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Christ the King

Part 4 carries the story to the mid-20th century.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Fresh Air–Part 4 of Catholics in Agincourt and Vicinity

It’s not that we have more weather in this part of the country; nor is ours necessarily more dramatic (though we can certainly see it to better advantage). Perhaps Midwestern weather just seems to have more consequence, more import–some of it over life and death. It was an atmospheric event that had shaped the beginning of Catholicism in Agincourt. Now another storm helped set the next important phase in motion: construction of our third Catholic church, called Christ the King, in 1950.

In 1949 two remarkable American churches were under construction, both from designs by Francis Barry Byrne, Chicago architect connected with the early early practice of Frank Lloyd Wright–though I wonder if Byrne had tired by then of that association being made…again and again and again. He was surely one of the few progressive Catholic architects in those tumultuous years that led to Vatican II; a designer whose works anticipated the fresh air and vitality of post-Vatican II architecture by at least two decades.

Traveling by rail between his two current projects–St Francis Xavier in Kansas City and St Columba in St Paul–Byrne’s train diverted through Agincourt, avoiding a washout on the Des Moines River. The train paused here to refuel and wait out the storm; Byrne decided providentially to spend the night off the train. But the Blenheim Hotel was ful to capacity, so he called at the rectory to see about accommodations. As luck would have it, Rev Farber knew the architect by reputation, asked the housekeeper Mrs Breen to reheat some corned beef and cabbage, and threw open the guest quarters. They talked well past midnight and forged a friendship.

During an Irish pilgrimage just before the war, Fr Emil had seen Byrne’s remarkable Church of Christ the King at Cork, on the southwest coast of Ireland, at one of the ports for channel crossings. I saw it myself about forty years later and understand his admiration. The Cork church is a simple, expansive, column-free interior with light and acoustics for modern worship. The architect’s description of his two new projects in Missouri and Minnesota convinced Farber that an improved St Ahab was within reach. Our new Christ the King was born that night.

He’d never before been in Agincourt but the architect showed instinctive, intuitive understanding of the Founders’ intent: a civic core symbolizing nineteenth century ideals of body, mind and spirit. To Byrne’s enduring credit, the building we see today is identical with the prophetic sketch (on the back of a manila envelope from Wasserman’s Hardware, if you must know), a drawing that still exists in parish files, a fishy form that plays with notions of balance and symmetry.

Great architecture is always collaborative. So, Byrne often worked with sympathetic artists; he did at St Paul and Kansas City (Alfonso Iannelli in both cases) and did for us as well. Those planar concrete forms are enriched with stained glass from St Louis (by Fry & Harmon) and by Stations of the Cross fashioned by our own Karl Wasserman, legendary one-person art department at the college. [More about Karl another time.] Bishop Mueller consecrated Agincourt’s Christ the King in the summer of 1951, though the day clearly belonged to Emile Farber and Barry Byrne.

Byrne and Farber’s church just as clearly belongs on the National Register of Historic Places. Trust me on this. So, if Howard doesn’t follow through (jeez, he’s busy these days), I’m inclined to tackle the nomination myself.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#2)

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past: 1960

Looking back on the 60s, it’s hard to recall the optimism I felt as a young man looking into his own future. The U.S. was deep in the Cold War; we had spent much of the 50s deluding ourselves that it was possible to survive a Soviet nuclear attack; but the economy was robust as unemployment headed toward a decade low of four percent. I had a job at Cliff’s Garage, and high school was only a pain in the ass most of the time. For Christmas 1960, I had added two people to my short heartfelt gift list: Willie Simmons and his wife Lillian.

It’s not easy to wrap an umbrella and maintain an air of mystery about it; the antique teacup and saucer were less problematic. My sister Catherine solved the matter of delivery by driving in to Des Moines with friends the weekend before Christmas. So I hitched a ride and found my way to the Simmons’s small apartment near downtown, arriving unannounced on Saturday afternoon. A pleasant hour of tea and conversation ensued before I had to find Catherine for the drive home. It was a gentle day at the opening of a tumultuous decade.

