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

Frederick Cecil Powell, S.S.J.E.Frederick Cecil Powell, S.S.J.E.
1914-1924

FREDERICK CECIL POWELL was born in the little fishing village of Fleet in Lincolnshire, England, where his father was serving as curate. His father being unable to finance him through university young Frederick Cecil studied civil engineering in Boston, Lincolnshire, for a brief interval but since that work did not agree with his health he set sail for Canada where he passed three years engaged, in various types of manual labor. His vocation to the priesthood finally crystalized and after preparation for holy orders at Trinity College, Toronto, the young Englishman was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop J. T. Lewis of Ontario in 1890. Father Powell then served for four years as curate under Canon Burke at Saint Thomas’ Church, Belleville, Ontario.

Writing to Father Page from Boston on September 30th, 1892, Father Benson said:

“I have to leave on Saturday night for Belleville, Ontario, in order to conduct a Retreat for Clergy, and a Quiet Day for the Parish next week.”

So it was that the path of Richard Meux Benson crossed that of Frederick Cecil Powell. It was the first time in his life that Father Powell had ever seen a Cowley Father and he was profoundly impressed. He made his first confession to Father Benson and discussed vocation to the Religious Life. The result of this was that in 1894 Father Powell returned to England to test his vocation at Cowley and was finally Professed in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in January, 1898. Following a brief period of missionary work in South Africa he was sent to Boston in 1900, while Father Osborne was Provincial Superior, and served at the Church of Saint John the Evangelist until his death in 1938.

When Father Powell became Rector of Saint John’s on October 12th, 1914, people’s thoughts were full of the terrible conflict in Europe. In the very first issue of THE MESSENGER following Father Powell’s installation we read:

“Europe begins to look less like an armed camp and more like a graveyard and a collection of hospitals. The whole heart grows sick and the whole head faint as we consider the horrifying spectacle and overwhelming tragedy. We can only go on shelling our pod of ‘Ps’. Pray. Pray. Pray. Intercession, for those engaged in war and for peace with honour as well as liberty, will be made in S. John’s Church each Saturday afternoon after Evensong.”

But prayer was not the sole war activity of the parishoners of Saint John’s. The women of the congregation, both before and after America’s entry into the conflict, worked for Saint John’s Ambulance Association of England and for the Red Cross, meeting first in the home of Mrs. Ralph Adams Cram and later in the basement of the Church. Each month a large case of goods, including surgical dressings, clothing, and toys for children, were dispatched to the Duchess of Bedford, the head of the Saint John’s Ambulance Association, and financial assistance was sent for those in need abroad.

In order to bring a little brightness into a war-darkened world Father Powell conceived the idea of bringing more color into the interior of Saint John’s through stained glass and painted statuary. In order to add color to the dull yellow of the windows Father Powell called upon Mr. Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, an outstanding ecclesiologist and expert in the field of heraldry, to produce a series of medallions containing the emblems of saints. Father Powell believed, as the War continued, that members of Saint John’s might care to give these medallions as memorials for those of their families who had paid the supreme sacrifice in the War, or as thanksgivings for those who had safely returned to their homes and loved ones.

This plan was begun in 1918 with the gift of the shields of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew which were placed in the second window from the east end of the Church on the gospel side of the building. In the other two windows on the gospel side as one moves towards the rear were, in time, placed the shields of Saint James, Saint John, Saint Phillip, and Saint Bartholomew. On the epistle side of the church, beginning from the rear of the building the shields are those of Saint Thomas, Saint Matthew, Saint James the Less, Saint Jude (Lebbaeus Thaddaeus), Saint Simon, and Saint Matthias. The order of the apostles’ shields, with the exception of that of Saint Matthias, follows the list contained in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapter 10, Verses 2 through 4. Beneath the shields of the apostles are smaller ones of several other saints. The work of executing the designs was entrusted to Mr. Charles J. Connick of the Connick Associates of Boston whose work in colored glass won him great distinction. Although these examples of Mr. Connick’s craftsmanship are very simple, it would be difficult to overpraise their charm of treatment, especially in the crucial matter of leading, which has been handled with the freedom and effectiveness of the best thirteenth-century craftsmen. The removal of the organ to the gallery in 1930 concealed the large west window and the shields which had originally been placed there were transferred to the window in what is now the Lady Chapel. The entire project was not completed and dedicated until 1944.

