Unsung Saints by Curt Asher, Interim Dean, University Library, CSU, Bakersfield
come and go and the people in them are forgotten. I am going to talk for a
minute about one of those people, a person whose life affected ours, even
though most of us have never heard of him before. One of those in the great
cloud of witnesses that we’re told in Hebrews 16 surrounds us and gives us the
strength to persevere in the race marked out for us.
walked into this church about 100 years after Edward Morgan did, but his
presence was still here.I didn’t know
it then, but I could see it when the evening light hit that window behind me,
and when the processional marched toward the altar.
In 1898, it
was hard to live in Bakersfield.There
wasn’t air conditioning. In most places, there wasn’t even electricity or
indoor plumbing. The air was thick with flies and gnats and mosquitoes, and the
fetid smell of animal waste. It was so dusty that the city would pay a man to
drive a team of horses back and forth through town pulling a water wagon to dampen
the main streets in an effort to keep the dust down.Ice was hard to get and meat that was
slaughtered in the morning for market had to be sold or smoked by sundown or it
would spoil.People who could afford to
leave town went away in the summer and people who couldn’t nailed sheets to
their walls and over their windows in a failing effort to keep out the brutal
heat and the constant dust.There was a
rail station on the east side, serving this area’s permanent population of
mostly farmers and merchants and ranchers, and those who worked for them.There were lots of bars.Brothels lined L Street.
had been here for 12 years in 1898.In
those days it was located on 17th and I.It had had parish status since 1891 and the
church itself had survived a fire that destroyed most of downtown.
1898 was the year Edward Morgan came to town.He was an Irish Episcopal priest and Saint
Paul’s was his first church. He wasn’t bound for the priesthood when he crossed
the ocean to come here.He had come to
America from Ireland to ride the range and chase cows across unfenced expanses
of Texas and California, which he did until he had some kind of religious
experience in his late 20s that called him to the priesthood and caused him to
leave the cowboy life behind. He was
ordained at the age of 31 in San Mateo.
Bakersfield struck it rich a year after Father Morgan arrived, in the 1899
oil boom. The oil boom would exponentially expand Bakersfield’s population over
the next decades.Saint Paul’s grew so
fast that those who came to worship couldn’t fit in the church, and a new Saint
Paul’s church was built on the same I Street location, which would last until
it was knocked down by an earthquake in 1952 and this church was built.
The community’s wealthiest families attended St. Paul’s, so the church
got wealthy too, while Father Morgan was priest.During his time here, the Ascension Window
behind me, the baptismal fount and the Italian marble altar were given to the
church by one of its wealthy parishioners, William Tevis, in honor of his
father-in-law, who was the 12th governor of California and, by the
way, the only Hispanic ever to be elected governor of this state.
Morgan struck it rich in 1899 too by way of an inheritance from his aunt, Midy
Morgan, a then well-known New York newspaperwoman. Famously eccentric, and over
six feet tall, she was so masculine looking that, in that far less tolerant
era, she was once falsely arrested for transvestitism on a streetcar by New
York police.Midy Morgan made her
fortune trading Irish horses in Europe, earning vast sums from European
royalty, particularly Italian King Victor Emmanuel. After she died, her money
went to her nephew.
it was like winning the lottery, right?Father
Morgan found himself, suddenly, with wealth in a church that was full of
wealthy parishioners in a town that was being built on a scramble for oil
wealth.So how did he react to that?
continued to sleep on a cot in the church study and he returned the entire
salary he earned each month to the church.He lived the ascetic life of a monk amid wealth.
he brought about change. He brought new religious practices to the church.He instituted the processional march, led by
the cross, that opens our service; he started the first robed choir.He put a stop to some of the cliquish
practices and efforts to control things that the Church Guild, a fund raising
group made up largely of the wives of rich men, had been using to dominate the
direction the church was going.
the new church was built, he had the old church building physically moved to a
donated lot in East Bakersfield and established Saint Barnabus mission there to
serve the transient railroad workers who inhabited that side of town. It was a rough
neighborhood around the east side rail station, even then, but the Sunday night
service at St. Barnabus was so well attended that he had to hire an assistant
priest to help manage it.He also set up
Episcopal missions in Greenfield and the Rio Bravo area.
