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

Henry Power Bull, S.S.J.E.Henry Power Bull, S.S.J.E.
1910-1914

ALTHOUGH CHRISTMAS DAY, 1910, officially, marked the beginning of Father Bull’s term of office as Provincial Superior in America, and of his Rectorship of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, he was not able immediately to assume the reins, being on the opposite side of the Atlantic. In a letter written to the Reverend William B. Stoskopf, Rector of the Church of the Ascension, Chicago, on February 17th, 1911, Father Field said:

“Father Bull, our new Provincial, will be here in about a week, and I shall be a schoolboy again, and have nothing to do except what I am told.”

What selflessness lies behind that simple statement, and how beautifully it reveals the stature of Father Field! Father Burton has testified:

“I believe we should all agree that Father Field was the perfect ex-Superior. We may have had abler Superiors, but never a greater ex-Superior.”

The great ex-Superior humbly stepped down from the Superior’s stall to make room for his successor, Father Bull.

Henry Power Bull, born in 1858, became a scholar of Brasenose College, Oxford, and after preparation for holy orders at Ely Theological College was ordained to the priesthood at the age of thirty. He was Professed in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in 1899 and was sent, to serve in South Africa. He returned to England in the summer of 1910 for what was originally intended to be a three months’ absence from Capetown but which turned out to be one of several years.

In a letter addressed to the members of Saint John’s a month after his arrival in Boston Father Bull wrote:

“Dear People: A month’s residence amongst you bas now enabled me to feel at home in your midst, and to recognize with thankfulness and joy the reality of the work and life that God has sent me to share in . . . The last ten years of my life in the Society have been spent in South Africa, and mainly in work directly amongst the aboriginal, or Kaffir, natives of that land . . . If my coming amongst you may lead to your taking an increased share in the missionary work of the American Church, abroad and at home, it will be one more sign that to those whose lives are given in obedience to their Vocation, every turn in our road is directed by God . . . I come to you, as so many of us have come in time past, from over the sea, from another country, and from surroundings and an atmosphere of life and thought very different from your own. But when we step upon your shores, we give ourselves to your service and to the American Church as wholly as we can. Happily all is not new. The Catholic Church is ever one in faith, and life, and spirit . . .”

Although Father Bull’s contribution to the missionary-mindedness of Saint John’s indubitably became ever more marked as time progressed, his influence was immediately felt in the area of the Church’s music. He was a plainchant enthusiast and he introduced the exclusive use of plainchant for the music of the Mass. By the Providence of God the Church’s organist and choirmaster at this time was a young man, aged twenty-six, from Amesbury, Massachusetts, who was ready and eager to espouse and forward such a cause. He was Everett Titcomb. Concerning Father Bull’s influence Dr. Titcomb recalls:

“He had a fine knowledge of the subject and sang the plainchant beautifully and came often to the choir room to instruct us. His singing of the few melodies we first tried to learn gave me my first real insight into the proper ‘flow’ and free-rhythm of plainchant.”

Everett Titcomb’s arrival at Saint John’s antedated that of Father Bull by only four short months. With the departure of Dr. Mitchell for England a vacancy occurred in the position of choirmaster at Saint John’s, and, through the influence of Father Powell, Dr. Titcomb was persuaded to take the post. He began his work on November 1st, 1910. Concerning his decision to come to the Church of Saint John the Evangelist Dr. Titcomb has written:

“Musically it was not a step in advance, for the choir and music here had been greatly neglected; but there was something else, – the atmosphere of Catholic worship, and the Real Presence of Almighty God. I knew that these were the essentials, and felt that given time enough and the opportunity, I could build up an efficient choir and render music which was beautiful and of artistic merit, without lavish expenditure of money, and without sacrificing that quality of devotion and worship, apart from which no church music is worthy of the name.”

As might be expected some did not take the musical innovations lying down! The first complaints were voiced by the clergy. On Christmas Day, 1910, Dr. Titcomb introduced a new setting of the Creed. It was rather florid in nature and the congregation could not participate. At the end of the Mass Father Field and Father Powell made it quite clear that in the future the music was to be wholly congregational in character, Father Field added:

“We cannot have music like that, – terrible, terrible, it is like the Church of the Advent!”

Dr. Titcomb’s spirits were badly dented but not demolished by this criticism and he came to realize that by their prompt objections Father Field and Father Powell saved the music of Saint John’s from becoming bogged down in some Victorian slough.

Father Bull paved the way for the real thing in ecclesiastical music. He procured from England copies of THE ORDINARY OF THE MASS published by the Mediaeval Music Society which are still used by the Schola Cantorum. Some of the parishoners hated the plainsong and even threatened to leave the Church but in time they came to see how this was the music to accompany Catholic worship. Father Bull pleaded for patience and open-mindedness in a letter addressed to the parishoners in May, 1911:

“I have written somewhat at length on this matter*, for I hope that those who have been accustomed to other forms of church music will yet appreciate the appeal which true Plain Song has to make. It seems wholly suited to the worship of a Religious Society, and if in this city, we may set forth a true rendering of it in St. John’s Church, we may be doing a service of real value to true Religion.”

Not only was the musical life of the parish going forward, however. The sanctuary of the Church was richly ornamented by the installation of a new altar and reredos, the arrival of which was announced in February, 1911. The painting placed in the center of the new altar-piece was the work and gift of Mr. Martin Mower of the Department of Fine Arts of Harvard University. It depicts Christ in glory “clothed with a garment down to the foot”. At our Lord’s right stands Saint John vested in cope and miter. He is looking up to Jesus interceding for divine blessing upon the people of the Church named in his honor, who have placed themselves under his patronage. On the left of Christ is Saint Mary Magdalene, the type of penitence, holding her pot of sweet-smelling ointment. Encircling our Lord are the nine-fold choirs of angels, and at His feet are worshipping angels, swinging censers. A writer in THE BOSTON HERALD once said:

“Not often does modern work of ecclesiastical painting so nearly approach to the great days of the Middle Ages in inspiration, richness, and the power to convince the observer.”

