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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.

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