St. Alban’s, Olney: Changed, But Not Ended

St. Alban's, left, and Église de Dieu par la Foi de Philadelphie


By Richard J. Mammana Jr.

I met the former St. Alban’s, Olney, in 1990 when I was 10 years old, a soprano at a guest Solemn Evensong with the former Singing Boys of Pennsylvania, a sort of choral sideshow that traveled throughout North America, East Asia, and Europe between 1970 and 2014. I remember little about what we sang at the service, but I do remember Canon Dorsey, maybe a dozen people in the pews, and a short trip home from North Philadelphia at night in the choir bus.

I knew little more about St. Alban’s until I was 17 and was given a small red copy of The Practice of Religion by a priest friend. The book, published continuously since 1911, is “a short manual of instructions and devotions” of Anglo-Catholic material not included in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. The book’s title page proclaims its author as the rector of St. Alban’s.

Through books, I came to learn more about St. Alban’s and its pastor of 54 years, Archibald Campbell Knowles. The story of the experiment he launched could only have happened in its place and time with a unique constellation of personality and wealth, and I revisited it with friends this year during Passiontide.

Archibald Campbell Knowles was born in Philadelphia in 1865. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1885, and traveled widely in Europe for the next 10 years. The family’s trajectory through the Social Register and Philadelphia Clubland gives an indication of his early life.

Despite never attending seminary (not uncommon at the time), he was ordained to the diaconate in 1898 and assumed charge of the small mission of St. Luke’s, Germantown, in a bustling neighborhood of North Philadelphia. After Knowles was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Milwaukee, he formed the parish along what he would have described as “thorough” Anglo-Catholic lines in an originally humble church building.

From 1915 to 1921, Fr. Knowles rebuilt the church as a memorial to his parents in French Gothic style, contracting an architect whose other work includes the Philadelphia Cricket Club and railroad stations and hotels in the American South. The church was beautified throughout with Heaton, Butler, and Bayne stained glass in memory of each of his siblings and cousins, with chapels in memory of his wife and daughter, a bell tower in memory of a brother-in-law, and various internal monuments and decorations in thanksgiving for his ordination anniversaries. Fr. Knowles collected no salary during the entirety of his ministry.

The family lived six miles away from the church in comfortable Mount Airy, and a regular complaint in the diocesan archives is that Fr. Knowles conducted most of his pastoral work by telephone. He also kept the telegraph wires warm, inviting bishops from the Bahamas, Chicago, Fond du Lac, Long Island, Milwaukee, and Quincy (but the Bishop of Pennsylvania only on one occasion) to officiate at celebratory events burnishing the parish’s Catholic credentials. The Lord Abbot of Nashdom was a welcome guest preacher.

Fr. Knowles received a Nashotah D.D. in 1937 in commemoration of 30 years as rector. He continued to spend one to two months a year in Europe, writing extensively on Swiss mountaineering, Anglo-Catholicism, and French architecture — and even publishing a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as a very bad novel.

Fr. Knowles died in 1951, the year he was made rector emeritus. He left some of his residual estate to domestic servants, but the remainder to St. Alban’s on the condition that it make no deviation from his standards of Anglo-Catholic teaching and practice. His estate finally wound up 32 years later in 1983, but the parish limped along financially with Knowles fumes for almost 20 more years and single digits of parishioners.

St. Alban’s had only one other lasting permanent priest, Canon James Claypoole Dorsey, who began his ministry in 1961 and celebrated its final Masses four decades later. By 1966 the parish was struggling to pay a priest’s stipend, and the service registers indicate only one baptism every few years, outpaced significantly by burials. (Even in its heyday, baptisms were surprisingly infrequent and often of newborns at local hospitals rather than of parishioners’ children or adult converts.)

By 1968, the roof was leaking and the building needed an estimated $250,000 in repairs. A vestryman complained to the bishop that the parish was being “run to a large extent on gambling and grants,” noting that bingo fundraisers had become the church’s most popular neighborhood offering. It remained a regular setting for the annual gatherings of devotional societies such as the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and the Guild of All Souls.

