Edgar at Rest

My Chicago search for roots ended at Graceland Cemetery. Even though I seek to know how my ancestors spend their days, I end up in front of a tombstone that weighs upon their earthly remains. “All people are like the flowers of the field,” cries out the prophet Isaiah. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” (40:7,8) The Apostles’ Creed, intoned by believers for over a thousand years, refers to those above ground as “the quick” in contrast to the dead. I don’t know that I picture Edgar or my great grandmother, Stella, as being “quick.” But I am trekking around the country to see evidence of their movement upon their geographical piece of sod. Where did they live, work, play children’s games, fight in a battle, marry, sit contentedly on the beach with their grandchildren? To touch back to some of these places is powerful. My search inevitably leads to their final resting place. And so it did with Edgar and Stella whose weary bodies were interred on the north side of Chicago where many of the greats of the Windy City retired: Graceland Cemetery.

We left our Hyde Park/Kenwood meandering, which covered a neighborhood with a diameter of about two miles, to head north on lovely Lakeshore Drive. We had a couple more addresses to search out before entering the cemetery. They were lodging places for two of Edgar’s sons, Laurence and Edgar, Jr. Google maps showed a classic brownstone apartment building for Laurence’s dwelling at 4503 N. Clifton Avenue. In the Uptown area, we pulled into an illegal spot just beyond the street sign for Clifton. It headed north only into an alleyway. Even though it was full daylight the narrow corridor that gave access to back entrances to buildings, looked like a place I ought not to walk. I started down it, cell phone in hand to capture a shot of an entryway that might have welcomed my grandfather’s brother decades before. But I turned back. People sat—no, they slouched—in doorways and one guy passed by me with an inquisitive look which was enough to end my search. My guess was that Laurence had lived in a tenement building as a young man when this dark pathway was not intimidating. Rooting around for ancestral sightings would have to be from afar for Laurence. I took a picture of this desolate part of Chicago and joined my sister back at the car.

The next address was 4545 Greenview, just five minutes away from Clifton. This was where Edgar’s namesake lived for a portion of his life. We turned onto the street and parked a few spots down from a lovely home with a For Sale sign in front of it. I don’t know what Edgar, Jr. did for a living and I now wonder about his children (my mom’s cousins) and their children. Has someone else recently come on a trek to this home to snap photos and linger over memories? Edgar did well in life. I’m struck that he and his brother lived near each other although I don’t know if they did at the same time. I also notice that their lives, their “quickness”, played out less than a mile from the plot that would welcome their parents for an earthly eternity. In fact, Laurence would also be laid to rest in the same plot preceeding his father in death by just over a year. I wonder if his young death contributed significantly to his father giving up the ghost such a short time later?

We left Edgar Jr.’s former home to head south on Clark Street, a diagonal route that leads directly to Graceland Cemetery. Fortunately, the office was open, even on a Saturday afternoon, and they were able to pull up information about the Tharp family. This seems like nothing short of a miracle—that records of my great grandparents can be pulled from a file cabinet, giving directions to the plot and details about the grave marker! I wonder who last asked about Edgar and Stella? When would someone visit them next? I’m humbled to realize how fleeting is our time of earthly influence. I love the fifth verse in the hymn, “O God, our Help in Ages Past”: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all of us away. We fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.” After all these years of peaceful sleep, a tribe of descendants arrived to pay our respects and give thanks for their legacy.

We found the stone easily because the rose quartz stands out from the surrounding grave markers. Tombstones tell stories, many times stories of heartbreak. The Tharp stone is no exception. Edgar lived to be 78, a goodly age for a man who died in 1930. We know he died in his beloved farmhouse on the Fennville lakeshore and his body was brought back to Illinois where there was a memorial service for him at a church on Cottage Grove (a southside Chicago street). His wife, my great grandmother, Stella, lived to be 100 so she continued as a widow for 36 years before joining him in Graceland. By the time she died she had only three of her seven children remaining: my grandfather, John, his brother Russell and his sister, Stella. Three of the siblings were buried with their parents and their names are on the Tharp stone.

