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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!

1 Comment

  1. […] risk offense) visit Part I. The rest of Father Maning’s story can be found in Part II and Part III. While the origin of the current Christ the King and its mid-century Modernism are summarized in […]

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