January 19th, 2016 | No Comments »

He appeared at the church wearing a lily in his velvet lapel.  He would have preferred a sunflower, both blooms having remained his signature brand throughout his American lecture tour, but, the latter not being in season, he had chosen the fragrant white blossom, obvious and redundant though it would be in a church.

Oscar had arrived in Philadelphia the evening before, making his second entrance into the city with a more confident, brisker step, compared to the languid shamble of January.  He had, then as now, alighted from the Pennsylvania at the still-new Broad Street Station.  His four ensuing months in America, thousands of miles of travel, discourse and confrontation with Boston intellectuals, Newport society matrons, Colorado silver miners, Texas Rangers, and San Francisco Aesthetes, had sharpened his wit, enriched his lectures, and helped him to succeed at his primary goal:  to get the Americans to pay attention to him.

And now, with his publisher minding him from a few paces back, he turned the corner on 20th Street and gazed at the brownstone church building, barely 20 years old but already ponderously settled on its site, blackened stone architraves and Romanesque arches looming over the pavement and seeming to further darken the already gloomy, post-thunderstorm May sky.

“My dear cousin Basil,” Oscar remarked to Stoddardt.  “One wonders how he came to be here, so far from Cowley, from Ireland, from the civilization he knew.”

Joseph smiled and repeated the earlier offer, “Father Maturin has invited you to stay with him at the Rectory, Oscar.  I know you are not entirely satisfied with the situation at the Hotel Aldine this time around.”

“Hmm, I rather doubt it,” replied the author.  “It will be an Anglican dormitory, sober and sparse.”

The publisher smiled again, wryly.

They reached the entry porch and stepped inside.  At first, it seemed there was no one in the church.  Rows of empty, dark wood pews stretched off into the distance, glowing sanctuary lamps dimly revealing the altar at the far eastern end.  Diamond shaped panes of unfigured amber and green glass in the tall narrow window openings added to the atmosphere of simplicity; architecturally it was a plain, evangelical, preaching barn kind of place, well-proportioned but with little apparent art or craft in the details, the things that Oscar’s self-described, finely honed aesthetic sensibilities would expect.

Off came the writer’s soft, fawn gloves, the purple scarf, the fur collared, bottle green overcoat so very rich and deeply piled it seemed like a plush carpet that children might want to roll luxuriantly around on, and finally the broad brimmed Stetson he had acquired in Leadville and had taken great delight in wearing to his meeting, his second, earlier that day with his hero Walt Whitman.

Tall and broad shouldered, Wilde’s oval face was framed by long, dark hair parted in the center and falling in waves nearly to his shoulders, his lips full and perpetually animated as words flowed from them in peals of witticism and thoughtful observation.  Everything about him was long, extended:  his slender, long legs wearing mouse-colored trousers, his long and expressive fingers that furled and unfurled with each gesture, his aquiline nose, his long, cool gaze that, when rested on a subject, was observant and absorbing.   His rich, dark plum velvet jacket and waistcoat piped in shiny silk, the puffy cravat, the large gold signet ring on his right hand, were each and all together carefully selected and purposefully worn for aesthetic effect.

The ivory walking stick, also an affectation but an elegant one, with a gold washed head worked into the shape of a ram’s head, laid carelessly in the nearest pew, the visiting celebrity looked about, seemingly casually but with a keen eye for details missed at first glance.  Conveniently, the cloudy skies outside lightened slightly, briefly casting a pale sort of sunshine into the church and revealing a little more of the place.  There, on the altar, were silver candlesticks, surely not normally seen in a simple, evangelical chapel in 1882.  Above the altar, even more surprisingly, the walls of the chancel were stenciled with an exuberant and stylized floral pattern in mint green and pink.  Some of the decorative details seemed not quite finished, the painted pattern shading off into seemingly unpainted plaster walls.

