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“The most difficult task…”


“The most difficult task for a Communist historian is to predict the past.”

Years ago I ran across this quote somewhere on the web; I’ve not been able to find it since.

Agincourt works a lot like this: any building extant in the community today is likely to have at least one predecessor. Take Christ the King, for example. The 1950 building that serves the parish today replaced a red brick building of the 1890s. And that, in turn, had replaced the original church—St Ahab’s—built about 1860 but clearly outgrown by post-Civil War population increase.

The current building (designed by our friend Richard Kenyon channeling the Modernist vocabulary of mid-century architect Francis Barry Byrne) is successful on many levels—as an interpretation of Byrne’s actual work; as a piece of urban design; as narrative.

In the story of St Ahab/Christ-the-King, Father Farber had fallen from the roof of church #2 and damaged his optic nerve. But I have no idea what that building looked like. It was enough for me to know that the vestry roof was too steep for the aging but independent priest. It was an episode that helped establish his character.

Church #1—the original St Ahab—on the other hand was integral to the evolution of parish history; to the choice of the dedicatory saint himself. The parish’s founding priest, Rev Francis Manning, had also been a pivotal character whose calling was passionate and vision prophetic. How could I not like him? Especially when he turned out to be a she. The Vatican can’t be happy.

In my own peculiar way, the Communist historian’s task is mine: the present I’ve imagined is obligated to predict its past.

Saint Ahab’s

Reverend Manning had been born in Ireland, the oldest of several children. But the Potato Famine killed her parents and forced a migration to coal country in eastern Pennsylvania. What seemed important from her past was a high degree of remote-fishing-village independence transplanted ultimately to Iowa’s tall-grass prairie. Writing about it now—only now—can I see the prairie analogy to “seas of grass”.

I’ve tried a couple times to design the original St Ahab’s, but it defeats me. Clearly what I want is somewhere between these two images.Turku



  1. Thanks, Georg. Now, if Peter Zumthor had only been alive in the middle of the 19th century (and available in northwestern Iowa), we’d be, as they say in these parts, “cooking on all four burners”.

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