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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.

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