Oscar’s attention had just been focused on a very tall ladder leaning against the side wall of the nave and extending up into the gloom near the very high ceiling, where he had caught a glimpse of a figure teetering high atop it, when a familiar voice from behind quietly spoke.  “My dear Oscar, so good of you to come.  Welcome to Saint Clement’s.”

There stood Father Basil William Maturin, Oscar’s second cousin, the Rector of the notorious American Episcopal Church in which they were meeting now, for the first time in some years.

“I could not have visited Philadelphia again without finally seeing you, cousin,” the writer replied as he shook the priest’s hand warmly, his drooping, deep blue eyes nevertheless sparkling with genuine pleasure.  “You must tell me all about your adventures in America.  I am eager to hear your views on these strange and wonderful Americans now that you’ve been settled here for some time.  Do you yearn for Ireland?”

“Oh, there is much to say.  Our experience here has not been without strangeness, but it has also been rewarding.  And rather blessed, really.”

Oscar glanced back at the ladder, sensing that the figure balanced near the top was unmoving, as if listening to their conversation.  The brief, wan sunlight had already faded, deepening the shadows in the corners of the church, causing the twinkle of the sanctuary candles at the front and their reflection on the silver candlesticks to intensify his attention.

His cousin, dressed in a simple, untidy black cassock, cinched with a braided rope, that was rather too short for his already short stature, and four-cornered black birretta pushed back on his head and partly covering his short-cropped, already greying hair, led the two visitors across the central aisle towards another doorway, opposite the entrance.

The priest could certainly be recognized as related to his younger visitor.  He had the same long, oval face, the same nose, high forehead, and long delicate ears pinned close to the head.  His eyes, hooded and overhung by prominent brows, revealed a maturity, sympathy, and inner reflectiveness that was still often punctuated by flashes of humor and mischief.    His mouth, from which sprang, it was said by the thousands in Philadelphia who had heard him preach, cascades of words that fairly vibrated with his desire to share ideas that had touched his heart, was often smiling.  His mind, like his cousin’s, was quick and overflowing, his face with its cleft chin and strong features more handsome.   Unlike his cousin’s attire, his clergyman’s garments were less than fastidious, the cassock rumpled, the dog collar unbleached, the biretta and its tassel frayed.

“Let’s have some tea,” Maturin offered.  “I understand you are not lecturing again this evening?“

“Let’s do, Willie. Oh, er should I say, Father?”

The priest laughed boyishly.  “No need for such formalities here, Oscar.  I may be Father to my colleagues, brethren, and parishioners, but we could as easily be in Dublin again, together, where I’d be just Willie.”

For a third time Oscar glanced up, trying for another glimpse of the figure on the ladder, steering Willie’s attention in the same direction.  “Brother Maynard, a member of our community here, has many gifts, among them being a decorator and artisan of some talent,” remarked the priest.  “When we came here from England six years ago, this building was quite unadorned.  I am certain you know that the brethren from Cowley lead a humble existence, serving God and preaching the Gospel, but our form of worship celebrates beauty in everything around us and especially at the altar.  Brother Maynard is devoted to illuminating this edifice with color and ornament, as we are all devoted to illuminating our flock with Christ’s truth.”

As the three men lingered among the pews while Oscar and Father Maturin conversed about the writer’s lecture on interior decoration the night before, the publisher reflected on the animated discussion and the cousins who seemed so alike, and yet worlds apart.  Joseph Stoddardt had never been to Saint Clement’s before, but was well aware of its reputation and the recent spiritual influences that the Cowley Fathers had thrust into the mix of Philadelphia’s increasingly diverse population.  The Rector’s powerful sermons had gained widespread notoriety among many of the old Quaker families in the city, and hundreds would pack the church on Sunday evenings to listen to his humorous, sympathetic, and insightful preaching, his sermons sometimes lasting for more than an hour, his texts, presented without notes, both intellectual and moral.   The conservative, evangelical Episcopalians among his growing audiences were especially perplexed by the unfamiliar prospect of four or five celibate Anglican priests, led by Father Rector Maturin orating in his piping, Irish-tinged voice, teaching and preaching sacramental themes of ministry to the poor and needy while conducting worship services infused by ornate ceremonial that testified to Saint Clement’s reputation as the most Anglo-Catholic Anglican church in the land.