Ruth is the first name. She died at the age of four. My grandfather would say that she died from eating yellow snow. We think there may be more to it than that! He was nine at the time and that sounds like the simple answer you give to a grieving child. Edgar wrote about the loss of his daughter and stated that “she was perfect in every way”. Hearts were broken in 1902 as a family said goodbye to a tow-headed little girl who had a beloved place in the family. My grandfather, an emotional man in his older years, teared up talking about his baby sister even when he was in his nineties.

Laurence, or “Babe” as they called him, was the next to die at the age of 35. He served in World War I, escaping probable death because he was sent back to the United States before his regiment headed into battle. His father, Edgar, wrote him before he arrived home but after hearing of the battle: “Sunday PM  My Dear Son Laurence…Mrs. Woolf, who goes to Lakeside, had a letter from the Major of your Reg. telling her all about the death of Capt. Sackett, and said that Co. F had a very heavy death toll and that 68 out of the Company were in the hospital, so you surely escaped some very hard fighting. Surely we have much to be thankful for.” In the same letter Edgar shared with Babe a poem he had written as a tribute to his soldier son. He had been asked by some “Ladies” to make some remarks at a Red Cross Entertainment Hall at Ganges (near Fennville) that evening. He described how he went out into the barn and sat on a box in the bowling alley area of the barn “and the following words came into my mind and in the evening after reading a tribute to ‘Old Glory’ by Gen. Joff, I gave them my tribute to my boy and was cheered to the echo.” As we stood by the rose gravestone, reflecting on the gifts of our great grandfather, I read his poem:

My boy has gone to the Colors. And I hardly know what to say,

The boy we loved so dearly, Stepped out for the flag one day.

The boy not being a slacker, Stepped fourth with patriot joy

To add his name to the roster. Oh God, we er proud of that boy.

He stopped to watch the recruiting and charmed by the fife and drum,

He lovingly looked on Old Glory, And thought that it said to him, “Come.”

We thought him a child, Called him baby, With no worry or care at all

But his country called him man size and he answered his country call.

The boy has gone to the Colors, yet it seems but a little while,

Since he drilled a schoolboy Army in ready martial style.

But now he’s a man a soldier and we lend him listening ear,

For his heart is true and loyal, Unscourged by the curse of fear.

His Dad, when he told him, shuddered. His Mother, God bless her, she cried.

Yet filled with a mothers devotion, She wept in silent pride.

But he whose old shoulders shuddered Was stern, for his memory ran,

To the years away back in the Sixties When the flag had made him a man

And of fields of battle all gorey Where men for liberties cause,

Fought nieth the flag, Old Glory.

My boy you don’t know how glad I will be when you come home to stay.

Much love, Papa

Laurence made it home from the war physically intact but the trauma of the battlefield took its toll. Shell-shocked, he wasn’t able to find his stride back home. He married and his wife became pregnant. But before she gave birth to their daughter Stella Jean, named after his mom, Laurence died unexpectedly at the age of 35. His name engraved on the base is a sad reminder of the great losses Edgar and Stella faced in raising their family of seven. The young soldier over whom they worried didn’t journey too far into adulthood. Edgar breathed his last 16 months later and this time his son was able to welcome him home—for good!

The final name on the base of the stone is that of their youngest, Stella. She was a lovely young woman with a promising future. When she was about twenty mental illness set in and her family responded to this crisis. This was in the 1920’s when folks were shut away in institutions out of necessity and, sometimes, familial embarrassment. It is a testament to the Tharps that Stella was encouraged and equipped to lead as normal a life as possible long before there were meds targeted for specific mental ailments. I knew Aunt Stella as I was growing up. She lived contentedly in the farmhouse in the summer, picking the wild blackberries for her breakfast and making her way down to the beach she had so enjoyed as a girl. We picked her up on Sunday mornings for church and she would have her teeth in for the occasion! She had worked during her life but lived on very little. There are poignant letters from her mother to Stella up until her mother’s death at age 100. My great grandmother would send a few dollars to Stella to help her out financially. She expressed concern over any of her daughter’s issues which were clearly conveyed through written correspondence. She encouraged Stella to calm herself by reading the Psalms or to wear galoshes to prevent catching a cold.

