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Religion for Atheists: a non-believers guide to the uses of religion

My copy of Alain de Botton’s book is currently misplaced. Look for one on remainders and lend it to me. His other titles include Art as Therapy and The Architecture of Happiness. Interesting guy—and an atheist to boot. His point: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

I’ve designed four of Agincourt’s many churches and collaborated with my friend Richard Kenyon on one other. In each case my attention to detail—I am a Capricorn, after all—has lead me inevitably to other, smaller choices: communion ware and Stations of the Cross, for example, as integral parts of those spiritually charged places. St. Joe’s has been a special favorite due to its connection with the Tennant family.


Communion, for example, is for Botton a shared experience. The Pascal Meal as family get-together. When I was in Chattanooga last May, and found myself at Saint Paul’s Episcopal church on Pentecost of all Sunday’s, I ended up at the communion rail just because it was easier than having all those folks crawl over my fat thighs in the narrow 19th century pews. [Were people really that much smaller in 1890?] Episcopalians do Communion row by row, and everyone goes to the rail. It didn’t seem right, though, for me to accept a communion wafer and the chalice, so thinking quickly, I asked for the Laying on of Hands, perhaps the only one who did that Sunday. Though I was there for vastly different reasons and had come to the rail with a considerably different mind set, it was a remarkable spiritual experience. It was a happy accident for me personally and also as a student of William Halsey Wood’s architecture—which is the real reason I’d gone there in the first place. Everything else I experienced was frosting on the cake.

This chalice showed up on eBay the other day and seemed so “right” for Saint Joe’s. I probably won’t win it. So this picture may have to do. Can you imagine it being elevated to a triplet of stained glass in the early Sunday morning light? [Priests then still faced away from their congregation and most Anglo-Catholics still do.]

My plans for a baptismal font in the purported exhibit of 2015 have fallen behind. Ask me some time and I’ll explain. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what’s a heaven for?” [Robert Browning]

Saint-Joseph-the-Carpenter: toward a parish history

Institutional Memory

[This entry was written on December 30th, 2013 and edited/updated nearly three years later on December 3rd, 2016.]

Institutional histories are hard to write and rarely fun to read, often because they are no more than a string of names and dates. The worst are like Old Testament begetting: “And Jehosaphat begat Lemuel, and Lemuel begat Wayne, and Wayne begat Ernestine, and….” Don’t fall into that trap.

Benjamin Franklin Cooley

The Episcopal church of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter has been central to the story of Agincourt. It may be the community’s best example of the hybrid Gothic-Revival-cum-Arts & Crafts style. Part of it was designed by Anson Tennant. And Anson’s family lived across the street. It was also adjacent to the Bishop Kemper Academy, with which it was inextricably tied. What follows, then, is a rough outline of parish history: tidbits that have already been written as well as opportunities for the personalities and passions that will give it life.

1857—Agincourt was platted in 1853 but incorporated as a city four years later on 25 October 1857, the four hundred and forty-second anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. What is important for us is that on that day a lottery was held for the disposition of four “Church Lots” at the four corners of the civic center. Five denominations competed for those strategic lots—Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics—with the Episcopalians receiving the northeast lot. They were unable to build on it for several years, holding service in rented or borrowed quarters.

1868—The townsite founders had offered the eastern-most of the center blocks free of charge to any educational institution that would establish a school there. Bishop Kemper Academy, a school for girls and young women opened in the fall of 1868. Its chapel served as the parish church for approximately ten years.

1878—The church of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter began construction during the spring of 1878 from plans by New York architect Henry Dudley.

1886-1887—The parish was served for several months by Reverend Benjamin Franklin Cooley, an itinerant Anglo-Catholic refugee who had recently left Fargo, Dakota Territory on his way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The Kemper Chapel was relocated to the north side of the church for use as a Parish Hall.

1898—During a vacancy in the rectorate, Father Francis Manning, Catholic priest at Saint Ahab’s, served in various capacities despite diocesan issues with this pragmatic temporary solution to a staffing problem. Most normal parish functions were conducted by a Licensed Lay Reader. This was also the year that Saint Joe’s was remodeled and enlarged from plans by Des Moines architects Proudfoot & Bird.

1910s—Father Stephen Grimaldi, OHC, served as rector. It was he who painted the elaborate interior color scheme and suggested a chapel addition.

1915-1916—Addition of Saint Crispin’s Chapel, designed by architect-parishioner Anson Tennant (just before his presumed death on the Lusitania), was built by Tennant’s Albuquerque friend Manuel Galvez y Paz, who came to Agincourt specifically to execute Tennant’s design. The chapel basement/crypt serves as the Tennant family mausoleum.

1920-1940—Long-term parish service from the Reverend Chilton Fanning Dowd (longest serving parish priest), who continued to teach Sunday School after his retirement. Howard Tabor has fond memories of Father Dowd’s unorthodox perspective on religious education.

2002—“Lessons & Carols” was established as a new Christmas tradition by choir director Gerry Leiden. Dr Leiden was also professor of music at the Normal College. The sanctuary was often used for sound recording sessions because of its excellent acoustics.

