Snowed in, more or less, for the New Year weekend has been a chance to do some (re)reading. Paul LaFarge’s last book The Facts of Winter winked at me from across the room last night and I was glad to respond. Winston Churchill’s characterization of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” also describes LaFarge’s three novels: multilayered encounters with stories inside stories, fiction within fiction. Three works are not enough. I want more.
I also wonder what he reads.
Worlds in Little
Writing the short history of St Ahab’s parish opened a world: The first church building would, of needs, be replaced with something larger, each of them a cloudy vision in my head. But replacing the second church–probably a non-descript Gothic Revival effort of the early 1880s–became the opportunity to channel the imagined talents of Francis Barry Byrne (a real but deceased architect) and the real ones of Richard Kenyon (alias Crazy Richard, a sometimes unreal but very much alive friend from Connecticut). Other characters so far added to the mix: Ahab, saint and martyr; Frances/Francis Manning, priest; Doc Fahnstock, physician; Bp What’s-his-name, a real guy; Mrs Breen, housekeeper; Frei & Harmon, actual designers of some awesome stained glass windows, possibly some of our best in the 1940s and 50s; Emil (sometimes Emile) Farber, another priest; and Karl Wasserman, an artist. Which brings me to today’s topic: Stations of the Cross.
Architect Barry Byrne often worked with others. His church at Pierre (Sts Peter and Paul) has windows by Frei & Harmon; his churches at Tulsa, Kansas City and St Paul each have elements by Alfonso Iannelli, who worked in a boggling variety of media. I thought it would be cool to invoke some creativity from Agincourt itself. Enter Karl Wasserman, youngest offspring of Franz and Edith Wasserman, owners of Agincourt’s largest hardware store and early clients of the legendary Anson Tennant. Karl–sole member of the art faculty at Northwest Iowa Normal–would design Stations of the Cross for the new church of Christ the King. But, of course, there had to be a kink. So somewhere on a misplaced jump drive is the story of Father Farber’s fall from the roof of St Ahab #2, a fall that caused Farber’s sight to fail.
If I had a nickel for every American church that has had to retrofit for accessibility, retirement would not be a question. Older churches have necessarily had to endure the expense of accommodating their aging congregations. But when is the last time you saw a clergy member who was disabled in any way? Blind, deaf, physically limited–fuggedaboudit. It’s one of the many hypocrisies of organized religion.
I imagined the stoic Farber and his accomplice Mrs Breen concealing his deteriorating eyesight. And that his parishioners would have become complicit, realizing that an old, comfortable, blind priest was preferable to an eager-beaver, sighted one. How long could they carry on the deception?
Farber’s condition also put an interesting condition on the commission for Stations of the Cross. I’ve seen many sets of Stations–literal and abstract, schlock and sublime, but all of them exclusively visual. Could I imagine Stations in braille? And what’s more, do I have the chutzpah to craft them for the next Agincourt exhibit? Time will tell.
The life of St Ahab, short as it is, has begotten other stories, engaged other minds, involved other skills, afforded new challenges. I’m grateful.