The Shrine on Bowdoin Street from 1883 – 1958, Chapter IV

Edward William Osborne, S.S.J.EEdward William Osborne

THE SUCCESSOR to William Hawks Longridge as Provincial Superior and Rector of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist was Edward William Osborne. He came as no stranger. Born in Calcutta in 1845, the son of a Church Missionary Society missionary in India, Edward Osborne became a postulant in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in 1876. Two years later he was sent to Boston and was on the staff of the Church of the Advent at the time of the unhappy episode surrounding Father Grafton. When matters came to a head he, like Father Hall, withdrew temporarily from the Boston scene but he was again on the staff when the old Church on Bowdoin Street became the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, and remained there until 1899 when he was sent to South Africa. For a third time, beginning in November of 1898, Father Osborne was seen in the Shrine on Bowdoin Street though he returned to Cowley in the summer of 1899 for the retreat and’ important Triennial Greater Chapter at which autonomy for the American Province was thoroughly discussed. It was on August 23rd, 1899, that Father Osborne sailed from England in order to assume the Rectorship of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist.

Just prior to Father Osborne’s arrival, the Fathers on the staff of Saint John’s endeavored to bring the unchurched into the fold through the media of street processions and preaching on Boston Common. This was no attempt on the part of the Fathers to make an innovation in the interim between Superiors for Father Osborne himself had directed a similar street procession from Saint Augustine’s Mission on August 29th, 1886, during Father Hall’s regime. In describing that procession Father Osborne had written to Father Benson:

“This was indeed a Procession! Picture Br. Maynard bearing aloft the large cross decorated with flowers. On either side of him a darkie boy in bright blue cassock and clean surplice; behind, a stream of 100 darkie boys and girls with teachers interspersed, the Sisters (of Saint Margaret) at the end . . . After going round the Chapel we filed out into the street . . . and we marched round the colored quarter of the city to the stirring strains of ‘Brightly gleams our Banner’ . . . All the neighborhood turned out, and doors and windows were crowded with black faces, their eyes and teeth shining. We were a little fearful of doing it but every one behaved well, and though some of the onlookers laughed most of them were quiet and respectful . . . I suppose the cross was Dever carried in the streets of Boston before. We got safely back to the Chapel, a great crowd rushing up from Cambridge Street and the side streets and gathering at the door, many coming into the Chapel. We had a service and an address on ‘Following the Cross'”.

Doubtless the success of this venture in 1886 helped to encourage Father Duncan Convers who originated the new movement in 1899. On summer Sunday evenings from 6.30 to 7.30 vested choristers, led by a crucifer and assisted by two cornetists, left Saint John’s accompanied by Father Convers and Father Marcel William Townend Conran, and progressed through the streets of the West End. At intervals a pause would be made and Father Convers would address those gathered around with a simple message such as,

“We can all agree that Boston should be a better city than it is. It can be made better only by each of us becoming better than he is.”

Finally the procession would return to Saint John’s and on the steps of the Church there would be a short address and an invitation to come into the church for the service to follow. Many accepted. Father Convers, explaining this effort to a reporter of THE BOSTON HERALD stated:

“We are by no means trying to be sensational or to attract public attention by strange and bizarre methods. We are simply trying to save souls and bring men into contact with the church for their highest good.”

While Father Convers and Father Conran were thus engaged in street processions, Father Benson and Father Field were preaching on Boston Common. In a letter addressed to Father Page, the Superior at Cowley, Father Benson wrote:

“Last Sunday (August 12th, 1899) 1 was preaching upon Boston Common. It has long been one of my desires. There are a number of speakers every Sunday afternoon in the summer … This year I am thankful to say the Church has made a beginning – Father Field goes there two Sundays hence … Each congregation is allowed an hour, and then a new preacher gathers a new set of hearers. Amidst all the discordances of untruth, it is very important that the Church should have the opportunity of bearing witness, and God will bring just those people within earshot who have some capacity for receiving the Message.”

So the clergy and laity of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, following the Gospel admonition, went into the highways and byways to bring the knowledge and love of God to human beings who had not heard about “the good news”!

