Project Canterbury

Charles N. Lathrop, Catholic and Reformer
by Clinton Rogers Woodruff

American Church Monthly, volume 29, 1931, pp 253-260

MY ACQUAINTANCE with Father Lathrop began a generation ago in his native city of San Francisco. Mrs. Woodruff and I were stopping at the St. Francis Hotel and desiring to worship in an Anglo-Catholic Church, we made some inquiries of the hotel clerks if they could tell us where the Church of the Advent was—but to no effect. The only sort of Catholicism they knew anything about was Roman Catholicism. At dinner we were looking over the bill of fare and on the back we found a list of churches with notices of the Sunday services. A number of Episcopal Churches were noted but no Church of the Advent—when lo! I found it mentioned in lonely isolation under the title "High Church." So our Sunday was assured. We were present at the eleven o'clock celebration and heard Father Lathrop preach and met him afterwards. That was the beginning of an acquaintance that ripened into a friendship that lasted until death temporarily interrupted it.

While Rector of the Church of the Advent, Father Lathrop was a militant factor in the city's life. Sin in all its forms was repellent to him, whether that sin was individual or corporate and he did not hesitate to assail it wherever he found it, whether it was in high places or low. He was a conspicuous member of the group that brought the corrupt Schmidt-Reuf regime to an end within prison walls. He was a friend and adviser of Francis J. Heney, the vigorous prosecutor, until a bullet stopped him, and later of Hiram Johnson who succeeded Heney and later became Governor of the State and then U. S. Senator. It is needless to say that Father Lathrop had no sympathy with Johnson's later chauvinism.

While Father Lathrop fought sin with all the vigor of his vigorous manhood he felt keenly for the sinner. He was always the true priest. He believed sin should be punished, but that the punishment should be for the redemption and reestablishment of the sinner. So it is easy to understand his deep interest in prison reform and in the improvement of the places of incarceration. The last address he wrote was on Christian Responsibility for California Jails published in The Living Church for February 14, 1931.

The address was prepared for delivery at a mass meeting held in connection with the annual convention of the Diocese of Los Angeles, January 28th. At that time, however, Dean Lathrop's last illness had detained him in a San Francisco hospital. Despite his inability to attend the convention, Dean Lathrop finished the manuscript and sent it to the Rt. Rev. Robert B. Gooden, D.D., Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles, who read it at the meeting for which it was prepared.

In the course of this article Father Lathrop pointed out the hopeful fact that if one were to make a census of the Episcopalians in the penal institutions in the state of California he felt reasonably certain that one would notice a very large increase in the last decade. There are more Episcopalians in jail today in California than there have ever been before. It means that there has been more religious work on the part of the Church done with men in jail and pre-delinquent children than ever before. "Twenty-five years of work at San Quentin has increased the number of Episcopalians there. Originally there were two. Today there are 150 members of our Church. Furthermore, the large amount of work that has been done with the pre-delinquents from the juvenile court, especially in San Francisco, by the clergy of the Church of the Advent, has added greatly to the number in Whittier and Preston. In so far as the Church does her work effectively in pastoral contacts with delinquents and pre-delinquents, she will of course, increase her proportion in our jails."

No small part of this result can be directly attributed to Dean Lathrop's own personal endeavors, as also the widening interest among Church people generally, while that interest is nowhere nearly as general or profound as it should be, and that was always a source of deep regret and disappointment to him. Nevertheless a good beginning has been made.

Father Lathrop was essentially a reformer, using that term in its truest and best sense. No sooner did he learn of an evil condition than he wanted to reform it—to make it over. This was illustrated by the prompt action he took in the matter of the delivery of special letters by children. As told in the effective story sent out by our National Department of Publicity, the Church of the Advent was located in an undesirable section of the City of San Francisco. To his door one midnight came a boy of tender years, with a special delivery letter. Burning with indignation over the fact that United States mail was entrusted to youth of immature years in such a section of the city, Father Lathrop sent a sharp protest to President Roosevelt, which resulted in the immediate issuance of an executive order, which terminated that particular evil. An interesting sequel to this incident is the fact that some months later when Roosevelt visited San Francisco on a speaking tour, he disappeared on a Sunday morning and was ultimately located tucked away in a pew in Father Lathrop's chapel where the fiery young priest was preaching. The friendship begun under these auspices, between the Dean and Roosevelt, continued until the latter's death.

Father Lathrop was the close friend of another President. Later when he entered the Belgian Relief service, his zeal and tact in the administration of relief in Belgium cemented a friendship between him and the future President of the United States which also was lifelong.

Years ago I heard a sermon in the course of which the Rector said that children hear and apply, while men hear and modify. Father Lathrop, to his last days was a child in that for him to hear was to be followed by an effort to apply the remedy. To be sure as he grew older, and especially when he was in a responsible executive position, he realized difficulties more keenly and the necessity of getting along with people. To illustrate: In a letter written last October in reply to a request that I might use some material he had sent me he said:

"I am back at my desk and find your note. Use the material, but please do not quote me. I have to work with these men and I am extremely anxious to keep clear of setting myself in any way in opposition to what they want."

