“The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” (Psalm 16:7).
THOSE WORDS of the psalmist seem to possess a special appropriateness as one turns back to examine the foundations, material and spiritual, upon which our beloved Church of Saint John the Evangelist rests. Bowdoin Street and the surrounding area indeed pleased the eye as a “fair ground” almost a century and a half ago with its shade trees and well-kept residences.
It was in this section of the City of Boston that a group of devout orthodox Congregationalists, deeply distressed by the growth of unitarian theology in their midst, banded themselves together in January, 1825, to build a new meeting house. On March 1st, 1826, this new stone building was opened as “The Hanover Street Church” and dedicated “to the worship of God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”. The man called to shepherd this flock was the brilliant preacher Lyman Beecher who, as pastor of the Congregational church in Litchfield, Connecticut, was already gaining prominence as an opponent of the growing heresy of Unitarianism. (Who can measure the influence of this famous clergyman upon his even more noted daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe whose explosive novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, contributed so much towards fomenting the Civil War?)
The Hanover Street Church burned down on February 1st, 1830. The lot on which the church had stood was sold and its proprietors purchased a new site on Bowdoin Street which was deemed a more central and convenient location. Here the newly-incorporated “Bowdoin Street Congregational Society” erected a new granite edifice which was dedicated on June 16th, 1831, when Dr. Beecher preached the sermon. This is the building in which we worship today.
Bowen’s PICTURE OF BOSTON, a charming little book published in 1838, contains a small drawing of the edifice showing it just as it appears now save for the cross atop its tower. That book states:
“The exterior of the house, including the tower and circular projection in the rear wall is 98 by 75 feet. The interior of the house … is 77 by 71 feet. The tower is 28 feet by 20, projecting 6 feet in front of the main wall. Height of the main wall 40 feet, that of the tower 70 feet. The interior of the house is of a plain and neat construction, meeting the eye, as you enter it, with an unusual air of pleasantness, owing to its symmetrical proportions. The ceiling is elliptical, 36 feet in height in the centre, and 26 feet from the spring of the arch … The house is lighted entirely with gas. The general style of the house is primitive Gothic.”
Concerning the music of the new church the same book continues:
“The music in this church is said to be of a very high character. It is under the direction of Lowell Mason, Esq. and the choir is composed entirely of young gentlemen and ladies of the society, who have voluntarily associated to conduct this interesting part of public worship.”
One day, as he was passing the church, Samuel Francis Smith, who, in 1832, composed the words of “America”, entered the building and was rewarded by hearing, for the first time, his hymn sung by the choir and scholars of the Sunday School.
Dr. Beecher served his flock on Bowdoin Street shortly over one year and then left to become pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. He was succeeded by the Reverend Hubbard Winslow. By 1862 the lack of a pastor and the loss of many members of the congregation led the Examining Committee to consider the sale of the church building and it was voted to sell it to the Church of the Advent which, at that time, was worshipping in its third location on Green Street.
A few days before the opening services in its first location in a room at # 13 Merrimac Street held on December 1st, 1844, the Church of the Advent had circulated a printed card upon which, among other things, it stated its raison d’être in these words:
“A prominent object, in addition to the usual offices of worship, will be the thorough catechetical training of the children in the principles and practice of Christ’s religion, as set forth in THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER.”
This was, in effect, a declaration of independence. Just as certain Congregationalists, dissatisfied with heterodoxy in their midst, formed the Hanover Street Church so certain Episcopalians, distressed by the barren Churchmanship of the Diocese of Massachusetts formed a church in which the spirit of the Prayer Book would be faithfully upheld and Catholic truth would be disseminated. Here was one concrete fruit in the City of Boston of the Catholic Revival in the Anglican Communion!
After six months on Merrimac Street the members of the Church of the Advent acquired the use of a hall on the corner of Lowell and Causeway Streets worshipping there until they were able to purchase a vacant meeting-house on Green Street. A fourth move took place after the meeting-house on Bowdoin Street was purchased in 1863.
Understandably, the interior of the building on Bowdoin Street had to undergo considerable alteration before it could be appropriately utilized for the worship of the Church. In common with most Congregational meeting-houses of that period the front of the church contained a high platform on which there was a large reading-desk
Behind the desk were chairs and in front of it, on the floor, stood a small table. These had to be removed and replaced by an altar. Since, at its very inception, the Church of the Advent freed itself from the curse of rented pews, the pew doors were removed and the entire building made free to all. Finally alterations were completed, all was in readiness, and the congregation assembled for worship on Palm Sunday, March 20th, 1864.
The Rector of the Church of the Advent at this time was the Reverend James A. Bolles but at the close of 1869 he resigned believing that the time had come for another to take over the work. After Dr. Bolles’ resignation his assistant, the Reverend Moses P. Stickney, was asked to serve as rector ad interim. At a meeting of the Parish Corporation held on October 7th, 1870, Mr. Richard H. Dana, Jr., a member of the committee appointed to nominate a new rector stated that that committee unanimously recommended the passage of the following vote:
“That the committee to nominate a rector be authorized to make temporary arrangements with the Rev. Mr. Benson, of Oxford, to assist the rector ad interim in carrying on the work of the parish.”
On the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist in 1866 Richard Meux Benson, Charles Chapman Grafton, and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill, all priests of the Anglican Church, assembled in a chapel in Oxford, England, and in each other’s presence solemnly promised and vowed to Almighty God to live “in celibacy, poverty, and obedience” for the duration of their earthly lives. Thus was formally inaugurated the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
Since one of the three priests, Charles Chapman Grafton, was an American, it had always been hoped that, should the Society prosper, a foundation might be made in the United States. When the call came from the Parish of the Advent in Boston this must have appeared to Father Benson as a clear token of God’s providential moving in the life of his Society. So with faith and confidence Father Benson and Father O’Neill, accompanied by the Reverend Frederick William Puller, who was to join the Society in 1880, set sail from England and arrived in Boston on Saturday, November 12th, 1870.