Very shortly after Father Osborne’s arrival in Boston the Fathers vacated the house at #44 Temple Street and moved into #33 Bowdoin Street. In a letter to Father Page, dated September 14th, 1899, Father Osborne requested:

“Will you kindly announce in the October Cowley Evangelist our change of address? It will in future be 33 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Mass. . . * We shall have a small Clergy Retreat in our New House, October 9-13, which I hope will be an annual event, and be as useful as the October Retreat at Cowley. This year’s Retreat will be a happy entrance to our New House and we shall have brethren with us for its benediction.”

The same issue of THE COWLEY EVANGELIST which printed this letter from Father Osborne likewise contained the laconic announcement:

“Father Benson is expected to arrive in England at the end of October.”

This was the result of a fervent plea which emanated from the summer Chapter. At the close of. that Chapter Father Frederick William Puller had been directed to compose a letter, signed by all the Fathers, begging Father Benson to return to Cowley in order to conduct the Christmas Retreat. Father Benson, now in his seventy-fifth year, interpreted this call as the Will of God and obediently laid down his work at the Church of Saint John the Evangelist. A faithful parishioner of Saint John’s, the late Bessie Arnold, in response to a sermon on Father Benson preached on January 11th, 1953, by the author of this booklet, wrote:

“I wonder if any person who heard your sermon this morning had ever received a blessing from Father Benson. I met him just the day before he sailed for England in October to spend his last days. I was on an errand for Father Field and was just going into 44 Temple St. where the Fathers then lived. I saw an elderly gentleman very unsteadily trying to step out of a carriage, a one-horse one. His eyesight was very poor and he certainly wore no socks. Later I learned he really didn’t at all. He was shabbily dressed, that ‘is, his habit was rather worn. I helped him into the Mission House and he said, ‘God bless you’. I shall never forget that simple blessing.”

So Father Benson sailed from America leaving a great blessing behind him and bringing further blessing to his brethren at Cowley. There he spent his last years in Oxford, one of the loveliest cities on earth, until on the 14th of January, 1915, God called him to “a fairer place than even Oxford town”.

There were, of course, many sad hearts at Saint John’s as the familiar figure of Father Benson vanished to be seen no more on this side of the Atlantic but there were further tasks to be performed at the Mission Church and Father Benson would have been the last person in the world to desire that regrets over his departure should hinder the continuation of those duties. So clergy and laity alike prayed and worshipped, toiled and ministered, evangelized and witnessed, and the result was a fruitful five-year period under the leadership of Edward Osborne. Finally Father Osborne, himself, was able to give an account of his stewardship which he did in the pages of THE CHURCH MILITANT, the monthly periodical of the Diocese of Massachusetts, in October of 1904. The article which he wrote provides us with such an able first-hand account of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in the early years of this twentieth century that we shall here quote f rom it at length:

“The congregation is largely composed of self supporting single people, there being very little family life, and very few children connected with the church. The communicants now number about four hundred and fifty.

“The principal societies for work in the congregation are a Church Workers’ Union and a very flourishing Missionary Association made up of both men and women and doing good work in the Foreign and Diocesan departments.

“A Neighborhood Society gathers together all the communicants living in the West and North Ends, and unites them both in social life and in endeavor to bring the people living near under the care of the church. There are also a Girls’ Friendly Society and a guild for little girls. A number of women assist in the care of the needlework of the church without any organization, and a strong body of young men and boys act as servers and acolytes, and have the care of the brasswork and other furniture of the altar. The Sisters of St. Margaret visit among the people and help the church in various ways. A voluntary Finance Committee assists in securing pledges from the congregation, and in counting and entering the same.

“The worship of the church is of an ornate character, there being a large well-trained choir, and lights, the eucharistic vestments and incense being in regular use. The daily Eucharist, with a second. celebration on Holy Days and Thursdays, has continued without intermission for twenty-one years. The church is always open, and no day passes without strangers, as well as members of the congregation, finding their way in for private prayer and rest.