Willie and Lill

William A. Simmons Jr. was about seventy-five when I met him at Cliff’s Garage, an odd addition to the usual suspects who occupied a bench on the building’s sunny south side. Late spring through mid-September, a constantly changing cast of characters populated that homemade bench. From 11-ish into the late afternoon, customers, friends and the local constabulary dropped in and out for gossip and access to the community coffee pot. Unless someone was on their way to a wedding, funeral or to church, the dress code was decidedly casual, which made Mr Simmons stand out all the more: he was a thin, delicate, meticulous man always in a conservative three-piece tweed business suit and fedora, regardless of the weather. Mr Simmons accorded me the honor of calling him Willie. But as someone sixty years his junior, that familiarity took a while to sink in.

Working for a brokerage firm in Des Moines, Willie’s clients were scattered across Iowa’s northwest quadrant, from Ames and Fort Dodge to Sioux City. Cliff Pherson was one of his small investors in the new market of mutual funds, which gave me the opportunity to eavesdrop on market strategies. One Saturday afternoon, Willie explained the rudiments of a free-market economy and managed, somehow, to make capitalism sound less like money-grubbing greed than I’d begun to suspect. Cliff let me read his copies of the Wall Street Journal. Then, in November of that year–1960–Mr Simmons helped me make my one and only investment in the stock market: one hundred common shares of the Boston & Maine Railroad. I turned a profit and doubled my college fund.

On hot afternoons, Willie would remove his suit coat, revealing suspenders typical of someone born in 1879. From Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, he came to the Midwest in the heady 1920s and somehow evaded the worst of the Market Crash and Great Depression; if he offered details for those years, I don’t recall them. He did provide an intimate glimpse just once, near-tearfully revealing the death of his first wife from cancer, which made my afternoon of tea and pleasantries with Mr and the second Mrs Simmons even more poignant.

Shortly after that impromptu Christmas visit, Willie retired from the business. I hope he had made at least a few shrewd investments along the way.

He’d certainly made one in me.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#1)

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past: 1959

The family decided this year to continue our quest for a more authentic Christmas–the one before Madison Avenue, product placement and Black Friday; the one illustrated by Messrs. Currier & Ives. I was anxious to find the holiday Alastair Sim and Jimmy Stewart had tried to show us: the Christmas concerned more with spirit than spending. So, for the past week, I’ve been visited about 3:00 each morning by several of my own ghosts of Christmases past.

Cliff’s Garage

I was a lanky kid, uncomfortable in a skin that never caught up with my frame; not tall, just boney. Then there was the question of family: as a member of a prominent one, poor kids thought I was rich, and rich kids thought I was cheap. My sister got all the personality genes, too, which left me well outside the usual social groups–until the summer before high school, that is, when I got a part-time job at Cliff’s Garage.

Mr Pherson operated a gas station and auto repair shop on South Broad. My dad Warren was a customer and preferred to have mechanical work done there, rather than at the dealership. The garage was small and smoky–but so was everywhere else in the 50s–and it served as a sort of demilitarized zone for puberty when so many other hangouts around town catered to one clique or another. I found acceptance there and gladly returned the favor.

Those who remember Cliff will recall he was open from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. six days a week and a half day on Sunday. He ran the place single-handedly, which may account for his wife taking off with a tobacco and novelty salesman some years before. He also ran the place single-leggedly (is that a word?), having lost one about the age of ten (I forget which leg). Missing digits, hands and arms are a common sight in farm towns like Agincourt, but Cliff gave his leg to a railroad train–catching a ride on a passing boxcar but losing his grip on a greasy rung.

Cliff didn’t have any kids of his own, which elevated the pubescent comfort level at the garage. More friend to us than parent, the gang that hung out there cut across boundaries of age, class and even gender. One day when he was under my dad’s car (a 1953 Buick), Cliff asked if I’d pump some gas into Mrs Schoenfeld’s Chevy, which must have been my audition, since I was soon taken on at a buck an hour. Years later, I learned that Warren had asked Cliff to keep and eye on me and make sure I didn’t start smoking like so many of my friends. I was grateful for the illusion of freedom then, and am equally grateful now for that secret oversight.