The other scheme for adding color to the interior was the painting of the statues on the reredos and on the rood. The statues, which originally were put into place uncolored, were taken down, carried to the Mission House library, and there, under the direction of Mr. Harry Deane who had designed the panelling in the sanctuary, were painted by acolytes, choir-men, ‘and some of the younger Fathers, including Father Williams. Dr. Titcomb himself painted Saint George and the dragon, and thought the colors used on all the statues garish. However four decades of Boston soot and dust and the smoke of incense have toned them down. Father Williams records that the figure of our Lord on the Rood Cross, and those of Saint Mary and Saint John were not only painted at this time but that halos were likewise added. Concerning the halos he states:

“They were made of wrought iron, gilded, and fastened by spikes driven into the back of the heads of the images! (This all must have taken place about 1919 or 1920.)”

During World War I thought was given not only to the Church building itself but also to adjoining property belonging to the Society. THE MESSENGER for July, 1915, announced that #46 Temple Street had been put up for sale and strongly recommended its purchase by Saint John’s. The notice stated:

“In view of the fact that it is part of the house at present lived in by the Sisters of St. Anne, and so closely adjoining the Church, it seems necessary that we shall possess it. If we do not buy it, there can be no doubt that some one will quickly purchase it, pull it down to the great detriment of No. 44, and possibly erect an obnoxious tenement house on the site, thereby preventing us from ever being able in the future to build a parish house or enlarge the Church, if it should be thought desirable to do so.”

In an earlier chapter of this booklet we mentioned the fact that #44 Temple Street served as the Fathers’ residence from 1883 to 1899. It was then rented to a certain Mrs. Laverte who ran a rooming house and who, on vacating the house in 1910, left it in a disreputable condition. Certain women set about to paint and paper the house in September, 1911, and in December it was set apart as Saint Anne’s House. On March 12th of the following year these women were clothed as novices in the Order of Saint Anne, which Father Powell had founded in 1910, and which had first established itself in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts. These four women – Sister Louise, Sister Florence, Sister Alice, and Sister Jessie, now resided at #44 and in time others were added to their numbers. The Sisters on Temple Street served in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist for forty long years. By their close contact with many families in the West End and elsewhere, their work in the Sunday School and other Church organizations, and their care for the altars of the Church, they performed a notable labor of love. It was regrettable that the condemning of #44 and #46 by Boston’s building inspectors in 1952, necessitated the demolition of the houses in 1953, the Sisters’ removal from Boston to Cambridge, and the termination of their work in the parish. The clergy and parishoners of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist will ever hold the Order of Saint Anne in grateful remembrance for its faithful ministry in the old Mission Church.

Meanwhile the War years marked further liturgical developments in Saint John’s. Tenebrae was sung for the first time in 1916. (Tenebrae consists of the Offices of Matins and Lauds appointed for the last three days of Holy Week. Modern liturgical changes in the Roman Catholic Church direct that these Offices now be recited in the morning rather than the previous evening, but the older custom of singing the- Offices on the preceding evening is still continued at Saint John’s.) A reporter of THE BOSTON AMERICAN who learned of the introduction of Tenebrae at St. John’s in 1916 wrote:

“This innovation has produced a murmur among many well known ministers of the denomination who think that the ritualism in the Church of St. John the Evangelist is going beyond rubrics and canons and Bishop Lawrence should interfere.”

Dr. Titcomb recalls how originally it was no easy task to train the small choir of men and boys to learn the many antiphons, psalms, responsories, and canticles of Tenebrae. But in the course of forty-two years the rendition of the Office has developed in an impressive manner. The Fathers and Brothers from the Monastery of Saint Mary and Saint John in Cambridge now sing the psalms and lessons from the sanctuary and the members of the Schola Cantorum sing the responsoria from the choir gallery. It may be doubted if the latter were ever rendered with- more beauty and devotional feeling than on Good Friday night, April 4th, 1958!

Father Bull sang Tenebrae in Holy Week of 1916. It was the first and last time that he was to do so in Saint John’s for he had recently been elected the Father Superior General by the brethren at Cowley. His predecessor, Father Maxwell, had died suddenly on December 4th, 1915, and the Fathers in England considered Father Bull the one best able to direct the life and work of the Society. In THE MESSENGER for April, 1916, we read:

“It is a painful honour that has come to us in the Church of S. John the Evangelist, Boston, in this election of Father Bull. We appreciate the honour paid to him, and through him to us; . . . With hearts full of love and gratitude, we thank him for all he has done for our Society and for the American Church, we thank God for lending him to us for six years, and we wish him God’s blessing upon his new work.”