The controversies that had consumed the people of Saint Clement’s a decade before, the confrontations with the episcopal authorities over the church’s growing alliance with the Tractarians in England, had not entirely ended.  But when, in 1876, the Fathers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist had been called from Cowley in Oxfordshire to take charge at Saint Clement’s, and especially when Maturin had later been named Rector, the church’s influence in the city had begun to grow.

This humble and learned man, thought Stoddardt, shares Oscar’s love of beauty, of language, and of communication and human intercourse in surprising ways.  They are also, however, so entirely unlike each other: Oscar’s bravado and craving for attention in contrast to his cousin’s unpretentious persuasiveness.  They shared, nevertheless, a strong inclination to hearty and genuine laughter.

“Let me introduce Father Field,” interrupted the clergyman as a youthful man, though in fact a few years Oscar’s senior, in a similarly untidy cassock, rushed into the church as if on some kind of mission that was now to be interrupted by this unexpected presence of the Rector and two strangers, one dignified, the other exotic.

“Father, I am pleased to present Oscar Wilde, my cousin, who is visiting America from England.  And Joseph Stoddart, Oscar’s publisher at Lippincott’s.  Gentlemen, this is Father Charles Field, one of our assisting priests here.”

The author closely examined the young priest as they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.  Field’s intense gaze, with his dazzling hazel eyes, was as astonishing to Oscar as the fiery aurora borealis had been on the sea during his January Atlantic crossing, and he admired the man’s muscular frame that filled out the rope-belted wool garment rather more like the Texas Rangers he had recently charmed than a parish priest. His high forehead and already thinning, close-cropped blond hair also contributed to an impression of youthful, robust masculinity, a robustness lacking in Willie’s more delicate demeanor.  Earnestly listening to Wilde’s reply to his polite question about the author’s American tour, Field smiled with a bemused look that featured his slightly turned up mouth and full lips.  Oscar was startled by his own strong reaction to this Yorkshireman, whose heavy North of England accent accentuated the impression of a working-man wrapped in an envelope of humble, priestly garb.

“We have been following the descriptions of your lectures in the newspapers,” Father Maturin interjected.  “Your thoughts on art, that it elevates everyone, from the Oxford don to the Cornish – or, where is it?  Colorado? – miner, is entirely in concert with our aims here.  We are determined to make our church a lovely shrine and a place of worship and help to as many as we can reach. “

“I see that Willie – Father,” rejoined Oscar, to the priest’s smile at the repetition of his cousin’s familiarity, his eyes sweeping back around into the renewed gloom of the church.   “You are not only enjoying beautiful things here, but it seems you are creating them as well.” 

“Thank you, cousin.”

“Stoddardt tells me that you have gained a reputation as a brilliant orator and preacher in Philadelphia.  What did the report in the newspaper say?  ‘A mass of seething humanity crowded the corridors and aisles of the church?’  I can’t say that I have attracted anything close to a mass of seething humanity at any of my lectures.  Much though I would like to have.”

“Oh, I can’t say anything about that.  It is Father Field who has brought a missionary energy to us in his short time here.  He works tirelessly among the working men and boys of the district round about, many of them employed at the locomotive factory just up the road, offering them spiritual guidance and devotion to the sacraments. In all, Father Field’s smile has converted more souls than any eloquence of mine.”

As they had been talking, the four men had exited the church, walked a few paces along the pavement and ascended some steps to enter a three-story, red brick rowhouse.  The Saint Clement’s Clergy House, was, as Wilde had predicted, ascetic, if not grim.  Like the priests’ cassocks, it was all a bit tattered and uncared for.

Seated on a frayed armchair, which was the only upholstered item of furniture in the room at the front of the house where they had been ushered, the famous English aesthete turned his attention back to the impressive Father Field while the housekeeper busily served tea.