2012—The church has historically been open during daylight hours for prayer and meditation. Howard and his dog Digger ended up there during election night 2008, ruminating about the worn fir pews and excellent acoustics during a choir rehearsal. But just last year someone walked off with a valuable copper bowl crafted by The Roycrofters and given in memory of Anson’s disappearance with the Lusitania in 1915.¹

Yes, this is pretty sketchy. One wonders, for example, how the parish survived during the Great Depression; how it responded to social issues of the day: universal suffrage, social inequality,  war and the sexual revolution. These years cannot have been without strife and must have affected the dynamic of parish life. I’m anxious to find out.

¹ I thought we had a solution for this “loss” but it was a false hope. Your ideas are welcome.

Father Stephen Grimaldi, OHC


The front page of yesterday’s local newspaper carried an above-the-fold (i.e. “this is goddam important, so listen up!”) story about a cleric—I like that word, for the time being; it crosses both party and gender lines—who happens to have burned out. That occurs more often than we suspect. But many of us who’ve been in the same saddle for twenty years or more, teachers included, have hit that same wall. Perhaps it takes a larger toll at one end of the salary spectrum.

During the research for my long-term study of Episcopal church architecture in Dakota Territory—the ten years or so prior to statehood in 1889—one thing crept slowly between the lines of accumulating research material: “burn out” took a high toll among Episcopal clergy. Father B.F. Cooley, for example, who served Christ Church parish in Fargo during 1881-1885 burned out several times and was hospitalized for his labors in the Fields of the Lord. I even managed to wangle a copy of his patient file at the Institute for Living, a private mental hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was treated in the 1890s.

Valley City had its own share of parochial woes. Herbert Root—a cleric-turned-banker largely because he disagreed with implementation of the “parish system” where the resident priest transferred administrative responsibility to a vestry of lay people—made the lives of several priests called there a living Hell. Root, it seems, gave the land that All Saints was built upon, which enabled him to write into the deed a provision that he and he alone held control of parish life. Root and his hired malefactors harassed the feckless priests to such an extent that most left after only a few months and one of them endured a sanity hearing demanded by the county court.

Reverend John Keble Karcher’s is another story told here before, in brief. It is one thing for a cleric to be itinerant in their parish assignments; quite another in their denominational affiliation. Ordained into the Lutheran or Reformed tradition only to become a Unitarian, then an Episcopalian, then a defector to Rome, and ultimately an Episcopalian once again, the spiritual home where he remained until his death in 1901. At some point I tried to locate information—statistics, even—about the mental health of clergy. I’m laughing out loud as I write this, because what sect or denomination is about to reveal such information about the men (and women) put in charge of the spiritual care of its members? Fat chance.

All of which brings me (you knew it would) to the story of Father Stephen Grimaldi, OHC, rector at St. Joseph-the-Carpenter some time during the first decade of the 20th century. Howard’s great-grandmother Martha Tennant would have known him. Indeed she and her husband would have played a role in his calling and the support he ought to have enjoyed during his rectorate. Seems time for me to sit down and outline the parish history. I’ve designed its buildings and described their spiritual comfort in some detail. Looking back (while the soundtrack of “Shawshank Redemption” plays in the background as I type), St Joe’s is as much a part of my spiritual point of view as anything else — perhaps more so..

I wonder even if Father Grimaldi might encompass the better qualities of clerics in my acquaintance. Perhaps he’ll become a Ghost of Christmas Past.

Incidentally, that’s him in the postcard above, standing beside the rear service door of Kemper Hall, former chapel at the old Kemper Academy which now serves the social requirements of St. Joe’s. Where would I be without eBay!

PS: At dinner Sunday night I found out about the minister suffering from burn-out. He’d been with a north Fargo congregation and took them out of the ELCA because of its denominational liberalism. Guess I won’t be going to hear his sermons at Scheel’s. But for that matter I refuse to shop at Scheel’s on principle.

It’s a wonderful life…


A few miles west of Agincourt on the road toward Storm Lake, the village of Fahnstock has become a bedroom suburb and lost much of its leafy rural quality. This was especially true after the Aerodrome located nearby in the 1930s. But from 1909 until the market crash, Fahnstock was an idyllic stop on the interurban to Fennimore county’s lake country. The trolley branched there during “the season” to take revelers to Resort, the gateway stop for access to Sturm und Drang.

Founded by Elias Fahnstock in the 1870s, the village that bears his family name was never intended as serious competition for Agincourt. He was content to watch that battle waged between Agincourt and Muskrat City, knowing full well that the latter had been sited poorly on fertile bottom land that was too inclined to flood. As friend and confidant of Amos Beddowes, de facto Indian Agent for these parts and closely aligned with the Sac & Fox people through marriage to their medicine woman She-Listens-to-the-Moon, Fahnstock knew that the coming railroad was inevitable and far more likely to pass through his modest town site on land better situated for a likely route between Fort Dodge and the Missouri Valley. By 1880 the village had a bank, post office, general store and two-room grade school, while the interurban branch line for summer people gave it added business during pleasant weather.

