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Full Circle

Full Circle, or long way round the barn

Opinions on the Cult of the Saints—especially among Protestants—range from the quaint and curious to idolatry. According to Alan Jacobs, historian of early Christianity Peter Brown offers an explanation for the rise of the cult of the saints in the late Roman world:

[Brown] explains that the emphasis of early Christian preaching on judgment, on the human need for redemption from sin, brought to the minds of common people — among whom Christianity was early successful — their social and political condition. Having strictly limited powers to remedy any injustice they might suffer, or to clear themselves of any charges of wrongdoing, they turned, when they could, to their social betters in hope of aid. If a local patrician could befriend them — could be, at least for a time, their patron — then they had a chance, at least, of receiving justice or at least escaping punishment. “It is this hope of amnesty,” Brown writes, “that pushed the saint to the foreground as patronus. For patronage and friendship derived their appeal from a proven ability to render malleable seemingly inexorable processes, and to bridge with the warm breath of personal acquaintance the great distances of the late-Roman social world. In a world so sternly organized around sin and justice, patrocimium [patronage] and amicitia [friendship] provided a much-needed language of amnesty.

As this cult became more and more deeply entrenched in the Christian life, it made sense for there to be, not just feast days for individual saints, but a day on which everyone’s indebtedness to the whole company of saints — gathered around the throne of God, pleading on our behalf — could be properly acknowledged. After all, we do not know who all the saints are: no doubt men and women of great holiness escaped the notice of their peers, but are known to God. They deserve our thanks, even if we cannot thank them by name. So the logic went: and a general celebration of the saints seems to have begun as early as the fourth century, though it would only be four hundred years later that Pope Gregory III would designate the first day of November as the Feast of All Saints.”  ― Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History

But the acknowledgment of “saints” isn’t peculiar to the Roman Catholic church; it exists in other branches of Christianity and can be found in other religious traditions like Buddhism and Islam. In practically all faith traditions, a few are acknowledged for lives well lived and gruesome deaths endured in pursuit of redemption. In the case of Antoni Gaudí, a Catalan architect of Barcelona, whose works have been associated with miraculous cures, he has already been beatified—a first step toward acknowledgment of his faith—and soon there will be churches bearing his dedication. Wouldn’t you want to design the first church named for an architect-saint? It has the allure of the sign that warns of “wet paint”—you have to touch it. Agincourt’s Roman Catholics want to remind us of the saint originally associated with their parish, a name rarely invoked since the consecration of Christ the King in 1951.

When Rev Francis Manning came in the mid-1860s to establish the church here, he struggled to find a dedicationy saint who could unite a motley congregation representing multiple ethnic traditions; to settle on one name is effectively taking sides. “Catholic” means universal, but it is a universe of solar systems circling their favorite star. A legendary storm offered Manning—an Irish immigrant, by the way, and inclined to saints like Padraig and Columba—a storm that, it is claimed by reputable sources, rained fish and a curious bit of nautical flotsam. Or is it jetsam?

Several miles northwest of town, the deluge deposited a ship’s mast through the roof of Herman Schutz’s Barn—barely missing his prized holstein. Manning took the hint, searching church literature for saints associated with the sea. For reasons unspecified, he settled on Ahab, obscure 3rd-4th century saint barely noted in ecclesiastical sources, and the original church—a design by Rev Manning—was duly consecrated in the fall of 1867. Both priest and church aged in tandem, and it was an open question which would retire first. [A brief history of Saint Ahab’s can be found elsewhere in four parts.]

Saint Ahab’s sailed about the parish like the ships that were its inspiration. When outgrown in the mid-1880s, it was recycled as a chapel at Grou and then returned as the cemetery chapel here. Finally, priest and chapel were reunited in 1950 when Rev Manning’s bones were discovered during excavations for the current building. All of which brings us to the present—by the long way round the barn.

The Agincourt parish celebrates it’s sesquicentennial this year and honors its founding as Sant Ahab’s. Architects have been invited to propose designs for a new chapel, attached west of the chancel, where it will serve as crying room, wedding and funeral chapel, and a place for quiet meditation. The peripatetic saint himself will take up residence in the form of an Orthodox religious icon, authentically painted by artist Jonathan Taylor Rutter.


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