“In being true to our present duties,” the Yorkshireman was saying, “we mean to maintain this place as a center of Catholic devotion, while also making it a place for those in trouble.  Many of the working-men in the district struggle with intemperance, foul and blasphemous language, and immoral living.  And the young boys, who start work at such an early age, are exposed to the same impure influences.  We are always seeking, by God’s grace, to help them find better ways.”

“I should think an appreciation of beauty in all things would go a long way to help.”

“Aye, Mr. Wilde, indeed it does.  So, too, would healthy outings to the country.”

“I am reminded of my long walks in country lanes with Ruskin at Oxford, where exploration of beauty in nature and beauty in art ruled the day.  I hope you can find ways to walk with these souls, help them realize higher purpose.”

“Father has shared some ideas with me about founding a company of such men and boys,” interjected Maturin, who had bemusedly watched his cousin and his assisting priest as they leaned closer together and talked in evident sympathy about the working men of the parish, their worthy labor, interest in arts both practical and fine, and struggles against unworthy and sinful inclinations.

“I trust your ideas are bold and perilous, Father Field,” said an entirely beguiled Wilde.  “Dangerous ideas are the only worthy ones.”

Field laughed heartily, as did the Rector, who rejoined,  “Our own Brother Maynard may agree with you.  He is the one among us who attended your lecture in January at Horticulture Hall.  He has the highest regard for your love for and knowledge about the decorative arts, which he of course shares, as you now know.  He returned that evening full of notions he avows were kindled as a result of your remarks.  ‘The secret of life is in art,’ indeed.

“We are not likely to confess to such a notion of the secret of life here, Oscar.  But there is exquisite beauty in holiness, nevertheless.  I admire Brother Maynard for his devotion to beauty, as I do yours.”

Wilde reflected on his cousin’s words, lost for a moment in musing about this filial visit and the unforeseen confluence of his own thoughts about a life lived in the highest aesthetic realms with the similar interests of the two priests sitting next to him, who, nevertheless, themselves appeared to live a most ironically ascetic life. He chuckled aloud, startling himself and his companions.

“Cousin, this has been a delightful visit,” he said, cheerily.

The four men had reached the dregs of the teapot, and had not been offered any more.  Stoddart roused himself, having remained entirely silent, but attentive, during the lively conversation amongst the other three, and gently reminded Wilde of his next engagement.  The Rector reiterated his invitation to the author to lodge at the Rectory that night, after Oscar’s evening appointment, to which the latter declined in terms considerably more gentle than he had uttered earlier in the day to his publisher.

“Father Field, I wish you well in your endeavors to bring beauty, learning, and conduct befitting their station to your men.  I am confident that in doing so, you’ll make them laugh, which is, of course, the safest way to tell the truth.”

The priests, smiling, glanced at one another, then shook their visitor’s hand, and Maturin offered a blessing, which his cousin, surprising himself, gratefully accepted.

Emerging from the gloomy Rectory into now brilliant sunshine and a warm spring late afternoon, the quartet strolled back to the church, where Oscar had left his walking stick and overcoat in the pew.  Entering the nave by the same doorway they had left it, they found a small, dark-haired man in a simple black cassock, again cinched with rope, just hopping off of the bottom rung of the tall ladder that Oscar had earlier noted leaning against the wall.  Introduced to Brother Maynard, he attempted general pleasantries with the shy artist, but only succeeded in gaining the latter’s full attention when he thanked him for attending, and enjoying, his January lecture.  Wilde then said his now hasty goodbyes and started to lead Stoddart towards the main doors of the church, when he glanced up again in the now brightly sunlit sanctuary.

At the top of the empty ladder he beheld, stretching for many feet along the upper reaches of the side walls, a row of large, luminous, freshly painted sunflowers, cheerfully nodding towards the empty pews below.   Adjusting his boutonniere, he smiled and strode splendidly away.



Posted in Fiction