This postcard view of about 1910 shows State Bank head cashier Julian Bleach standing in front of the simple wood-framed bank. What appear to be brick are sheets of tin or galvanized metal stamped to simulate brick. To the left is part of the general store which also served as post office until its closing in the Depression.

Frank Rakonçay [1935-1998]


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

RAKONÇAY, Frank [1935–1998]


date unknown

etching, hand colored / 9.25 inches by 9.25 inches

Chicago artist Frank Rakoncay graduated from the city’s Art Institute in 1975 and maintained a studio in Chicago for many years before relocating to Florida. He died in 1998 at the age of sixty-three.

“Attractions” is one of two Rakoncay works in the collection, each of them an etching or engraving hand-colored by the artist in muted shades resembling aquatint.

Eldred M. Scott [1902-1939]


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

SCOTT, Eldred Merriweather [1902–1939]

Gnostic Bridge


oil on panel / 12 inches by 8 inches

Is anything ever straightforward?

Eldred Scott’s rendering of the Gnostic Bridge seems naïve, untutored; worth little more than a passing glance. “My six-year-old could do that.” Her trees are twisted pipe cleaners; the bridge built of pick-up sticks. Her “snow” an application of thick sugar glaze. But product ought not be divorced from purpose, which is attested by a news clipping glued to the back of the frame:

Auto Mishap at the Gnostic Bridge—Agincourt, Ia., Friday, February 29th, 1924— Benjamin Hosmer, 22, and Miss Eldred Scott, 21, were returning to Agincourt from the Schütz farm Friday night when they became disoriented in the storm. Hosmer’s car left the road at Gnostic Bridge, tumbling into Crispin Creek. Miss Scott was thrown from the car but managed to reach the Walden Clinic and telephone the sheriff’s office for assistance. Young Hosmer was in the frigid water for twenty minutes before being rescued and taken to hospital, where he remains in critical condition. Miss Scott was treated for cuts and broken wrist. Hosmer and Scott had attended an engagement party at the Schütz place and were on route home at about 11 p.m.

Born at Fahnstock and a graduate of Agincourt high school, Eldred Scott became an operator for the Lincoln Telephone Co. Her fiancée Hosmer died from his injuries, and Scott never married. She died fifteen years later at the age of thirty-seven. This painting of the bridge that ended Hosmer’s life changed the course of hers was acquired from the family in 1940.

Waiting game

Truth be told, I am not a patient person. While not in Eric Cantor’s league—recall he’s the dude who wrote in his high school yearbook “I want what I want when I want it”—I can endure until the “right thing” happens. Subscribing to the theory that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is pessimistic; that two or at most three degrees is often the case, that “right thing” does predictably occur. I hope it does for you, too.

At least five or six years ago, this small painting (about 8 by 12 inches) entered the Agincourt matrix. The source was someone in Ottawa, Ontario, and the price was about ten bucks, as I recall. The painter was E. Scott and likely to remain unknown. But the bridge depicted worked as one of the half dozen that linked Agincourt with its western and southern hinterlands. I had always imagined it at the southeast corner of the original townsite, linking that quadrant with the road to Nimby—not that you’d ever want to go there. When the Community Collection of art materialized as something to occupy the Tennant Memorial Gallery, this was one of its first acquisitions and a back story was required. I’ve never got around to it until now.


Bridges have a mystic quality: we build them, we burn them. Crossing them can be contentious (ask Friar Tuck). Sometimes they lead nowhere (ask Sarah Palin). So who E. Scott was and why s/he would have painted Gnostic Bridge in the dead of winter is a mystery; it does have that plein air quality, doesn’t it? My waiting game paid off recently with the acquisition of this real photo postcard view of a remarkably similar bridge, also shown in the grip of winter, and a confirmation of E. Scott’s vision. I feel a story coming on.




Pop Quiz #5






“I asked a stone what it liked and it said ‘I like a quoin.'” —not Louis I. Kahn

Pop Quiz #4

Do you find this small building as exciting and fresh as I do?


H. Clarence Whaite [1895-1978]


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

WHAITE, H. Clarence [1895–1978]

“Maiden and Horse”


pastel or charcoal on paper / image 13.5 inches by 13.5 inches

Not to be confused with his distant cousin Henry Clarence Whaite (1828-1912), this H.C.W. studied art from the age of fourteen at the Manchester Evening Schools and then on scholarship at the renowned Slade School in London. Choosing a subject more contemporary with his older cousin, Whaite’s sketch shows a woman and horse in the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the 1860s and 70s, long before he birth. A study for a larger work, this might have become part of a mural or a mosaic, a metal casting or even stained glass.

“Maiden and Horse” was donated to the Community Collection in the 1950s by Edith Gladden who, with her husband Monroe, had operated a gallery and frame shop in Agincourt. A note on the accession form states the piece had been shipped from an English gallery as packing material for other works. Notified of their “error” the British gallery graciously declined the offer of its return.