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”Si monumentum requiris circumspice”


So reads Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Two years of high school Latin hardly equip me, now so many years later, to offer anything but a clumsy translation, so I’ll give you what anyone can find on the internet: ”If you would seek my monument, look around you.” If you’ve been to St Paul’s, you’ll understand.

While I have Wren’s greatest accomplishment in mind, let me go way out on a limb and volunteer an opinion: having been in both Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s, I’ll take London any day. The nave of St Peter’s does absolutely nothing for me; IMHO, it my be the world’s largest marble-clad barn. Wren, on the other hand, has achieved the conjoining of opposites: intimate grandeur. Perhaps it is simply the contrast with Rome (not me favorite place) but Wren’s church gives me the warm fuzzies; makes me feel noble, consoled. Everywhere I turn, there is warmth and a sense of scale intended to comfort. I sometimes wonder if Bramante’s original scheme might have been more Wren-like.

Since my last visit, a new memorial has been placed in the nave floor, the equal of Wren’s understatement, for here is buried another scientist, someone Wren would have understood: Stephen Hawking.

I hadn’t intended to say anything at all about Wren or St Paul’s; certainly nothing about St Peter’s, but I seem to have tombstones on my mind: one that I’m designing for my father and another that occurred to me just this afternoon.

A far humbler but equally noble building is the former Episcopal church in Casselton, St Stephen’s, constructed in 1885-1887 and a memorial in its own way to the contributions of three men who are mentioned nowhere in the building itself: its architect George Hancock, and his collaborators Rev B. F. Cooley and Scottish stonemason Nathaniel Maconachie. And with regard to all three, if ye seek their monument, look about you. The tale of their work together is one I love to share, but this evening it is Maconachie on my mind.

Nathaniel Maconachie is a fellow Scot, born near Loch Ness and trained in stonework at Aberdeen. He shows up in the Scottish census at one year old and twenty years later. But he is strategically missing in the 1861 census, when he was eleven. That would be just about the right age for a young boy to be articled out for apprenticeship, so he warrants a little more sleuthing on that score.

From Scotland, Maconachie—it’s pronounced ma–KAHN–shee, if you’d like to be authentic—spent three years in South Africa building a railway line to the gold and diamond mines of the interior. Then he returned to Scotland before the voyage to America, an 1885 sailing that took him to Philadelphia and then almost directly to Fargo, Dakota Territory. Any readers here who attended NDSU will ahve seen his work on Old Main. But his more interesting work was done with architect Hancock and Fr Cooley: a series of small split-fieldstone churches for Episcopal congregations all over eastern North Dakota (which technically didn’t exist yet). His obituary claims nine of them but only two are identified: two in Minnesota (Wadena and Perham), two unnamed in Montana (but probably Bozeman and Anaconda), and the remainder scattered in eastern Dakota (Casselton, certainly, but the others would be a guess.

By 1900 Nathaniel and his wife Margaret had retired to a farm in Corliss Township, northeast of Perham. She died in 1911 but Nate lived on until 1929, and both are buried in the Perham Cemetery. I learned today, however, that their graves are unmarked and it seems especially sad that the stonemason’s art is absent from a stonemason’s grave. Why do I feel the need to fix that, do you suppose.

This example of the stonecarver’s art, incidentally, is the work of Tracy Mahaffey of Greene, Rhode Island. Would that I could afford her craft for the Maconachies.

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