Father Bull left Saint John’s soon after Easter (April 23rd) and was installed as the fourth Superior General of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist at Cowley on May 12th, 1916.

While constant changes in clergy personnel were taking place at Saint John’s, the old building itself was undergoing various types of alterations and improvements. In 1915 the ancient gas fixtures were
replaced by electricity. The new electrical fixtures, designed by Mr. Harry Deane, were made of wrought-iron, the lamps covered with pierced iron shades. Dr. Titcomb records:

“There were many complaints because they did not give more light, so the shades were removed and ground-glass globes substituted.”

In December, 1915, the old hot air furnaces gave out and steam heat was installed. In the summer of 1916 the Church was cleaned and painted, and made

“as bright and beautiful as such a building will ever permit”.

Let it not be imagined, however, that the story of Saint John’s during the decade in which Father Powell served as its Rector is merely a chronicle of improvements in the material fabric of the building or of events overshadowed by the spectre of a world-wide conflict. It is above all a story about people for Father Powell was a pastor Par excellence, a lover of souls, no matter what their age or station. Ever available as a confessor and counsellor people flocked to him for spiritual direction. His correspondence was voluminous. His preaching, though never very profound in content, stirred many by its simplicity of style. Father Powell was devoted to children and, in consequence, one of the primary objects of the Order of Saint Anne which he founded is the care and education of children. Two activities at the Church of Saint -John the Evangelist may serve, respectively, to symbolize Father Powell’s interest in adults and children – the Thursday Evenings in the Schoolroom, and the Saturday Afternoons in the Church,

It was Father Grafton who began the Thursday Evenings in the Schoolroom when he was Rector of the Church of the Advent, but Father Powell definitely popularized them and they have never been the same since his death. In Father Grafton’s time the evening program began at 7:30 and consisted of an instruction, refreshments, and devo- ions, Under Father Powell parishoners and friends and Sisters of Saint Anne gathered in the Schoolroom each week at 7:45 p.m. for a hymn, intercessions, and an instruction. Father Powell often read letters. As he prepared to share a bit of correspondence with his hearers Father Powell would place his right hand inside his cassock and announce,

“I have a letter!”

On some evenings there was a half-hour of general conversation but the program invariably closed with a visit to the Blessed Sacrament upstairs in the Church at 9 o’clock. Year in and year out the Thursday Evenings were joyfully followed by many. Concerning them we read in THE MESSENGER for May, 1918:

“Talk about happiness! Can you discover anything that brings -more happiness than this old-fashioned love-feast, when Christians get together in groups and talk of their Christian experiences, their prayer life, the riches of love in Christ Jesus? . . . We would not gain in happiness, to say nothing of spirituality, if we were ever tempted to barter away this agape of ours.”

Though children were not barred on Thursday nights their weekly highspot came at 4 p.m. on Saturday when up in the Church “Father” would say the rosary with them and tell a Bible story in his own inimitable style. Eyes would open widely and mouths would gape in awe as they heard of the ancient plagues and pictured frogs all over the pianos and ice-boxes of the Egyptians. Father Powell, in explanation of his method once said:

“Our Lord was always telling people stories of the every day life they knew, told with homely and amusing incidents that everybody recognized from his own experience.”

Father Powell knew intimately the West End homes from which the children came and with that knowledge as a background he opened to them the Scriptures in a manner they would never forget. Children liked to be with Father Powell, not only because a piece of candy often “happened to be” in his pocket, but because in Sunday School and at the annual Christmas parties, or wherever they met he was one of them enjoying the experience with them and, at the same time, revealing to them the treasures of the Catholic Faith.

The heavy load which Father Powell carried as Rector of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (which in 1920 became an autonomous American Congregation), and Founder of the Order of Saint Anne, in time took its toll. In 1924 he developed a serious heart condition and it was obvious that he would have to be relieved of some of the burden. On January 21st, 1924, the Fathers, meeting in Chapter, released him from the great responsibility of the role of Father Superior and elected

Father Burton in his stead. It was an act of charity and Father Powell was thus spared for fourteen more fruitful years during which he served at Saint John’s as “Rector Emeritus” and forwarded the life and good works of the great Sisterhood he had founded.

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