The last baptism at St. Alban’s was in 1988. There were a final four burials in 1994, and a marriage in 2001, after which there are no service records. A long day at the diocesan archives at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia showed me that in the final 65 years of its existence, there were 42 baptisms, 61 confirmations, 38 marriages, and 217 funerals — in some years there were no sacramental rites at all other than daily and Sunday Masses. Bishop Charles Bennison Jr. formally closed the church in 2005, and the Diocese of Pennsylvania sold it for $180,000 to Église de Dieu par la Foi de Philadelphie (God’s Church by the Faith of Philadelphia) at the end of 2007.

When I drove by St. Alban’s on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the end of Lent, my heart leapt as I saw a man walking from its side door to his car. He asked if I and my three companions would like to come inside. We very much did, and he gave us a tour of the place half in French and half in English, but all in evangelical hospitality.

I learned about the new congregants’ delight in the exquisite English windows, their weekly attendance of about 200 people who worship in their own heart language, perform full-immersion baptism in portable tubs, have services that last several hours with drums and a keyboard but no organ music or incense, and certainly none of Fr. Knowles’s irreducible minimum of Anglican faith and parish life.

Much of the church’s moveable furnishings were removed to Aladdin’s Cave. The Stations of the Cross, some altars and ornaments, the sanctuary lamps, candle stands, and the rood screen are no more. The organ is still in situ, but unplayable after years in an unheated, unoccupied, and disused building. One of the former chapels is a display area for trophies, and another is a repository for coat racks before an empty brass tabernacle in a setting of marble. Dehumidifiers and ductwork clutter the aisles, and one smells Pine-Sol rather than what would have been frankincense in days of yore.

An older self would have exclaimed “Ichabod!” and thought poorly of the people who had now made the space their own, but this is not where I went this year. Part of me mourned within for several reasons, and part of me could see sparks among the stubble — perhaps even flames from those sparks. Something beautiful had been changed, but not ended.

An artificial outpost of a robust religious tradition I think of as my own had been replaced by one that is unfamiliar to me and would have been confusing to Fr. Knowles. But the seeds of this eventual change were planted in the squire-archical origin of it all. The Anglo-Catholic accoutrements are simply not useful to the new Pentecostal congregants, but there is no disrespect in their use of a building of which they are justly proud. What, after all, was St. Alban’s, other than a (mainly) benign Potemkin parish?

Some will opine — as part of me does — that Fr. Knowles had followed the Magdalene in his wasting of what was precious in the service of the Lord, and there is something to this. But whatever he did, Fr. Knowles carried on a ministry that had little to do with his congregation or his diocese. His creation of an admitted jewel box of devotion in the memory of his family certainly glorified God, but this was acknowledged mainly by prelates imported from foreign parts and periodicals like The Living Church and The Church Times.

Absent the need for a stipend, the congregants never needed to practice stewardship in support of the ministry; and they were indeed never able to do so. By the late 1990s, portions of the building had begun to collapse much like the internal coherence of American Anglo-Catholicism had been doing since the early 1970s. The end was ineluctable.

Still and all, there is something here about the power of the gospel to speak to the dry bones of St. Alban’s in its new life and ministry carried on in Creole and in French and somewhat in English. We received a warm Christian welcome from a man of venerable age who has cared for his community and church with the love of a shepherd, and who helped to find them a new home in which to worship. The building is being used by sincere Christians who do things I do not do, but this does no harm to me and much good for them. The removal of candlesticks is at the end of the day a part of the divine plan as old as the Revelation to St. John the Divine.

Christianity is a religion of cyclical death and rebirth, and we live in a liminal moment when even worthy institutions are undergoing their appointed collapse in the fullness of God’s time. The private undertaking of an enthusiast, however good in intention, has become the birthplace of a spontaneous and popular religion. The practice of religion is alive and well, and the Église de Dieu par la Foi could use your help in repairing its roof. A glory has indeed departed, but it is probably a gloria mundi rather than the Shekinah.

Richard J. Mammana Jr. is the Episcopal Church’s associate for ecumenical and interreligious relations.


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