorial work and writing. There was the guidance of several sisterhoods. Columbia conferred on him a Doctorate. Then came the call to be the Superior of the American Congregation, and the move back to Cambridge. As Superior there was the anxious work of building up the Japanese Province after the War. Father Williams’ faithful keeping of the Rule, especially in the matter of the office and meditation, has been for us a steadying influence over the years. Since he retired as Superior he has produced, after six months of intense and hard work, a book of the Father Founder’s unpublished writings.

The Roman Catholic Church is in a state of turmoil. Much of it is for the good. Some areas get out of hand. Religious communities are changing their Rule and way of life. The active life tends to oust the contemplative. There is a danger of the world’s standards being followed; and of thinking that in order to commend the Religious Life and to attract aspirants we must “get with it.” The Society of St. John the Evangelist has always tried to keep a due balance between the contemplative life of prayer and the active life of service to our fellow men. Life involves growth, and growth involves change. Father Williams has not been opposed to change. He has kept an open mind in a remarkable way considering the tendency of the elderly to dislike change. But where the principles of the Faith of the Church are involved he has stood firm for truth and loyalty. Let us follow his example lest our ship be turned upside down.

The lazy mind hates to stretch itself to take in both sides of a question. It prefers the false antithesis, to answer “either, or,” when the true answer is both. For instance, “is the Church an extension of God into the world, or is it a social organization?” There is truth in both.

The Church is a pilgrim Church, on the Way. There will be changes: not of the faith once delivered, but of ways of expressing that faith to contemporary man: not changes of basic principles of right and wrong, but of using those unchanging principles to give guidance in changed circumstances: not the scrapping of historic and apostolic structures, but the adapting of those structures to serve better the purposes of God. Should the Church try to shape Christianity to a changing world, or should the Church try to give the world a Christian shape? Both.

The present day shape of the world is not Christian. It seems to have as its aims:

Let each one aim at his advantage without considering others. Witness industrial strife.

Let each one be guided in his actions by the permissiveness of a new morality. Witness drugs and sex.

Let each one do his own thing uncoerced by the opinions or advantages of others. Witness disrespect for the law.

The Religious Life is based on better aims.

Poverty, not seeking our own.

Chastity, denying self, not permitting self.

Obedience, doing your own thing in loving consideration of and in union with others.

The constantly changing opinions and aims of worldly society around us are like a gray sea surging about us in sullen aimlessness. The Christian, especially the Religious needs to beware of a “get-with-it-ism” which leads him to shut his eyes to evil. He may be called to uphold values and institutions which appear out of date.

Father Williams has constantly tried to find the truth in all sides of the controversies through which he has lived. He has tried to “comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and to know the love of Christ which passeth all knowledge.” (That is from the Epistle of the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.) St. Paul finds a fourth dimension over and beyond the three dimensions of this world. (Ephesians 3).

The Church and the Society of St. John the Evangelist are grateful to Father Williams for helping to keep our ship from being turned upside down. We praise God and rejoice with him as we keep his Jubilee.

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