Aunt Stella canned fruits in the summer, something she must have done a thousand times since her childhood. She would offer these precious jars to us and we were a bit apprehensive because the house she kept was so unkempt. But these were the gifts she offered freely because of the love that had surrounded her. I suspect her parents would have been surprised to know she would live to be 81 years old, given her challenges. But then again, maybe their “normal” treatment of her mental illness indicates their expectation that she could live a long and happy life. Which, for the most part, she did!

So I met Edgar in Chicago, first in Kenwood where several generations of his clan lived for a long while. I could see the pride he had for his own family in his elegant Lake Park home which stands strong still today. Though all of Edgar’s children and even his grandchildren have changed ranks from “the quick” to the dead, I have met them in the places they lived, the letters they wrote and the memories I hold. Flowers may wither and fade but, for the time they are in full bloom, they are beautiful to behold!


Edgar in Kenwood

I knew my great grandfather, Edgar Tharp , primarily from my time spent on the Michigan lakefront. It is in Fennville that he built an enduring legacy of a family in a farmhouse that still stands today. Because he died even before my mother was born there were no active memories to go on, just photographs and stories. But I knew that I needed to travel to Chicago to know Edgar well. I lived in the city when I attended Chicago Theological Seminary from 1983-1986. I knew that the seminary was located in my mother’s home turf but I didn’t think much beyond that. I was young and busily establishing my own professional life and falling in love. So I didn’t think about Edgar when walking in his space. The shortest journey on my Nourishing Roots Sabbatical was a weekend trip to Chicago.

We started with lunch at my sister, Michelle’s, home in Oak Park on Friday. We then kicked off our journey into my great grandfather’s roots by walking from Michelle’s home several blocks to the house where Edgar’s sister, Lillie Hyland, lived: 835 Highland Avenue in Oak Park. Just three quarters of a mile apart, the two homes are separated by four generations and, now, by I-290! So we had to jog east to cross the highway and then reconnect with Highland. The homes in this neighborhood were built in the 1920’s so Lillie may well have been the original owner. It was a cute house in good condition. My sister from Florida, her daughter and two granddaughters had traveled to be a part of this roots tour. So, with some of Michelle’s kids in tow as well, we posed for pictures in front of our long lost Great Great Aunt Lillie. This was the beginning of a weekend of smiling for the camera in front of strangers’ front doors,  hoping that home owners would not run out at us with weapons!

We traveled into the Chicago Loop to spend the night. We stayed in The Drake Hotel, which is where my grandparents spent their honeymoon. The grand opening was in 1920 so it would have been THE destination of choice when they wed. It still is a beautiful hotel with old world elegance. With spectacular fresh floral bouquets and gilded fountains, it is a destination place for afternoon tea, a glass of wine or a perfect backdrop for a selfie! Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend too much there because we had work to do! But we savored the setting knowing that our grandparents had treated themselves to the Drake opulence almost 100 years before us.

Saturday morning we drove south on Lakeshore Drive into Hyde Park, my old seminary stomping grounds. I ordered sweet potato pancakes with pecans then set about to determine our itinerary before my hands were sticky. I had a list of ancestral addresses that were divided into south and north Chicago. I didn’t have any particular order to the six southern places so I plugged them all in from where we were sitting, The Medici Restaurant. The furthest distance away was eight minutes. Edgar and his family found this corner of Chicago to be a hospitable home and didn’t stray far from one another. This particular neighborhood is called Kenwood. I had always known it as Hyde Park. Annexed to the city of Chicago in 1889, it became one of the most affluent residential areas in the city. In recent years it received national attention as the home of President Barack Obama. The eastern boundary is delineated by Lake Michigan. It was and is such a desirable setting that it was chosen as the host site for two world fairs. The first was in 1893 when my great grandparents were raising their children in the area. The second one in 1933. Kenwood was an enviable place to live!