The winter of 1959 was early and wicked; soon we were up to our butts (and other anatomical appendages) in snow, with temps in the single digits both above and below zero. Cliff caught cold changing someone’s flat tire, and it soon developed into pneumonia by mid-December. His customers included rural folk with faith in home remedies, however, so I remember well when Trueman Hand stopped by one evening with some sheep-dung tea and the fixings for an herbal plaster. As cliff recuperated through Christmas Week, I ran the place from eight to four; then Jimmy Thurlow came in for the evening shift. I was only fourteen and probably breaking all sorts of laws, but it was the most adult thing I’d ever done as a scrawny unfocussed kid with little confidence. Cliff got better, and I’d become his employee, working part-time through high school and full-time for the year after that, before I went to college. Years later, when I came home to work at the Plantagenet, it was good to renew my friendship with Cliff and run into so many people I’d got to know through him and a host of new ones.

People die. Funerals are fairly common in large families like mine. But when Cliff died in 1980 at sixty-two, his funeral may have been the first I attended out of respect, rather than any sense of duty. Remembering him now, I look back fondly to that Christmas of 1959–the Christmas I grew up.

Merry Christmas, Reverend Manning

The ability to withhold information–to keep secrets–is a mark of our mental health; as is the good judgment to know when, where, how and with whom to share that information. Everything is circumstance. Some communities seem to reach a level of public intimacy, a state where everyone knows, despite the fact that no one talks. Agincourt may be such a place. Has Howard betrayed his community’s trust? If you run into him at the K2, I know he’ll appreciate a few kind words for the difficult choice he made to continue Saint Ahab’s story.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A Tabor

Everone knew! Part 3 of Catholics in Agincourt

Who knew? Everyone, apparently.

It was hardly accidental that a substantial patch of rhubarb appeared over Rev Manning’s grave. Discretion has always been a community asset hereabouts, and it seems to have been Martha Tennant (my great-grandmother and friend of Rev Manning) who chose the place and style of interment. There was a modest headstone–“Rev F. Manning 1833-1898”–but the years had sucked it below grade, out of sight, a few inches closer to the priest. Was Rev. Manning protecting her own anonymity? And the rhubarb was a choice as well. Every house of every member of our family has a patch, cuttings from the motherload at the home place. It seemed only appropriate for this extended family member to be accorded similar provision. Egyptian pharaohs prepared for an afterlife of luxury and comfort; we take rhubarb. But I digress.

No faith can be stronger than its foundation, and Rev Manning had laid it well. From a few fish and a ship’s mast she had built St Ahab’s, probably from her own design. She was, it turns out, from a coastal town on the Atlantic side of Ireland. So, if you visit the cemetery today and squint at the old church, there is something downright nautical about it, a misplaced vessel washed up on our shore and recycled like flotsam from the beach. It was apparently not in her nature or the nature of her people to waste time, resources or opportunity. She would be proud that we’ve carried on the tradition. Being green is hardly new.

Among her few personal possessions, Rev Manning left diaries, forty years of intimate observation on the human condition and her personal response in a half dozen pocket-sized handwritten journals. Parish registers are lists of facts, but these books reveal her heart and mind. With no blood relations at hand, this not inconsiderable “estate” was placed at the Fennimore County Historical Society, then in the protective care of Malcolm Holt, Hal Holt’s grandfather, with a fifty year seal on their use. It’s ironic that her body and her thoughts came to the surface almost simultaneously.

Several questions come immediately to mind. How did the Church permit a woman into the privileged rank of priest? One ought to ask, rather, how any organization can admit child molesters into its membership. Then there are questions regarding the legitimacy of her acts as priest. Did her baptisms truly mark the newborn soul as a Child of God? (Great-aunt Claire had a vested interest here!) Are those who received her Last Rights languishing somewhere else? Bunk and poppycock! Rev Manning witnessed for us and with us the rhythms of living and dying. She presided with our permission and active participation over a goodly part of this community’s spiritual landscape. From historical research and interviews with those far older and certainly wiser than myself, I have learned that we condoned–no, welcomed–her role among us, despite institutional prohibitions that would have stood in her way even today.