“In addition to ordinary services, an effort is made to provide for other than the regular congregation; as, for instance, by the establishment of a service of Holy Communion at 5:45 a.m., on the first Sunday in each month for the benefit of hospital nurses, of whom many are in hospitals near at hand. The ministrations of the clergy are sought by persons in various parts of the city and suburbs who desire to receive the grace of absolution or other spiritual help; being in the direct line between the two stations and near the trolley lines, the church is conveniently situated for such persons. (The clergy are the Rev. Father Osborne, Superior, the Rev. Father Field and the Rev. Father Powell.)

“In addition to the work connected directly with the church, the clergy have also the care of the two missions for colored people, St. Augustine’s and St. Martin’s, being assisted in this work by the Rev. D. R. Wallace.

“The ordinary hours of service in St. John’s Church are: Sundays, 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., Holy Communion; 10:30, Matins; 11, Holy Eucharist and sermon; 7:30, Evensong and sermon. On the first Sunday in each month and on the greater Festivals, Holy Communion at 5:45 a.m. The children of the congregation form a choir at the service at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays and receive instruction from the clergy of the church in the schoolroom afterwards.

“The address of the clergy of the Society is 33 Bowdoin Street, next door to the church, where some one can generally be found. Their regular hours for attendance in the church are posted in the porch, and they are always ready to make appointments to see people for any kind of assistance.”

When one has carefully read this account which Father Osborne has bequeathed to us one is impressed by the activity which the Church of Saint John the Evangelist manifested. In the twelve years from the time of the difficulties encircling Father Hall the Mission Church had reestablished itself in its inner life, in its witness to the community, and in the respect and affection with which it was held. Incredible as it may seem, however, in 1904, the very year in which Father Osborne penned his graphic word portrait, serious thought was given to the abandonment of the work on Bowdoin Street on the part of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

On January 9th, 1904, Father Page, the Superior General of the Society, sailed from England for a visitation to the American House of the Society in Boston. The visit was indeed a brief one as the Father was back in England on February 20th. However during that time informal discussions took place as to the advisability of the Fathers relinquishing their parochial responsibilities in Boston and opening a house in Cambridge from which they could go forth for missions and retreats and from which center they might exert some influence upon students at Harvard University. It was not at all a question of the worthwhileness of the work at Saint John’s, nor was there the slightest desire to forsake its congregation. The question was whether the Society was able to continue so demanding a work. William Lawrence, who had become Bishop of Massachusetts in 1893 following the brief episcopate of Phillips Brooks, expressed his opinion that it would be regrettable, to say the least, for the Society to break up its pastoral relations with the people of Saint John’s. The American Provincial Chapter meeting in Boston on July 3rd, 1904, finally voted unanimously,

“that no steps should be taken in the matter at this time but that the Society should wait for further light and guidance.”

So the people of Saint John’s continued to be ministered to by the Cowley Fathers but Father Osborne’s days among them were rapidly drawing to a close.

On August 2nd, 1904, Father Osborne received from the Notification Committee of the Diocese of Springfield a telegram which stated:

“We have the honour to inform you that you are unanimously elected Bishop Coadjutor of Springfield. Letter follows.”

The election came as a complete surprise to Father Osborne but after giving the matter prayerful thought he believed he should accept it. The Chapter of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist at Cowley released him from obligations to the Society and, after all canonical requirements had been fulfilled, everything was in readiness for the Consecration Service.

The Consecration of Edward William Osborne took place in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Boston, on October 23rd, 1904. It was the first and only Consecration ever to be held in Saint John’s. Thirteen bishops attended including Charles Chapman Grafton (who had been consecrated Bishop of Fond du Lac in 1889) and Arthur Crawshay Alliston Hall (who had been consecrated Bishop of Vermont in 1894). Long before the hour for beginning the Service the interior of Saint John’s was crowded to the doors. So the Father who entered those doors emerged as a Bishop in the Church of God and departed to take up his new work in Illinois. The mantle which he had worn as Superior and Rector fell upon the shoulders of one of his attending presbyters – Charles Neale Field.

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