A Parish History


by Elaine F. Davies

I want to start with a prayer for the Middle Aged taken from a Reconciliation 1963 newsletter.

“Lord, Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and everybody’s affairs.” 

When you are dealing with the history of a 152 1/2-year-old parish, it is such a temptation to start in 1869 and work to the present. Not today.

It is particularly difficult to construct the history of the Church of the Reconciliation. The information available is not comprehensive. Some of the most interesting insights into the parishioners’ worship, interests, and charitable efforts come from diaries and minutes of the many women’s organizations over time. I thank the Craver family for preserving many of them. I hope we will be able to find more over time. 

So what can we say about Reconciliation over its 152 years?

First and foremost, the Church of the Reconciliation was formally organized and named on January 3, 1870. The name is probably easiest to understand. It was four years after the Civil War. The country was in Reconstruction. Many had served in the war. The parish took Christ’s message of Reconciliation as its focus.  But the process of creating a parish started about 8 months before, and the first service actually took place on July 18, 1869, in the old town hall. The prominent men of Webster — the grandchildren of Samuel Slater—owners of the textile mills; their colleagues—other mill owners, and the owners of Webster businesses—whose names you see on the maps—came together to organize a parish and build a church. My new question is why the Episcopal Church? Samuel Slater founded the Methodist one. 

In any case, the records indicate that for a number of decades, parishioners picnicked together on the July 18th date to celebrate the first service—and I quote “a day at the lake was a real event in those days, and lemonade by the barrel, and roast beef, ham and pressed chicken were all on the menu.”  So Pastor Michael—this is really a fitting day to celebrate, and I think we should do it every year.

There were plenty of building events over time—the church built and dedicated in a year designed by a famous NY architect, the parish house, the rectory, expansions, and of course, my favorite—the horse shed so the more affluent parishioners could park their horses.

Choosing the right Pastor for the right time has also been important. Each of our 17 Pastors has brought his or her own special gifts, preaching the word of the Lord for the times and pushing the parishioners to be God’s hands in the world. Our longest serving Rector, Rev. Linsley, made a lifelong impression on the Bishop of Los Angeles,  Bishop Robert Rusack, who grew up at Reconciliation. He wrote: “As a boy, I went with him to carry boxes of food to the poor. I patiently held a pan of broth, which he prepared in a garret tenement room as he fed a man who could eat only slowly through a funnel, having suffered the loss of a good bit of his face in a mill explosion. Fr. Linsley went to the room twice a month so the man’s wife could get away for a rest.” 

What is clear from the existing documents about Reconciliation is that the parish—that is, the church, God’s people—even as the demographics changed over the years—followed the social and economic trends of Webster and the country. They took part in the war efforts of WW I and II supplying surgical dressings and clothing. The women lectured their girls on the privilege and responsibility of voting when the 20th Amendment was passed. They tightened their belts in the Great depression. They bailed out from the 1939 hurricanes and the floods of 1955. They dealt with the end-of-the-mill culture.  But throughout all the years, you can discern in the parish a thirst for education for social justice and to put the great commandment to love our neighbor into practice—-which makes our partnership with Zion and Pastor’s Church better together so important.

These charitable endeavors were linked to a thirst for education about the world with frequent lectures about Asian and African issues and missions over the years, including such issues as the effects of rubber production in Liberia.  We supported, for example, in the 30s,  the Kuling American School in Lushan, China—where Pearl Buck studied. There is a parish in Tanzania that has a matching communion cup to the one we use. The fruits of the parish’s international ministries continue as we support together the Mampong baby home today. 

But what is most heartening is to read the stories of mission and outreach recorded by our young people throughout the decades as they learned their responsibilities as Christians.  In 1920 one wrote: “We sent [Mrs. Houghston from NC] a box some time ago, and she wanted to thank us for it. She gave us a description of the type of people she is working with. They are people with almost no education. Their houses are very small, usually two rooms, kitchen, and room where the whole family lives and sleeps, sometimes there are as many as four beds in one room. They do not undress to go to bed……They had no form of social work.” Yet this one Webster girl recorded the simple joys experienced there as the women joined Mrs. Houghston for what she called parties, with the women quilting and listening to the victrola. 

The parish also supported many other ministries, including St. Agnes Hospital, a training hospital for black nurses and doctors, and many native American ministries. 

But, of course, big issues closer to home have been addressed over the decades. Right from the start in the late 19th century, the women organized to sew clothes for the needy of this mill community—without regard to religious affiliation. It seems to be quite a production with people responsible for sections of town and types of clothing. Probably the biggest decision was the one in 2016 to have the Rectory used as Reconciliation House—a halfway house for men recovering from addiction who were coming out of prison and then the founding of Opening the Word Peer Recovery to deal with addiction recovery in their own hometown—a topic first mentioned in the records in the 1950s.

So—seminal events—buildings, leaders, organizations, education, social justice—all are part of Reconciliation’s history and should serve as a foundation as we continue our path of church better together with our brothers and sisters here at Zion and explore new ways to be God’s hands in the world. 

Let me end with a quote from an inspirational speech given to a church organization of young girls in 1918 because I think it’s relevant for our partnership.

“Look inward. Look outward. Look forward. Look upward.” And I will add the following. Note that we don’t have to look backward. We know we each have a solid foundation.