It was not only in his directness of attack that he showed his spirit of youth. He had a courage that might almost be called impulsiveness and which led him to speak his mind openly and fearlessly. Take for example his fight to retain an assistant secretary in the National Department of Christian Social Service, in which he eventually came out victorious. Here is what he said to the National Council, which is the determining body:

"The matter that I want to speak about for a moment this morning comes as a result of the action decided upon at the last meeting of the National Council, which involves the abolition of the office of the Assistant Secretary for the Department of Christian Social Service.

I feel that as head of the Department of Christian Social Service, I have a responsibility to ask that action taken by the National Council affecting the organization of a Department be taken only after full conference with the head of the Department himself by the National Council. I feel that the National Council ought not to select a man to take charge of a Department who is supposed to have some specific and technical knowledge, keep him in this office for ten years, permit the building up of his Department on very conservative lines, and then with no consultation with him abolish one of his pillars.

The position that I take is quite regardless of any specific action. It is a general principle. In any changes made in the organization of a Department, the head of the Department himself should have full opportunity to express his own views to the National Council itself. Because of the fact that a Secretary has been working in the Department for ten years, he ought to know more about its plans and its purposes than it is possible for a Committee to know, or for the National Council to know, and he ought to have the full opportunity to tell the National Council why he does what he is doing.

It is not right for me to remain quiet in this situation. My duty to my Department—my own interest in its work—compel me to make this statement. I cannot assume responsibility for a work like mine without the right to full consultation in the consideration of any change.

I therefore beg to request the National Council to follow the resolution passed by my Department, or failing that, to appoint a committee and instruct them to appoint a time to meet with the executive secretary, to hear the executive secretary and his associates present the plans and purposes and program of the Department, and to make recommendation at the next meeting of the National Council as to the plans and future organization of the staff of the Department."

There was nothing of the bureaucrat or functionary about him. There was nothing of the sycophant. He was always brave, direct, straightforward, and that was why he was so generally beloved by his Department and in the field. One always knew where to find him, whether it was a social or an ecclesiastical situation which was being faced.

The spirit of youth dominated him unto the end. His closest pal was his son Charles, and he was a delightful companion. I recall his visits to my home, which he knew was his home while in it. Oft-times he would come in so tired that I would tuck him up in a big divan, cover him up and give him a book or magazine, merely for form however, and then leave him to fall asleep. When he awoke refreshed he was ready for most any frolic. I remember on one occasion I was in my study, which is on the third floor of my house, and after he had been quiet for an hour or so I heard him running up and down stairs. Finally he landed in my study. I asked what he had been doing and he said he had been enjoying the luxury of running up and down stairs "I get so tired of always being on one floor in my apartment."

Not only was Father Lathrop keenly interested in social affairs such as those already referred to, but he was profoundly concerned about that bigger phase that we call social justice. Injustice in any form attracted his attention, aroused his indignation and set his mind at work as to how to effect a remedy.

While Father Lathrop was recognized as a social factor of prime importance prior to 1920, it was in that year that he entered upon the work that developed him into the Social Service leader of the Church. Appointed by the Presiding Bishop as Executive Director of the newly constituted Department of Christian Social Service, he entered upon his duties with an enthusiasm that never nagged until the end, for he literally died in harness. There were times when he felt that the work was not receiving the support to which it was entitled, but he never complained, he never hesitated and he went straight forward to his goal to have Social Service recognized as an essential part of the Church's program altho as The Living Church, which was his unfailing friend, said:

"The apathy that Churchmen in general evince toward the work of this department is pitiful. With the structure of the family constantly under attack from somewhere, with prison fires and riots and generally a disgracefully over-crowded condition of our jails, with outbreaks between capital and labor producing actual war, very few seem to see that the Church itself is on trial. What factor should be interested in these details of our common life, if the Church is not? And what can the Church do, if her people will not support the very sensible programs when she forms them? How can she educate if nobody wishes to be educated? Must she go to Washington to establish a new lobby, which shall institute new prohibitions?"

Within a year or two after Dean Lathrop entered upon his national work I gave a bird's eye of his activities as the Church's Social Service Secretary. In 1921, his first full year of service, he wandered from Sandy Hook to the Golden Gate, and from Lake Superior to the waters of the Gulf, through the fall and spring, meeting diocesan conventions, Woman's Auxiliary organizations, the Brotherhood, the Girls' Friendly, and incidentally getting acquainted with his field and making personal associations in every part of the country, a truly important function.

Then came the national Conference of Social Service Workers of the Church at Milwaukee, which he inaugurated, the proceedings of which speak for themselves. Incidentally, organizing a meeting of that kind was no light task, and this organization was done in the short intervals between wanderings. Before the conference Father Lathrop taught at St. Mary's Conference and Social Service Institute, Raleigh, North Carolina, and after the National Conference he taught at the summer schools at Wellesley, Geneva, N. Y. and Sewanee. In the interstices of time he wrote his half of the book The Social Opportunity of the Churchman and the Suggestions for Leaders.

