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.