Inevitably we also ask “How could they not have known?” Wouldn’t Manning’s gender have been obvious to all with ears and eyes? Knowing occurs at several levels, and at one of those levels everyone knew but no one cared–which is to say that everyone cared but it didn’t matter. Cassocks and vestments can cover a great deal, while common sense secretes what would otherwise only muddy the waters.

After medical probing and legal machinations, what become of Rev Manning? A measured procession from our hospital, Luke the Physician, to the cemetery; a hugely attended and very public reburial beneath the church she had built; a joyous acknowledgment that everyone matters and ought to find their right place in the sun (or shade, as preference dictates). And the new church whose construction had brought her story to light and life? Ichthys, the fish, has long been a Christian symbol, and Rev Manning must be pleased that the church at Agincourt begun with a fish is now shaped like one.

Happy Christmas to us all!

Don’t ask; don’t tell?

As Lutherans bail from the ELCA and traditionalist Catholic followers of Cardinal Lefevre continue to repudiate Vatican II reforms, Thomas Jefferson must feel a certain satisfaction: ultimately we each become the sole member of a sect of one. Howard’s spirituality–anchored in the Episcopal church–is probably a bit more orthodox than my own. But clearly he has issues, seen here in the further story of Saint Ahab’s church and its founding priest Fr Francis Manning.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Who knew? Part 2 of Catholics in Agincourt

Excavations for the new Church of Christ the King began in the spring of 1950, with the bishop in attendance and enough ritual to make us believe it was Pius himself. I was five years old and remember the incense burning my eyes. The digging went smoothly for the first week, until a tractor nicked something wooden about eight feet down, near the southeast corner of the old chancel, the altar end of the second building that served the Catholics of Agincourt. With Father Emil at hand, the community held its breath while handwork revealed a casket–evidence of a burial no one quite recalled.

To an audience of law enforcement and medical personnel (the county coroner was fishing in Minnesota, so Dr Fahnstock stood in), before priests and nuns, the press and the merely curious, a rotted casket and its contents surfaced over the weekend and made their way to the hospital for forensic examination. Shades of C.S.I.! Father Emil and Doc Fahnstock coordinated their efforts and drew one discomfiting conclusion: parish registers had noted the burial fifty-two years earlier of Rev Francis Manning, missionary priest who had built St Ahab’s (the former parish name) in the 1860s. That his unmarked gravesite yielded a healthy annual crop of rhubarb but had otherwise slipped from public consciousness proved more than a small embarrassment. That would have been troubling enough, but Doc Fahnstock compounded the mystery by cautiously revealing (as a matter of law and public record) that Rev Manning had been a woman!

My great-aunt Claire (Mrs John Michael Oliphant) was living then and took the matter very much to heart. She had been born in 1897 and may have been the last child baptized by Fr Frank before the priest’s death and ignoble burial the following year (the Episcopal church being priestless at the time and our family prematurely ecumenical). Aunt Claire set about getting to the truth–what and however disconcerting it might become. Lengthy correspondence proved one thing: diocesan records were as impenetrable then as they have been shown in recent church sex scandals. Eventually–from public resources and the old priest’s distant relatives in Pennsylvania–she pieced together a remarkable story that needs fuller telling than I can give here; a story more redolent of truth, sacrifice and nobility than the incense-laden ceremonies that brought it to light.

Reverend Francis Manning had been born in Ireland in 1833 as Frances Manning, eldest child of a family driven to America by the Potato Famine of the late 1840s. A two week Atlantic crossing by seven parentless siblings allowed Frances to become Francis (through a strategic grease spot on her transport documents), and relatives in the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania knew no better. So, when young “Frank” expressed a calling to the priesthood while the Church was hungry for clerics, no questions seem to have been asked–perhaps because no answers were wanted. Reverend Manning attained the priesthood in 1858 and accepted a call to the West, to Agincourt and a career that touched hundreds, if not thousands. Many Catholics today–men and women alike–will hear her story with longing.

