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Father Dowd

My father Roy, the life-long agnostic, kept religion at more than arm’s length. I have no recollection of attending church before my parents’ divorce—I was eight years old—and after that life-changing event, my spiritual wellbeing seems to have been assumed by our neighbors the Millers; their daughter Andrea was my age and a frequent playmate. From age eight through junior high, I attended the Congregational church in Argo, Illinois. [Yes, if you’ve used Argo Corn Starch, you know where I come from.]

By age twelve, I was a regular at Sunday School but never very good at exercises like “Pin-the-tail on the Bible Verse” or staying focused on the sermon (i.e., staying awake during the lecture). The only observation I recall from my father, who stayed home—it says volumes that I still cannot call him “dad”—was his characterization of all clergy as “sky pilots”!

I should also tell you that my father, the life-long agnostic, was baptized as a Roman Catholic three days before he died.

When my time comes as it inevitably will, will I want more life? Will I seek a stay of execution? A recalibration of my expiration date? Will I hope that the loss of this life be compensated by reunion with those who’ve gone before? Will I suddenly subscribe to belief that an essence can be “recycled” into a new existence? Will I become my father?

When that time comes, will any of you hold my hand?

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Father Dowd

In his short book Letter to a Christian Nation, author Sam Harris says there are no Christian children; we are simply children who have been raised by Christians. The same, he says, is true for the children of Islam or the children of the Buddha or Abraham. It would seem that I am the spirit child of Chilton Fanning Dowd.

The Tennant Memorial Gallery’s most recent acquisition is a portrait of Reverend Chilton Fanning Dowd, rector at Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter from the late 20s through about 1950. Father Dowd had baptized me and was a spiritual guide beyond his tenure at St. Joe’s until I was about twelve. If our personalities are set by the age of three or four, the sense of our place in the cosmos must follow soon after. Mom and Dad entrusted mine to Father Dowd.



I hadn’t thought of Father Dowd until two weeks ago when his portrait, an unsigned work that may be of local origin, was found in the rectory at Saint Joe’s. Someone must have disliked either the painting or the priest, because it had been hidden behind a faded print of Holman Hunt’s “The light of the world.” Dowd had an aversion to cameras, too, so when the portrait turned up, no one recognized him and a general call went out for help.

Google.books reveals the outline of Reverend Dowd’s clerical life. Born at Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1888, Dowd attended Nashotah Theological Seminary near Delafield. Nashotah is the “high church” training ground, infused with Anglo-Catholic notions of ritual, whose graduates often outdo the Pope in pageantry. After an initial assignment at Tomahawk, Wisconsin, Dowd had found a home in the Diocese of Fond du Lac, a notorious haven for popery, before venturing out-of-state to Iowa. He arrived in Agincourt at Thanksgiving 1928 and saw us through the Great Depression and World War II—hard times when the Will of God was less than obvious.

Dowd married while he was here; to a niece of Franz Wasserman, another refugee from the rise of Fascist power in Austria. I didn’t know Ilsa Dowd, who died in 1948, but she was a friend of my mother, who claims Mrs D may have been the artist of this painting.

My recollection of Father Dowd is that of a child; he was old, but everyone is old when you’re ten. I knew him as a Sunday School teacher during his retirement: kindly eyes that reassured; a gentle tenor voice paper-thin with age. His services—when the new priest was away or ill—were sumptuous and elegant, chanted and sung, dramatic without theatricality. He conducted our congregation, rather than led it.

My spiritual queries were always met with other questions; in that regard he acted more like a Unitarian than an Anglo-Catholic. I recall asking once if God were a man or a woman and he replied that good parenting knew no gender. “Could Jesus have been a girl?” I wondered, shocking some in the Sunday School class, I suppose. Perhaps two thousand years ago, Jesus had to be a boy. “But today,” he wondered aloud, “I’m not so sure.” Heresy? Probably, but in 1950s America these were the quaint musings of a gentle old man.

I was fourteen when he died and I wondered if all our skin becomes parchment like his. Looking down now at my hands on this keyboard, the answer is a qualified localized yes.

There’s something about this portrait: the kindly eyes, the imperfect nose. It isn’t really clear to me that this is even the image of a cleric. That could simply be a 50s sweater vest and a collar-less shirt, but I want him to have been a priest. So let the process of conversion begin.

You’re looking at a scan of the painting as I acquired it. But Mr Rutter, my capable guide in the realm of art, believes I can “fix” some of its less successful features. Like that bilious green! And the non-committal clothes. The background—other than being hideous—could be rich with context: the 40s wallpaper of his study, the woody interior of St. Joe’s, or the garden he loved to tend long after retirement. I haven’t decided yet how to improve it. There is, of course, the question of my ability to improve it. So stay tuned. And pray, if it’s in your nature.


Theology 101

“They hate everything you stand for and will never coexist with you, unless you submit.”

Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley made this observation during a course about Islam at the Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Virginia. But this comment made by a Christian with regard to Islam might as easily have been uttered by an extreme adherent of Islam concerning Christians. Lt Col. Dooley is still in the U.S. military, though he no longer teaches this course and has declined comment on his removal from the teaching staff.

Several questions come to mind: First, in an hierarchical system like the U.S. military, where nothing is done without approval from a higher command, how was Dooley able to develop a syllabus with such strong ideological content? A likely answer to that question then suggests a predisposition among some in the military to confuse ideology and religion—a dangerous tendency in these perilous partisan times. But ultimately, I’m inclined to wonder what aspect of extremity inhibits ideologues of either stripe from percieving so little difference between themselves and the targets of their own rhetoric.

“They hate everything you stand for and will never coexist with you, unless you submit” could have been words from the ayatollah Khomeini or the ayatollah Pat Robertson. In fact, I’ve heard Robertson and Khomeini say substantially the same thing about one another.

Mr g

I’ve just finished a first reading of Mr g, a short novel by MIT physicist-humanist Alan Lightman in which the Supreme Being offers a first-person narrative of Creation. Lightman’s luminous reading of Genesis as a physicist has reignited my quest for spiritual life. And a hasty review of the various creation myths of my experience brings me to the simplest and most satisfying among them: Gnosticism. If you have another to offer, let me know.

My friend Howard Tabor, writer for The Daily Plantagenet, is an unapologetic unrepentant Christian of the Liberal persuasion rapidly declining in numbers. He was born into the Anglican tradition and has remained true to the pleasant perspectives of Sunday School in the 50s—and he’s comfortable, there. I, on the other hand, am not.

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, author Sam Harris claims there are no Christian children (or Muslim children or Jewish children or Hindu children, etc.); that there are, rather, the children of Christian parents (or Muslim parents or Jewish parents or Hindu parents, etc.). Whatever the hell happened to me is a mysterious exception to Harris’ observation. The hybridity of my family’s situation—Roman Catholic grandmother, Congregationalist mother, Atheist grandfather, Agnostic-turned-Cathollic-three-days-before-his-death father) was doomed, I suppose, to propel me into the marketplace of religious experience. Peer pressure took a slight but mercifully short-lived toll. And small-c catholic reading habits only exacerbated the situation. At best today I am a full blown Gnostic and hardly reticent to make that claim.


So, as the story of religiosity in Agincourt unfolds, as it probably will during this election season, I shall try to be “fair and balanced,” though extremists like Lt. Col. Dooley will just as hardly fail to accept that claim.

Benjamin Franklin Cooley

Don’t google Benjamin Franklin Cooley. You’ll get too many hits and none of them will be the right guy.

Our B. F. Cooley was born at Granville, Massachusetts in 1835 and died seventy-eight years later not too far from there, also in the western part of that state. Cooley plays prominently in my long-term research into the history of Dakota Territory, having been the rector at Christ Church, the original Episcopal congregation in Fargo. In fact, he’s the genesis of my project. Father Cooley arrived in 1881 and left ignominously in November 1885, the scent of tar wafting on the wind.

BFC was a clerical type present in all denominations: burning with zeal, they arrive at their new assignment, organize a functioning parish from sticks, stones and bailing wire, and then depart, ejected for having offended someone in the community—usually an unidentified individual in an unspecified way. Cooley was that sort of priest. It is fair to say that he was used and abused from Maine to Dakota and back again and more than a dozen points between.

Cooley was of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion. That is, he saw the Episcopal branch of the Anglican church as another variety of Catholicism. There was, in his mind and the minds of similar “high church” Episcopalians, the Roman Catholic church and its sister the Anglo-Catholic. In other words, one could be Catholic without a pope. I need not point out that not all Episcopalians were cut from that bolt of cloth, nor are many of them even today.

During a fifty-plus year career, Cooley had to fill in many a hole before it was possible to build. Preoccupied with ritual and its proper setting, Cooley had become a de facto architect. And while he never claimed to have been an architect by title, he did work well with professionals like Fargo’s Hancock Brothers and even managed to design and superintend the construction of a fair number of buildings without professional assistance. Then, having performed those minor miracles, he was either driven from town or packed off to refurbish at a mental hospital. That happened at least three times.

Researching Reverend Cooley for the past thirty-five years (you’d think I could have written a book by now) and sensing the repeating pattern of his life, I once thought to find statistics concerning mental illness among clergy. Trust me on this: such statistics do not exist in the public realm and are unlikely to see the light of day—ever. What denomination or sect would want its soiled linens hoisted thusly for public consumption.

So, how could I deny the inclusion of such a one in our Agincourt Project. There was a post-Dakota and pre-Wisconsin point when he could easily have sojourned in Iowa. And the bishop during those years was tolerant of High Churchmanship. Why not borrow him for a little while.

We’ve conscripted many historical figures for the Agincourt story; Father Cooley won’t mind joining their ranks.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

High, Low and Broad

In the current marketplace of ideas, there are partisans at both ends of the political spectrum. Calling them liberals and conservatives may not be entirely accurate, but there also appears to be a growing body of moderates whose notions of government involve accommodation (call it compromise) and getting on with the process of making public policy. In the 19th century there was a similar breadth of churchmanship in the Episcopal denomination.

