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
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.
REV. CHILTON FANNING DOWD [1888-1959]
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.