The ten statues of the reredos, carved in Oberammergau, gradually arrived and were put into their respective niches. As now arranged the subjects of the statues are as follows: On the epistle side of the altar are Saint Bernard and Saint George. Above them stand Saint Dominic and Saint Augustine, and on the top is Saint Margaret. On the gospel side are Saint Vincent and Saint Bruno. Above them stand Saint Gregory and Saint Vincent de Paul and on the top is Saint Anne. (For some unexplained reason the Sisters of Saint Margaret and the Sisters of Saint Anne have always sat on the reverse side of the Church from the statues of their respective patronesses.) Soon after the reredos was completed, oak panelling, designed by Harry Deane of the architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson, was erected on the wall at each side of the high altar, and the altar itself was lengthened making it more suitable for the offering of Solemn High Mass. The high altar and reredos were blessed on April 29th, 1911 by Bishop Edward Melville Parker, the Coadjutor of New Hampshire.

In THE MESSENGER for August, 1911, Father Bull announced that it would be necessary for him to absent himself, from Saint John’s for a time in order to attend the Chapter at Cowley. In asking all to pray for the Chapter’s guidance he explained:

“At the present moment our work on this Continent is especially engaging our attention.”

Once again, as seven years previously, there was thought of the relinquishment of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist on the part of the Society. A Mr. Walker from Vancouver, British Columbia, had offered a sum of money of such generous proportions that it Would have enabled the Cowley Fathers to establish themselves in that City. In view of this proposition Father Henry Lucius Moultrie Cary, then the Assistant Superior at Cowley, was sent out to interview Mr. Walker and the Bishop of New Westminster (A. U. DePencier), and to survey the terrain. He was accompanied by Father Field. It was the Father Superior General’s thought that should the Vancouver offer be accepted it would be necessary for the Society to withdraw from Boston. In a rather ungracious letter to Father Maxwell, dated September 28th, 1910, Bishop Lawrence, reversing the view expressed in a letter to Father Page in 1904, had stated that he felt the presence of a Society of the Church of England in America approached an intrusion. To counteract this, however, eight other Bishops, hearing rumors of the proposed move, had vigorously protested. The Bishop of New Westminster felt that 1911 was an inopportune time for the Society to enter his Diocese and several Fathers believed that relinquishing the work at Saint John’s would be a serious mistake. In view of all these considerations the Chapter unanimously declined the invitation from Vancouver and Father Bull, on his return from England was able to announce to the parishoners of Saint John’s:

“It is the happiest tidings which I bring back…The unanimous conclusion of the Chapter was that it would be wrong to interfere in any way with the American Province of the Society.”

So the Society’s life and work in our Country were once again preserved. The prayers of the faithful at Saint John’s had been answered.

Prompted, in part, no doubt, by the discussion which had centered about the life and work of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in America the Father Superior General, Father Maxwell, made a brief three-week visit to Saint John’s and the Mission House in October, 1912. Father Bull gathered parishoners and friends in the Schoolroom on Thursday evening, October 10th, in order that all might have an opportunity to meet him and, by way of preparation, wrote in THE MESSENGER for that month:

“Father Maxwell has visited India and South Africa, but this is his first visit to America. He will – we must take care that he will – want to come again, when he has to leave us.”

In addressing the Chapter at Cowley in July of 1913 Father Maxwell referred to his stay in Boston by saying:

“I had the happiness of paying my first visit to our Brethren in Boston last autumn … My first was of course full of interest to me and I hope that I have been able to see more clearly on what lines we ought to move forward than would otherwise perhaps have been possible.”

It was becoming increasingly clearer to the Superior General and other Fathers that it was necessary to grant autonomy to the American Province, and definite Chapter action ‘was being taken to that end.

At Christmas, 1913, an innovation was made in the form of an outdoor procession emanating from Saint John’s. We have referred earlier to successful outdoor processions tried from Saint Augustine’s Mission in 1886 and from Saint John’s in 1899 but this experiment was somewhat different in character. In describing it Father Bull wrote:

“We at S. John’s are a quiet folk. But this year we took courage, and with thurifer and crucifer sallied forth about 7:30 (p.m.) with our choir, and priests in copes, and went up the hil1 to the State House, the choir carrying little colored lamps. Six policemen took care of us, and cleared the way to a fine station under a roof of the State House, (Father Bull is doubtless referring to that point at which Mount Vernon Street passes under the State House building) which gave us a good sounding-board, and there we sang two Christmas hymns, and I said a few words to a large crowd of people, and automobiles, which found their passage blocked, about ‘God’s Christmas Gift of His Son’, and so we returned back to Church, with ‘The first Nowell'”.

By 1917 the outdoor Christmas Eve processions had been discontinued. Very likely they were “casualties” of World War 1.

The year in which the First World War began was one of marked significance for the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and the whole world. At a Special General Chapter held at Cowley on July 29th, 1914, the final action was taken which granted full autonomy to the American Province. That Province then proceeded to convene a Special Chapter in Boston on October 12th and elected Father Powell as the Provincial Superior. Thus he became, at the same time, Rector of Saint John’s. But before either Chapter had been assembled a teen-ager named Gavrio Prinzip had assassinated an archduke and almost overnight the world plunged into the maelstrom of war!

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