A Tour to Christ Church’s Past

The annual Grove Hill Cemetery Tours were held this year on September 8, and the event turned into an unofficial celebration of Christ Episcopal Church in Oil City. The cemetery dates to 1870 and each year the tours feature current residents of Oil City portraying past residents of Oil City.

This year’s tour booklet featured 32 figures from the past and at least 10 were members of Christ Episcopal Church. A local photographer, whose family provided the land the current church building sits on, was also included in the booklet. Of the eleven people portrayed, three were members of Christ Episcopal Church. Three of the eleven re-enactors were also members of the church.

Becca Swartzlander, treasurer of the Altar Guild, portrayed Miss Margaret Reid. Margaret’s great-great-grandfather served as interpreter for Chief Cornplanter of the Seneca Indian tribe and held power-of-attorney for Cornplanter. Her great-uncle and father were involved in the Reid Gas Engine Company, pioneers in oilfield equipment.  However, Miss Reid was best known for her nearly 40 years of teaching in the Oil City Schools. She wrote A History of Christ Church in 1987 and is responsible for the excellently maintained historical records of the church.

Jocelind Gant, the member of our congregation responsible for our Second Harvest Food ministries, portrayed Carrie Peterson, one of the most unique stories told this year. Peterson was born into slavery in Virginia around 1850 and came to Oil City in the early 1860s. It is unclear if she came as a fugitive slave or as a free woman.  She had some association with Robert and Isaac Mann, late of Allegheny City. Robert was one of the founders of the AME Church in Oil City and Isaac wrote for an African-American newspaper in Harrisburg.

I portrayed the Rev. James H. B. Brooks, 6th Rector of Christ Episcopal Church, serving from 1883 until his death in 1901. Brooks was pastor during the building of the current church and during the Fire and Flood of 1892. The church building was used as a hospital during this disaster. Father Brooks’ health never totally recovered from that incident. In researching the life of Rev. Brooks, it was noted that the two seminaries and three other parishes he served still survive today, with some mergers involved.

Some of the other members of the church from the 19th and early 20th century in the tour booklet included Thomas Cowell, Kenton Chickering, John Campbell, John Tonkin, Margaret Winifred Tonkin, Thomas Porteous, Annie Clark, and William Lay. Winifred Tonkin died in a tragic railway accident in 1901 and is memorialized in one of the church’s windows, and the Winifred Tonkin Guild still provides for the needy of the community, a living memorial to her memory.

Cowell, Chickering, and Campbell all served on the Vestry during Father Brooks’ tenure. His Vestry actually resembled a Board of Directors meeting for Standard Oil. Christ Church’s Vestry records indicate that Father Brooks wisely indicated upon arrival that he would leave all temporal matters in the hands of his Vestry.  I read through about 50 years worth of Vestry notes (preserved by Miss Reid) before the tours, trying to learn more of Brooks and his time here. What I found was a man that served as pastor to a community, calling on sick and injured people that had no affiliation with any congregation. The oil business was not a stable business, with booms and busts and fortunes made and lost. Yet the Vestry had no issue with committing to building a new church building in those uncertain times, when the budget often was at a deficit.  Kenton Chickering’s great-grandson, Ken, still spends some summer months in our area, away from his home parish in Houston. He was kind enough to lend me his library of materials about Oilwell Supply, founded by Kenton, and I got to spend the winter with those materials. Before he returned to Houston this year, I was able to provide a copy of the beautiful tribute paid to his great-grandfather by his fellow Vestrymen upon his death in 1908.

I have always loved history and I always will. I truly appreciate the work that Margaret Reid did preserving our church records. I treasure my friendship with Ken and enjoyed the records of the past he shared with me.  Margaret was also instrumental in our sponsorship at the church of a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s. Ken has spent his life working in Texas in a career that has little to do with his family’s oilfield origins, but is still an Episcopalian. Both appreciate the past but learned to embrace change. An appreciation for history does not mean we must live in the past. It should enable us to learn from that past. Ignoring the past and living in the past both have bad outcomes. We live in exciting times, faced with changes and challenges and opportunities in the Church and the world that our ancestors could not have imagined.

