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

Charles Neale Field, S.S.J.E.Charles Neale Field

CHARLES NEALE FIELD was born in jail! Lest this bald statement reflect upon the moral character of his parents let it be hastily explained, however, that the reason for this unusual birthplace was the fact that Charles’ father, the Reverend John Field, was chaplain to the model jail in Reading, Berkshire, England, which he had caused to be built. This place of birth among people in trouble was actually symbolic for throughout his entire life Father Field was always among those in adversity. Whether they were Philadelphia working lads in need of a Saturday half-holiday, victims of a cruel flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, requiring everything, prisoners or ex-convicts in need of help and friendship, steerage passengers hungering for material and spiritual refreshment, wounded or malaria-ridden soldiers of the Spanish-American War desiring to be comforted, a colored boy in Nassau in need of surgery, or negro children in Boston yearning for a summer camp, Father Field was in their midst working tirelessly to fulfill their needs. This was the man who now became the Provincial Superior and Rector of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist.

In 1869, at the age of twenty, Charles Neale Field received his B.A. Degree from University College, Durham University. He prepared for holy orders at Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, and was ordained to the priesthood in Exeter Cathedral on September 21st, 1873. For five years he served as assistant curate at Saint Mary’s Church, Plympton, Devon, and then entered the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in which he was Professed in 1880. In that very year he was sent to Saint Clement’s Church, Philadelphia, to which the Society of Saint John the Evangelist began to minister in 1876, and performed an outstanding piece of work. In 1891, when the Society terminated its ministry to Saint Clement’s, Father Field and Father Longridge (who had been sent to that parish by Father Benson in 1877 as a postulant and who returned there after his Profession in 1883) went to Boston to strengthen Father Hall’s hands at Saint John’s.

In a sermon which he preached in Saint John’s in 1929 Father Burton said:

“In 1904, Father Osborne was consecrated Bishop (Coadjutor) of Springfield, Illinois, and Father Field was appointed Provincial Superior of our Society in America. Some people wrung their hands and wondered how St. John’s could get on without Father Osborne’s great sermons. Bishop Weller, who was the outstanding Catholic preacher of those days, remarked, ‘Father Field’s smile has converted more souls than all Father Osborne’s eloquence.’

“Here at St. John’s, all over our country and throughout the West Indies, Father Field made the Society of St. John the Evangelist loved and respected. He rang true. In his transparent goodness, he made St. John’s, the Society, and the Catholic cause itself to be trusted and loved.

“His first change, on becoming the Father Superior, was to reserve the Blessed Sacrament publicly and perpetually at St. John’s Church. He put in the Blessed Sacrament altar, our Lady’s altar, the rood screen and the reredos of the high altar. He was determined to make our dear old church as lovely as he could, to make it a shrine of the Blessed Sacrament and a centre of Catholic devotion and of missionary energy.”

These changes in the interior of the building which Father Field began to effect must have been indeed welcome ones to the parishoners who though loving their “dear old church” must have regretted its dirtiness, its dinginess, and its ugliness. Referring to its architectural repulsiveness, the noted architect Ralph Adams Cram, for so many years a loyal communicant of Saint John’s wrote:

“. . . In the earliest times the Church of St. John the Evangelist possessed one altar and one only, this small in dimensions and backed up by a cloth dossal of sombre colour. There was a small organ on the left and a marble bust of Dr. Croswell (The Reverend William Croswell, D.D. was the first Rector of the Church of the Advent) taking the place of a Lady altar, while the walls were ‘decorated’ in the morose olive greens with stencilled borders characteristic of the ‘Eastlake’ period. There were no side altars, shrines, pictures or objects of devotion. There wasn’t even a crucifix anywhere visible, though there was a cross on the one altar and a sufficiency of candles.

“About the year 1890 the transformation began. A side altar was introduced, more candles appeared and the olive greens of the walls gave place to a monotone colouration. At that time incense was permitted, or rather tolerated, at one service a week, and that the ‘children’s service’ on Sunday afternoon. From now on, however, the enrichment of the church proceeded apace . . .”