Since Reverend Manning was a neighbor and close friend of my great-grandmother Martha Tennant, our family is perhaps the one that should set her record straight.

Part 3 will tie up several loose ends and make a nice Christmas Eve tale.

Why do so many Jews hate Norman Finkelstein?

Norman Finkelstein, a professor-emeritus of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, has written several books related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. My first encounter with him was a book first published in 2000 titled The Holocaust Industry, now in a second edition with significant new material on the resolution of Jewish claims upon Swiss Banks. I’ve just begun my second reading of the new edition and want to recommend it to you for the uncomfortable but important issues that it raises.

Finkelstein begins with an important distinction in terminology: “The Holocaust,” he maintains, is an ideological construct quite different from the Nazi holocaust (without the capital “H”). The latter is an historical event of admitted horrific dimension, while the former is a perspective developed during the 1960s that has been employed in less than ethical ways as cultural leverage for current events having little to do with what transpired in Nazi Germany. To invoke Finkelstein is to raise a lightening rod in the ongoing culture wars of the 21st century.

A great deal of his text is directly and indirectly concerned with the manipulation of language–not unlike the verbal sparing of candidates in our most recent election, with the hurling of labels back and forth; highly symbollic language, culturally loaded words used to demonize rather than define. [It is, for example, impossible for someone to be both a Nazi and a Socialist. To be one is to deny the other.] I can’t hope, here, to do more than draw attention to Prof Finkelstein’s drama-free discussion of a defining era in Western civilization. Suffice to say that much of his evidence does not reflect well on key figures in what he calls “the Holocaust Industry.”

I have not visited either of the two largest museums devoted to the Nazi holocaust (in Washington, DC, and Berlin, Germany), but I have followed some reporting of their exibits and interpretive programming with much interest. It would seem that neither museum is completely comfortable with the range of holocaust victims–Jews as well as Christians of every flavor; atheists, intellectuals; the old, infirm and physically disabled; the retarded and otherwise mentally disadvantaged; Romany (gypsies) and Slavs; and, of course, homosexuals; in short, anyone beneath or outside the Aryan ideal. After my recent re-reading of The Holocaust Industry, I’m anxious to visit these museums and test their treatment of a contentious past.

The are, of course, those strange bedfellows at the other end of the Nazi holocaust spectrum. Neo-Nazis here in the United States and their emboldened brethren (and sisteren) even in Germany itself contend that the Nazi holocaust did not happen; that only a handful of people died at the hands of the Nazis; that photographic documentation has been politically manufactured. These holocaust deniers may find it uncomfortable to be linked with someone such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current president of Iran, who also alleges that reportage of Nazi atrocities is grossly exaggerated. I count such ideologues as lunatics, fools or political manupulators of the vilest order.

What does interest me here today is the appropriation of language for ideological ends. We all do it to some extent, I suppose, pinning avatars like “Hitler” and “Stalin” on our supposed enemies. The word that I am trying to purge from my vocabulary is “anti-semitic.”

It turns out that the word “anti-semitic” was coined as recently as 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German who blamed many of his country’s problems on the presence of Jews and their presumed roles in banking and industry. Marr would be surprised today that his label has become a banner held aloft by some of the very people he intended to deride. As an amateur and sometime student of linguistics, however, I also know there is a group of Semitic languages, which just happens to include both Hebrew and Arabic. So the term is imprecise or ambiguous at best. Etymologically, it would seem to apply to all Semites: Hebrews, Arabs and a host of other ethnic groups in the Mid-East and across northern Africa, the majority of whom are not Jewish. It’s surprising to find so many websites attempting to disamiguate the term and track down both it origins and, more importantly, its abusers.

Words can be weapons, especially in our higly charged media wars that pit my talking head against your talking head. It’s unfortunate that a few strategic words can be manipulated to carry meaning we may not intend.