I mention this because party politics upset the steady flow of events at our own Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter in the late 1880s.

Until 1878 Agincourt’s Episcopalians worshipped in the chapel of Bishop Kemper Academy. Rev Ellis Clough served the dual role of acadmic dean and parish priest from the school’s founding ten years before, but the complex needs of parish life made it clear that a separation was required. The Saint Joe’s we see today is actually the product of three building campaigns: the 1878 original, an 1898 enlargement, and a 1915 chapel addition. And the cycles of construction seem to parallel the presence of priests with architectural inclinations. Perhaps the most interesting of them was Benjamin Franklin Cooley.

Reverend Cooley came in the fall of 1887 and left ten months later toward the end of August 1888. A Massachusetts native, Cooley schooled at Nashotah, the High Church seminary in Wisconsin founded by Bishop Kemper, namesake of our girls’ school. From ordination to retirement his pastorates averaged three years, so I guess we’d call him itinerant—the Episcopal counterpart to the Methodist circuit rider. Cooley had come from Illinois and went to Wisconsin, but his ten months here bear the stamp of advanced views on the congruence of liturgy, music and design.


Des Moines architects Proudfoot & Bird shaped the exterior of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter in 1898, but its interior reflects the high church taste of B.F. Cooley. Faded remnants of Father Cooley’s color scheme—rich stenciling in multiple colors on beams and throughout the chancel walls and ceiling—were handpainted by the priest himself. But a more visible sign of Cooley’s tenure is the bell tower he designed and built in 1888, a Gothic Revival exercise straight from the design playbook of Richard Upjohn (poster child architect for Episcopalians in the 1850s and 60s).

But pestering our lumberyards for building materials and the Milwaukee Road for a 500-pound bell bordered on harassment. And his organization of a vested choir of men and boys set too high a tone for the evangelical element in the congregation. Whatever the cause and despite his success improving Saint Joe’s, Cooley ran afoul of the vestry and found himself eastbound on the night train one rainy evening. The Plantagenet had only this to say, and surprisingly circumspect at that:

“The Fumous Element that has sought to remove the alb from the Episcopal rector’s shoulders are to be congratulated in accomplishing the object of their—object…. Mr Cooley may have eccentricities, but he also has energy and power to make success. He has made the Episcopal church a credit to his city, built up and made remarkable by his guiding hand. It has been charged that Mr Cooley is ‘high church’—whatever that may mean—but whether high or low it is admitted that The Plantagenet can find no fault with this staid, sedate, quiet and orderly man of much reserve.”

Before coming here, Reverend B.F. Cooley had applied his considerable talents in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Dakota Territory. And he went on to do the same in Wisconsin, Maine and other points. Looking back on his accomplishments, it’s curious that we’re still unable to separate who we are from what we do; the actor from the act.

The world could benefit from a few more Cooleys.

POSTSCRIPT: The design of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter and its scenario are mine entirely, but Benjamin Franklin Cooley was very real. His design credits—especially in Dakota Territory earlier in the 1880s—are indeed impresssive. And the Plantagenet quote was adapted from one actually written in the Fargo Argus.

In an earlier column, Howard Tabor linked Father Cooley with the choice of William Halsey Wood as architect for the second Fennimore county courthouse, a connection that might seem overly convenient. But I am pleased to report that for several months in 1875 Cooley served as assistant rector at the House of Prayer, a decidedly high church Episcopal parish in Newark, New Jersey. Remarkably, the choir director there during that same period was none other than William Halsey Wood, himself a high churchman and self-confessed Anglo-Catholic. I rest my case.

Oh, by the way, the rector at Newark’s House of Prayer at that time was Reverend Hannibal Goodwin, inventor of an improved film that revolutionized America’s nascent movie industry. I don’t make this stuff up, really I don’t.


My long attention span has been an advantage in the Agincourt Project.

Four years ago, when Howard Tabor began his series of sesquicentennial-driven columns in The Daily Plantagenet, he wrote a four-part series on the history of Christ the King Catholic church and, especially, its predecessor congregation the infamous St Ahab’s. I not only had to invent a parish priest, the invention of an actual saint was also required.

For those disinclined to ferret out the articles themselves, I’ll say this much: Fr Francis Manning, founding priest of Roman Catholicism in Fennimore county, turned out to have been a woman. Frances had become Francis, an identity switch discovered only when the burial place of the old priest was found while digging a foundation for the community’s third Catholic church structure–renamed Christ the King upon its completion in 1951.

Writing a story is one thing. And using it to understand the sequence of priests and parish buildings is another. Lives told can be understood through buildings seen. I knew, however, that my patience would be rewarded. For I recently found on eBay the very image I have craved these four long years.


Are we, indeed, looking at the exhumation of Fr Manning’s body? I think so.

I don’t know why. Just because…