Scareheads in some Boston newspapers screamed:
“Father Benson has arrived with 40 monks to convert the heathen!”
Suspicion warped the minds of some Churchmen who viewed with alarm the presence of men who had taken monkish vows, who wore strange garbs, who held beliefs which were unpopular in the Episcopal Church, and who, above all, were under the jurisdiction of the Church of England. One such was Manton Eastburn, the Bishop of Massachusetts, who, raised in the dour atmosphere of Presbyterianism never, by his own confession, got over it. Though Father Benson brought letters from three English Bishops, Bishop Eastburn would receive neither Father Benson nor the letters.
This unhappy turn of events placed the Church of the Advent in an extremely embarrassing position. It was not the first time that that Parish had incurred Bishop Eastburn’s displeasure. At his first Confirmation visitation in 1845 the Bishop was highly incensed by things which he considered to savor of superstition and he refused to return for future Confirmations making it necessary that candidates be presented to him elsewhere. Five years later the same Bishop had suspended from the ministry for “heretical teaching” the Reverend Oliver Sherman Prescott, an assistant in the Advent. His “heresies” were his claims that prayer might be addressed to the Virgin Mary and that auricular confession was both allowable and profitable.
So this new difficulty brought great sorrow of heart. A long correspondence between the Bishop and the Parish extended through the fall and winter of 1870-1871 and it was finally decided that the English Fathers
“should hold only such meetings in the Sunday-school room and elsewhere as might be held by any laymen, performing no priestly acts in this diocese so long as the bishop objected.”
The English priests obeyed this unjust restriction and Father Benson agreed to permit two American Fathers, Father Grafton and Father Prescott (who was Professed at Cowley in 1870 and whose earlier suspension by Bishop Eastburn seems to have been lifted) to take active charge of the services of the Parish. The three Englishmen returned to their native land sailing from Halifax in September, 1871.
After the Reverend Moses B. Stickney resigned his connection with the Church of the Advent on April 10th, 1871, Father Prescott assumed temporary charge of the Parish. Father Grafton, accompanied by the Reverend Henry Darby, a novice, left Cowley on November 20th, 1871, and was formally elected as the fourth Rector of the Church of the Advent early in the following year. In the summer of 1873 Father Grafton was at Cowley again for the annual retreat and on his return was accompanied by Arthur Crawshay Alliston Hall (at that time a priest novice in the Society), Brother William, and three of the Sisters of Saint Margaret – Mother Louisa Mary, Sister Theresa, and Sister Jessie. Sister Theresa was returning to continue her labors as head of the Children’s Hospital, the other two Sisters were coming to serve in the Parish of the Advent.
In 1874 preliminary steps were taken which led to the purchase of a piece of property on the corner of Brimmer and Mount Vernon Streets on which a new church building could be erected. In 1876 Father Benson made a proposition regarding the purchase of the building on Bowdoin Street but it was rejected for the time being. The following year, however, the transaction went through and the church was sold for about $27,000. On March 21st, 1878 ground was broken for the new church on Brimmer Street.
One would rejoice to be able to conclude this introductory chapter with the statement that the transition on Bowdoin Street from the Church of the Advent to the Church of Saint John the Evangelist was effected with great harmony. Such, alas, was not the case for a veritable duststorm was kicked up centering around Father Grafton. As the issue was presented in the ecclesiastical and secular press it was often made to appear, though inaccurately, that Father Benson was a meddling Britisher attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of an American parish. However, the underlying cause of the trouble seems to have been Father Grafton’s unwillingness to accept the decision of his Superior that he was incapable of assuming the leadership of an affiliated branch of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in America. In consequence he severed his connection with that Society in the summer of 1882.
The Church of the Advent now found itself in an extremely awkward position. It had requested the ministrations of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Father Benson, the Superior of that Society, had proposed Father Grafton as Rector of the Church of the Advent. The Parish had thereupon elected him and he was appointed as such in the chapel at Cowley. Now he had left the Society. Furthermore the Parish had elected Father Hall to the office of Assistant Rector in 1880 but he remained a member of the Society.
Great, then, was the problem facing the corporation of the Church of the Advent, but a solution was finally worked out. That invaluable source of information, THE PARISH OF THE ADVENT IN THE CITY OF BOSTON, A HISTORY OF ONE HUNDRED YEARS, 1844-1944, presents the settlement as follows:
“The corporation, after looking into the matter, and realizing that the church in Bowdoin Street was, by the terms of its sale, set aside for the ultimate use of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and was being occupied by the parish, in a sense, on sufferance, promptly recognized the rector’s right to choose his own assistants, and at the same time acknowledged the position of the society by agreeing to finish the new church as early as practicable, and then resign the Bowdoin Street church to the uses of the society under the immediate charge of the assistant rector, with the understanding that he should resign his office in the parish, and conduct the work entirely independent of the parish. This arrangement was agreed to on all sides as being, on the whole the happiest solution to the difficulties in which the parish found itself; and on the Thursday before Palm Sunday, 1883, the parish held its first service in the completed church . . . On the following Saturday the first services were conducted in the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street. While the parish seemed to have received a serious blow, in fact there had arisen from the one parish two congregations, each independent of the other, and each by somewhat differing methods striving to do its duty in that position in which it had been placed by a Higher Power.”