In hoc signo vinces

Early in the project, my friend Howard wrote a series of articles on the history of Catholics in Fennimore county from the earliest non-Native settlement up to about 1950. Given the last couple entries devoted to Saint Ahab, I thought you might find some interest in the founding of his parish.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Saint Miscellaneous

“History isn’t what happened. History is what a few people thought was important.” According to Idries Shah, that is. And so it may be with the history of Catholics in Fennimore county.

The orthodox history of Catholicism in these parts reads fairly straightforwardly. The arrival of believers and establishment of a parish, the coming and going of priests and nuns, the construction of buildings for worship and religious education, the burning of mortgages, celebrations of life and death among the faithful. In the movie version, Barry Sullivan would have played someone; now it ought to be Johnny Depp. If Idries Shah is right and history is what a few people thought was important enough to record–a simple list of events in chronological order–I’d rather be one of the many.

During the 1850s Catholics arrived in dribs and drabs, mostly Germans, a handful of Irish, some French, one Hungarian family. And there was also missionary work among the Sac and Fox people. This was not the stuff of cohesive parish life. St. Miscellaneous would have been a good choice for the parish dedication. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mass was said often, to small groups, in borrowed quarters.

The Missionary Board sent a priest named Manning to make sense of it all. Father Frank performed yeoman’s service during those formative years, a virtual circuit rider among his scattered flock. But the problem (other than insufficient time and money) was cohesion: how to bridge all this diversity and build a single self-sustaining parish. Achieving community ain’t easy. Agincourt was the logical place to build and weather apparently provided the inspiration. Too often the genuinely religious are inclined to ignore proportionality and make too much of the miniscule; wars have been fought over the direction that you genuflect (left to right; right to left). In our case a major atmospheric event offered the impetus to build.

There are those storms that rain something besides water. Hail is fairly common; fish are not. In the summer of 1862, a large storm passed southeast of Agincourt, dropping frozen fish–species unidentified–on the Schütz farm. Waterspouts are known to suck fish from lakes and oceans, carrying them hundreds of miles overland and raining where they’re least expected. There is a clipping from the Plantagenet of April 8th recording the event. It was a cause of wonder and may have been interpreted as “a sign” during those months when Civil War activity was so close in neighboring Missouri. What the newspapers failed to report was the heavenly arrival of a ship’s mast, taken by that same waterspout and deposited in Hermann Schütz’s freshly plowed field! This was clearly a sign: In hoc signo vinces. It couldn’t have been any clearer to Constantine.

At Mass soon afterward one of the Schütz brood (there were seven then and ultimately seven more) must have let the family secret slip, because Fr Frank asked to see this Gift from God, this Heavenly Harpoon. In an instant, his fertile mind saw it as the first timber of a new church and a symbol to weave the fabric of parish life around. Within months financial support had come from friends and relatives in the East and the project was afoot.

It would have been superficial to incorporate a ship’s mast as the cross on a bell tower. Fr Frank scoured his own small library and then wrote his seminary for clues to what must be its deeper meaning. The result was the choice of Saint Ahab (whose hagiography has eluded most texts and whose name rarely, if ever, appears in the regular church Kalendar) as our parish name. Unassuming in every way–except for its mast–the building dedicated in September 1862 served Fennimore’s Catholics for more than fifty years. Moved twice, it became a chapel for the concentration of Dutch as Grou and then came again back to Agincourt, where it still serves the cemetery on the east edge of town.

But the story is hardly over. Construction of Christ the King in 1950 revealed signs of a burial on the church lot. Somehow we had mislaid our faithful Fr Manning, asleep in Christ beside his former church. The secret of his rich and moving story will keep awhile longer. As will the tale of how that marvel of modernity, our own Christ the King, came to be among us.

There are three more installments that will bring the story to the 1950s and the construction of that wonderful building designed by Chicago architect Barry Byrne–as channelled through my friend Richard Kenyon (alias Crazy Richard) who many of you have met. I hope you’ll enjoy the story’s twists and turns.