The next step was the organization of his Council of Advice to represent the department and to bring the field into relation with the department. At the meeting in December, 1921, at Chicago the whole program for social service was crystallized. As a result of this meeting it was possible in the diocesan conventions to bring the plans for social service work before their dioceses, and also to let the diocesan social service commissions know what they could do and what it was hoped they would do.

He quickly formulated his program and proceeded to develop the idea of Christian Social Service and of bringing it home to our Church people. This work is further developed in the brochure which he wrote with the Rev., now Bishop, C. K. Gilbert and which they called, The Social Opportunity of the Churchman. It was designed for use in discussion groups. It was easy to say it was not this and that and the other thing as some, perhaps many, did. It was not a treatise or a thesis or a comprehensive text book. "It was just an honest effort to get certain important problems before the Church," and as I pointed out, "while there has been some, perhaps I might with propriety say, much criticism, here is how one leader regards this effort to arouse interest (yes, that is its real purpose)."

"I am reading Father Lathrop's book," wrote one priest, "it is very good indeed and admirably adapted for discussion class work. There is also a set of Helps published which are intended as a guide to leaders of such groups. This discussion class business is an old hobby of mine and I love it. It would be best to get the advice of Mrs. ........ on the whole subject as to how to promote these Social Service Discussion Classes in parishes. The Woman's Auxiliary is, at the present time, the only bunch that either knows anything about discussion classes or uses them. Even Father Lathrop is a new hand at it, though he is a convert. The theory of the discussion class is sound; it produces conviction and action in a way that the lecture method comparatively seldom does. With the lecture people say, 'How nice; fine talk'; go home, eat roast beef and plum pudding and forget it. The discussion class raises actual questions which the mind seeks to settle and does so in the form of conviction; and a true conviction almost always eventuates in action."

This was such an interesting and searching letter that I asked and received permission to show it to Secretary Lathrop, who showed his appreciation in these words:

"I was very much interested in Dr. ........'s letter. It is a pleasure to have him say such nice things about the Discussion Group and I realize the truth of what he says about the Woman's Auxiliary. I think he will be interested to know that I am now giving a course for leaders of Discussion Groups to the national officers of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at the Church House. They are unable to be present at my evening meetings and consequently I get down there for a class of 4 or 5 with Mr. ........ and others in the office. They seem very much interested and I hope the result will be that they will be doing everything they can to press the members of the Brotherhood in the parishes throughout the country to use these Discussion Groups." (Father Lathrop referred to the Philadelphia Brotherhood and Groups).

Three editions of The Social Opportunity of the Churchman were at once called for and more were demanded because of the freshness and pertinence of the discussion. There were those who did not like it because it was too radical, and others because it was too conservative, and others because their pet hobbies were not given more space. As a matter of fact it was a careful, sane consideration and justified the attention given to it.

The department's activities are to be judged not from the point of view of the faddist or extremist, but from the point of view of the second great Commandment, and it was in that spirit Dean Lathrop carried on his work and it was because of the spirit that animated him that he made the impress that he did.

In a carefully prepared and a deeply appreciative survey of his work sent out by the Church's national publicity department it was said:

"He brought within the compass upon the betterment of mankind and women from every walk of could advance the interests which in his Council of Advice, in the dioceses which sprang into active constantly to keep pace with the seemingly tireless."

Father Lathrop always regarded himself as a soldier in the army of the Lord and his whole life was an exemplification and amplification of some advice he once gave to a group of students:

"I look on you, the students, much as the Federal Government looks on its graduates from West Point. They may go back to civil life and carry on secular professions, but at the first shot of an enemy's gun they will leave their interests and their affairs and rush to rally to their country's help. You, too, going forth to your various activities, are the soldiers of the democracy, to rally to its protection and to revive its withering ideals. I tell you now in all solemnity, standing here and speaking in God's holy church, the fight is on . . . by an army—a new army—fighting under a new ideal."

I have referred to Father Lathrop as essentially a reformer. He was likewise fundamentally a Catholic. Not only was his ministry at the Church of the Advent in San Francisco and at the Cathedral in Milwaukee a practical embodiment of his faith and belief, but his whole life's work. To him the two great commandments of our Blessed Lord were the foundations of Christian life, and the sacraments, especially the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord, were the meat and drink that made it possible for him to lead a Catholic Christian's life.

It was a joy and a privilege to know Charles N. Lathrop and to possess his friendship, for one felt that in knowing him one knew our Blessed Lord a little better. For one I believe he saw further and deeper than the average man or priest. I recall my last conversation with him. It was after the adjournment of the last meetings of our National Department that he attended. He had told us of his struggle to reestablish the assistant secretaryship, in which he ultimately triumphed and—how fortunate!—for the man he had selected, has now been chosen as his successor—the Rev. C. Rankin Barnes—chosen with the unanimous endorsement of the Department because he was Father Lathrop's choice. I have felt more than once since Father Barnes choice that perhaps Father Lathrop was permitted a glimpse into the future, a thought that is reinforced by the last conversation to which I referred in the course of which he said that he expected when his work was done to spend his last days in his native and beloved city of San Francisco. For one I knew not how soon that would be and had I known I should have knelt and petitioned him to bless me ere we departed.

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