1905, when someone tried to open a saloon near Saint Paul’s, Father Morgan, who
was sympathetic to the temperance movement, blocked it by buying the building
with his own money. He then turned it into offices.
lifelong bachelor, Father Morgan left Bakersfield to become parish priest at
St. Luke’s in San Francisco and his tireless work after the 1907 fire and
earthquake led to his earning the title Canon.Later, he was noted among a group of clerics in London who spoke out and
preached against World War I.
wrote novels, all of them on religious themes, which never made him famous, but
his many travels to remote and distant places led to his being named a member
of the Royal Geographic Society.
he was called to the chaplaincy, he served as chaplain at the state’s toughest
prison, San Quentin.He was also
chaplain at a church facility for elderly women on Lombard Street in San
Francisco and later he was a chaplain at Grace Cathedral.
In his 70s, during World War II, he escorted children
who had been orphaned by the Nazi bombings of London from England to Canada,
where he helped them find new lives and escape the horror of war.
He had quite a life.He had a
big impact on this church and he touched a lot of people.One of his novels— I think the only one
that’s still around— puts a different spin on the story of Judas. A few years
ago, I managed to locate a copy and read it. The title makes it clear how he thought.It was called Abundantly Pardoned.If it’s
about Judas and it’s called Abundantly
Pardoned, you have a pretty good idea how he felt about forgiveness, and I
imagine that that quality of mercy was a help when he was working at San
Quentin, among men who had done horrific things to other people.
To some other Christians in other churches, today’s reading about the
Holy Spirit descending and filling the apostles means being so powerfully
touched by the Spirit of God--baptized in the fire of the Holy Spirit--that
they are sent into ecstasy and, like the apostles, given words that are
incomprehensible to everyone around them.They believe that the language of heaven is being channeled through them
by the Holy Spirit.I love that idea and
for many people, especially those who have long been oppressed because of their
race or their class, the enthusiasm of holiness Pentecostalism is a place to
Like most things Episcopalian, our understanding of today’s reading is
less dramatic, although no less meaningful or profound. The apostles had come
to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a celebration
of God’s revelation of the law to Moses. People came from distant places, and
as they gathered and encountered the Holy Spirit many languages were
heard.The Pentecost story has often
been interpreted to mean that Christ’s salvation was opened to all people of
every language and it was a call to take Christ’s redeeming message out into
the world. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a
dove, and his mission to the world began. At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit
descended upon the Apostles, the church’s mission to take Christ’s light out to
the world began.
So Pentecost reveals to us each year that the Holy Spirit is alive in
unexpected places ; alive in our works of forgiveness and mercy and charity; alive in times of private prayer; alive in our
encounters with one another; alive in the bread, wine, and water of our
sacraments; and alive in the words of our Scriptures.
A belief I share with our brothers and sisters in the Holiness churches
is that the experience of the Holy Spirit can lead people into worlds of wild
uncertainty, thwart their personal ambition, and overwhelm them.Like a young Irishman who crossed an ocean to
chase romantic cowboy notions and ended up a priest building a church in
Bakersfield and touching thousands of lives in ways that can’t be measured or
known, bringing Christ’s light to dark hate-filled places, where men in prison awaited
death on gallows and where children suffered in war. Edward
Morgan had a big life. But it isn’t just big lives that bring insight and
Christ’s light to the world. Years ago I was having a bout of self-pity thinking
about the lack of bigness in my own life, while working mind-numbing nights
sorting heart defibrillator parts in a factory outside Seattle and wondering
how I was ever going to dig myself out of the hole I’d fallen into.Someone gave me an insight that day that I
needed to hear.He said that the big
picture isn’t so important.What’s
important, are the details of your life.
goes against everything we’re raised to believe, right? Aren’t we here to strive and win and achieve and
make as big a splash as we can in the years we have on earth?Of course we all want to do well and achieve
success, but I don’t think that’s where the Holy Spirit is. It certainly isn’t what Jesus cared about,
because success to Jesus was the inverse of worldly fame and wealth.He just wanted us to love one another and to
follow him and his Father’s commandments and the rest didn’t really matter.
think the Holy Spirit lives outside our ambitions and in the circumstances that
surround us.The Holy Spirit can make
even the mundane details of our lives holy, and bring together the trillions of
coincidences and circumstances that give us this moment.
you look around this room, you may see people who have prayed for you when the
circumstances of living overwhelmed you or when you were you sick or worn by
grief.Or maybe you see someone who touched
you when you needed to be touched or accepted you when you needed acceptance or
offered a kind word at the right time or provided you with a place and an
opportunity to show that you care. That’s where the Holy Spirit is.That’s where the Holy Spirit lives.The Holy Spirit lives in each moment of good
that we share together.That’s what
Pentecost is about to me.It’s about
recognizing that the Holy Spirit is here in this world, speaking thousands of
different tongues, and reaching out to us through the lives of unsung and
unremembered saints like Edward Morgan, and in this room in every gesture of
acceptance and love that we share.