The two altars mentioned by Father Burton in his eulogy of Father Field were installed in the spring of 1905. The Blessed Sacrament Altar, where the Blessed Sacrament was then reserved, was placed on the gospel side of the Church, under the gallery and against the organ case. (The organ was not removed to the gallery unti1 1930.) The Altar of Saint Mary the Virgin was placed in a corresponding position under the opposite gallery and at the entrance to the baptistry for the font was then in the front of the building. The Altar of Saint Mary the Virgin was consecrated on March 23rd, 1905 by the Right Reverend Reginald Heber Weller, Bishop Coadjutor of Fond du Lac, who became Diocesan in 1912 on the death of Bishop Grafton. Mass was said at this altar for the first time on the Feast of the Annunciation. The Stations of the Cross, the work of a Spanish artist, in bas relief, were also installed around this time.Saint John's During Father Field's Rectorship

It was seen, however, that changes other than these were required. In fact it became necessary to carry out a thorough-going restoration of the building. The slate on the roof had to be relaid and other alterations were undertaken. During the renovation of the interior of the Church services were carried on in the schoolroom below the Church. By August much of the work had been done, the plaster of ceiling and walls repainted, the choir and altar steps widened to enhance the dignity of the altar, and to permit a more reverent procession for the singing of the gospel at High Mass. On September 17th, 1905, the restored church was reopened for worship.

In the course of the years a goodly number of students from Harvard University had attended Saint John’s and in 1906 the members of Saint Paul’s Society presented the Church with a magnificent rood screen designed by Henry Vaughan. The oaken figures of our Lord upon the Cross, the Blessed Virgin, and Saint John (which are identical to those in the Society’s Church in Oxford) were carved in Oberammergau, Germany, by the son of Josef Mayer who took the part of the Christus in the Passion Play. The figure of the Christ was given as a memorial to Dr. Henry Augustus Coit who, as the first Rector of Saint Paul’s School, Concord, New Hampshire, was a staunch friend of the Cowley. Fathers at a time when they had very few friends at all in America. In time statues of Saint Francis and Saint Joseph were placed on the left of the cross, and statues of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Benedict on the right.

A veritable treasure-chest for the historian who wishes to gain information about this and later periods of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist is THE MESSENGER. The first issue of THE MESSENGER appeared in January, 1904, and it has been published uninterruptedly ever since although its format has changed from time to time. Precursors of THE MESSENGER were THE RECORD, THE OCCASIONAL PAPER, and THE EAGLE. THE RECORD was begun in June, 1890 and was still appearing as late as May, 1896. THE OCCASIONAL PAPER was published from 1899 to 1903 and THE EAGLE in 1903. The schedules of services, rosters of meetings of organizations, lists of the clergy, announcements of activities, and financial statistics, all give evidence of a witnessing Catholic Parish reverently combining the things of time and eternity.

THE MESSENGER for August, 1907, contains the following interesting information concerning the crosses on the exterior of Saint John’s:

“A generous friend has given us a handsome four-foot cross, all of shining gold, to go over the porch, and another still more radiant one of eight or ten feet for the top of the Church tower. When it is up in place it can be seen from the top of the hill, and all the way down the street. As preparations were being made to put the cross over the porch, a little Italian boy came up in the street and said: ‘Please, Father, is this going to be a Catholic Church now?’ and last week a shop assistant in one of the department stores, where we were buying a flying machine, asked if we belonged to the new Catholic Church in Bowdoin Street.”

In March, 1908, THE MESSENGER announces the publication of a new edition of THE CATECHISM OF SAINT JOHN’S CHURCH. This informative red-covered booklet contains, on its cover, an eagle, symbol of Saint John, and, above the bird the words, “The Church of St. John the Evangelist”. The title-page contains the words “Catechism for the Children of Jesus”, indicates the Mission House as the place of publication, and the price as 20 cents. (Children could purchase the catechism at half-price.) The booklet, illustrated with sketches of Saint John’s Church and various objects used in worship, is a highly informative ‘treatise on features of Catholic worship in general and of the usage of Saint John’s in particular. Towards the end of the booklet are questions and answers relative to the organizations of Saint John’s then in existence – the Fellowship of Saint John, Saint Vincent’s Guild (for acolytes), the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Little Sisters of Saint Mary, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Guild of All Souls, and the Missionary Society. THE MESSENGER comments:

“It is a catechism that is intended to appeal almost solely to the senses, a catechism about the externals of the Church, the statues, the signs and the symbols.”