Some words from the poet T. S. Eliot will serve us well as we approach what promises to be an exciting diocesan convention:

“And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.  The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.”

The Rev. Mark Elliston is vicar of Christ Church, Oil City.

Writing Church Histories by our Diocesan Historiographer

Robert Guerrein Diocesan Historiographer

Robert Guerrein Diocesan Historiographer

This year, the Cathedral of St. Paul celebrates 100 years as the diocese’s mother church. As part of the celebration, I have written a history of the cathedral – I called it “a history,” not “the history,” because much more remains to be discovered and published about St. Paul’s and its congregation. (I joke that to do a proper job, I would need at least two more years, a research assistant, and an expense account.) But I have learned a lot about what works and what does not, and what problems you might have writing your own parish histories.

For example, making a list or spreadsheet of resident clergy might be a good way to begin. Who was the rector, who were his assistants (until recently, it was always “his”); what were their dates? This seems easy enough – usually older parish histories can be trusted here – but you might find gaps you will want to fill from a variety of sources. You might want to present this list as an appendix, but you will find it very useful as a framework for the full history.

Assume you create this list. Now you must decide how thoroughly you want to research it. You might find it difficult to track down the personal history of a rector. An old parish history might say he came from church X and left after five years’ service to accept a call at church Y. But where was he born, raised, and educated? Where did he serve before church X, and where did he go after church Y? Was he an immigrant from Britain or an American raised, say, as a Methodist in North Carolina? Was he a graduate of Harvard or, say, the University of Virginia? Was he married, with a family? Why did he leave his pastorate at your church? (Older histories often try to hide unpleasantness.) Where and when did he die?

Tracing the careers of the clergy can be more difficult than you would think. The national church’s archives do not help much in this regard – records in the days before computers make searches difficult. The archives’ advice was that college alumni magazines are a good way to track someone’s career. So are obituaries, which nowadays can often, though not always, be found online.

You will also have to decide how much attention assistant clergy merit. How extensive a history do you intend to write? Assistant clergy can be mere names, but they can also be interesting character studies. (One 1920s assistant at St. Paul’s was so taken by the preaching of the missionary bishop to Alaska that he followed him to the north. Perhaps the climate did not agree with him, because I found him later on Hawaii.)

Once you have an accurate list of rectors, you can begin to study your church’s records to see how they led your congregation. That means you must read the vestry minutes. This might be tedious … well, it almost certainly will be tedious … but it is absolutely necessary. Do not trust previous parish histories, however, good they are. You must go to the source.

You will want to check the clergy’s dates of service (Aside: Check and cross-check everything) and all of the motions the vestry has passed over the years. The minutes will tell you what the vestry passed or voted down, but not necessarily who voted for or against. They will concentrate on finances rather than theology though you might want to look in the 1890s for signs of discontent over the liturgy and “Romish” innovations. If you want to know how your church reacted, or didn’t, to World War I or to the Depression, the vestry minutes might tell you. (The Cathedral’s archives do not say much about Depression troubles. Diocesan records do.)

I found other sorts of records very useful, but after erecting the scaffolding of the history. Service books, pamphlets, memorabilia such as graduation programs, parish magazines are all very helpful in making history real.

Surprisingly, parish registers of who was baptized, buried, or married were not as helpful as I thought they would be. They did offer some interesting details of parish life, but they seem of more use to genealogists than parish historians. For example, I discovered by chance that in 1843 one rector of St. Paul’s buried a niece of President James Buchanan (then a U.S. senator); Elizabeth Kelso now rests in the Erie Cemetery.

Here is advice I have given previously:

Contact (and join, if you can) the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists. Its address is 509 Yale Ave., Swarthmore, PA 19801. Its email address is nehahqs@aol.com. Also, contact the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 1749, Harlingen, TX 78551. Its email address is administration@hsec.us. I have taken this information from the Autumn 2013 number of the Historiographer, the newsletter for both organizations, “published to promote the preserving of church records and the writing of parochial and diocesan history.”

Here is another resource, two concise publications from the National Archivists. If you have questions, begin with them:

  • Archives for Congregations: An Introduction and Guide.
  • Writing a Congregational History, by Laurence D. Fish.

Robert T. Guerrein, Diocesan Historiographer and member of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie