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Monk in charge of an American diocese

09 October 2015

Serenhedd James on the life of a US bishop who spent his wealth for the Church

Archive of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity, Cambridge, MA, By permission

Firmly Catholic: Bishop Grafton is seated (centre) in the "Fond du Lac Circus", as this group photo from the consecration of his coadjutor Reginald Weller (standing, third from left) was dubbed. It showed so many mitred bishops and Orthodox clerics that it caused a sensation among those unused to seeing such sights in Protestant Episcopalian churches when it was published in the US periodical The Living Church. From the book

Firmly Catholic: Bishop Grafton is seated (centre) in the "Fond du Lac Circus", as this group photo from the consecration of his coadjutor Reginald We...

Press On, The Kingdom: The life of Charles Chapman Grafton Eldridge H. Pendleton
SSJE £11.92 (title available from www.blurb.co.uk)


WITH Richard Meux Benson and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill, in 1866 Charles Grafton became one of the founding members of the Society of St John the Evangelist, the first religious order for men in the Church of England. After he returned to work as a mission priest for the order in his native United States, however, he fell out with Benson over the latter’s reluctance to establish an American province. He withdrew from the order in 1882, and devoted himself to parish ministry.

Elected to the missionary see of Fond du Lac, in north-west Wisconsin, in 1888, Grafton — like Benson — was blessed with vision and independent means. He divested himself of his wealth by pouring his income into providing his remote diocese with churches, parish rooms, and clergy houses. He founded the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity, saved the fledgling Nashotah House — now one of the Episcopal Church’s leading seminaries — from bankruptcy, and died as a monk should: poor.

He continued to observe monastic discipline, and when he introduced his Sisters to Fond du Lac he moved into their convent, occupying a tiny cell and sleeping on a small metal bed. His Ritualist sympathies, coupled with his enthusiasm for ecumenism with the Old Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches (he was a great friend of Metropolitan Tikhon), engendered suspicion and mistrust among members of his own communion; but history has healed the sore, and the Episcopal Church now commemorates him on 30 August, the anniversary of his death.

This splendid book is the crowning academic achievement of the late Dr Eldridge Pendleton (Obituary, 11 September), who was archivist of the US province of SSJE and the leading authority on the American history of the order. It presents a thorough assessment of the life and work of Grafton, as well as his thoughts and motives, and puts flesh and blood on the fascinating and compelling story of a man whose name is writ larger than any other in the history of the Catholic movement in the Episcopal Church.

By the end of his life, Grafton had been reconciled to Benson, and over nearly 30 years had transformed the fortunes of his see. When he was asked about the large number of vocations in his diocese in 1911 — the year before his death — his answer was characteristically robust: "There is no lack of enthusiasm in responding to the call of ministry when young men are assured that the Church is Catholic and holds the Catholic Faith."


Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s

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