The Society of Saint John the Evangelist now publishes a revised edition of this catechism under the title CATECHISM OF WORSHIP. Questions dealing with Saint John’s Church in particular have been removed but the generalized material covering Catholic ceremonial has been largely retained.

From June of 1907 on the name “Rev. Spence Burton” appears each month in the list of the clergy of Saint John’s. While a student at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1903, Spence Burton began to attend the Church and became increasingly attached to it and its clergy. On May 25th, 1907, following his graduation from the General Theological Seminary in New York City he was ordained a Deacon at Saint John’s by William Woodruff Niles, the. Bishop of New Hampshire, and was advanced to the priesthood, again, in Saint John’s on March 7th, 1908. by the Bishop Coadjutor of Fond du Lac, Reginald Heber Weller. Two days after his ordination to the priesthood Father Burton was admitted as a postulant in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and shared in the life and work of Saint John’s until he was sent to Cowley where he was clothed as a novice on August I st, t908. Concerning that time on the staff of Saint John’s under Father Field, Father Burton recalls:

“During that first year of my ministry, 1907-1908, Father Field had going simultaneously three churches for coloured people – Saint Augustine’s, Phillips Street, Saint Martin’s, Lenox Street, and St. Michael’s, Bradford Street. Life in those days here was like a three-ringed circus, with St. Augustine’s Farm as the side-show. What a circus it was, with Father Field performing in all the rings, running the side-show entirely by himself and telling each of us to do something different every time we met him. The confusion would have been unbearable if he had not loved us and all to whom we were sent to minister. In him we saw a great missionary, a true St. John the Evangelist.”

THE MESSENGER for February, 1909, announces the publication of two new colored postcards – one depicting a procession at High Mass in Saint John’s, the other showing the exterior of the Church and Mission House. This rather attractive series of cards made from water color paintings in time came to include as other subjects: “Christmas Manger and Baptismal Font”, “Guild of the Little Sisters Passing the Altar of St. Mary the Virgin, Candlemas Eve”, “Altar of the Most Holy Sacrament on Maundy Thursday”, “Morning of Easter Eve. Deacon Lighting Paschal Candle with Blessed Fire”, “Mission House Garden”, “St. Anne’s House, 44 Temple Street”, “Courtyard of St. Anne’s House”, and “Chapel in St. Anne’s House”. In addition plain postcards of the Church altars and statues were made from etchings and made available to those who desired them.

Concerning the new postcard of the Church and Mission House THE MESSENGER goes on to say:

“It is the best picture of the Church and House that we have seen. All great Christian temples are extravagant in details, but St. John’s Church, with its great stones, its humped-up shoulders, dark crypts, and overhanging galleries, like formidable eyebrows, is extravagant in design. All Christian temples worth talking about have gargoyles, but St. John’s Church is a gargoyle, a very homely but a very home-like one. Some churches have beautiful faces; St. John’s has a beautiful heart. Looked at from the outside it is an unnaturally squat monster that once upon a time must have slowly lifted itself out of the rock of Beacon Hill, and now hides itself among the houses of Bowdoin St., as that dark tower, to which Childe Roland came, hid itself among the moors. Only in this postcard the tower is covered with light, the sun is shining; while boys and girls are playing in the street thereof.”

Father Field took a gargoyle of stone and gave it a heart of flesh. Because that heart was a replica of his own saintly heart Saint John’s came to possess a beautiful heart. It could be seen in the beauty of worship in an adorned Church and in the hearts of the faithful so that what was said of Christopher Wren in 1723 might, with equal propriety have been applied to Father Field in 1910.

“Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

At Christmas of 1910 Father Field’s office as Provincial Superior expired and to replace him the the Father Superior General at Cowley (Gerald Speirs Maxwell) sent another member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist – Henry Power Bull.

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