We decided to start with Edgar and Stella, our great grandparents’, home at 4343 South Lake Park. We had a sepia-tone photograph with brittle scotch tape holding it together where it had apparently been folded in four. With this in hand we headed north. As we approached the address we found a parking spot and pulled over. The six of us walked a couple of blocks, passing beautiful old homes in varied states of (dis)repair. Fortunately the Tharp homestead is in good shape. It has some changes to the original features of the house but is still very much the same. In the photograph from 1904 a little girl (we assume my grandfather’s sister, Stella, named after her mother) is on the front steps. My great grandmother, “Nana”, is a shadowy figure on the porch. My grandfather told us that his mother delivered all seven children in the upstairs bedroom marked by the window on the left. The doctor lived on the same street, convenient given the unpredictable timing of childbirth! To stand in front of the house where my grandfather spent his childhood was deeply meaningful for us. Three generations of us posed in front of it, again waiting for agitated homeowners to come flying out the door. We were armed with our 1904 photo to assuage them if they did. Two of us—Cheri and I—had recollections of our great grandmother from our early childhood. We could touch back to this home through the memory of her and especially of my grandfather who never lost his love for 4343 Lake Park. Reluctantly we climbed back into the car and plugged in another destination.

Our next address was on the same street, just a bit south: 4932 South Lake Park. We have a letter Nana wrote her daughter, Stella, in 1962. Nana died in 1966 at age 100 so this means she was 96 years old when she penned this tender letter of encouragement. It is a vacant lot now but I imagine it was an apartment complex that offered ample space for an old woman who had so much life in the rearview mirror. She spent her senior years just over one mile south of her family home. That must have given her great comfort, actively remembering walks with babies in strollers, Sunday mornings in church and family meals around their dining room table.

We have preserved a letter from Edgar that placed him at our next destination: 5710 Drexel Avenue. Our best guess is that it was a residence for him before marriage. It is now the campus of the University of Chicago Medical Children’s Hospital. The timing of his presence there remains a mystery but the location underscored our realization that his life played out in a relatively small geographical area. This  stretched to a second beloved homestead on another lakeshore in Fennville, Michigan. He and Nana named the Lakeshore Drive home in Michigan after their beloved Illinois neighborhood: Kenwood.

The next address we pulled up on Google maps was 5447 Greenwood Avenue. No longer a residential area, we found ourselves looking at buildings that belong to two seminaries: McCormick Theological Seminary and Lutheran School of Theology. They are part of the Chicago Cluster of Theological Schools.

I was struck as we drove around the streets of Hyde Park on a rainy day that the very place where I was trained to serve as a pastor was home to my ancestors. The faith they nurtured in homes and churches  were alongside the chapel where I nervously offered my first sermons (God have mercy!) in a Homiletics Course (sounds boring already) and where Garrett and I got married. My sister took pictures of me standing in the courtyard of what used to be Chicago Theological Seminary before the University of Chicago gave them a relocation offer they couldn’t refuse. In 1985 our classmates, who were poor grad students like us, catered our rehearsal dinner in the seminary cloisters. The chapel, which is the upper part of the building behind me, is now a classroom for the Freidman Institute for Economics of the University of Chicago. Time moves forward and spaces where God’s presence was invoked become settings for sweating an exam on macroeconomics! But, I digress. The Greenwood Avenue address that was so close to CTS was that of Edgar’s oldest daughter, Marguerite, and her husband, George. They lived one and a half miles from her parents. At some point they moved to California and raised their children far from her birth family. I suspect she never felt the same about her home out west as she did in the Kenwood corner of Chicago.

Our final destination in the south Chicago tour was the home my grandparents lived in until my mother was about four: 54 South Blackstone. The street view yielded by google maps showed green space, no house. While meandering in the general area of my seminary, we found the location. It is a corner lot that serves as a fenced-in yard to a neighboring residence. It was difficult to grow too attached to somebody else’s yard that once housed my mom’s family. But we darted out of the car to take another picture in the rain of soil that had once permitted a foundation to support walls and a roof over precious kinfolk.

What we were struck with was the overall proximity of Edgar and Stella Tharp’s family over the course of several generations. Chicago was their small hometown! My grandfather, Edgar and Stella’s son, started his married life in a house just a quarter of a mile from his childhood home. Even with failing memory when he was in his 90’s he remembered with clarity the richness of family and faith he experienced along the shores of Lake Michigan.  I was newly impacted that God led me to a seminary and a life’s mate in that same neighborhood called Kenwood. As the preacher in Ecclesiastes proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun!”


Edgar on the Lakeshore

I know Edgar through photographs, grainy black and white images of a man who is never smiling. I know Edgar through his letters, loving messages of faith and encouragement he sent to his wife and children. It’s clear from his words that he had a deep contentment for the life God gave him. Even when voicing concern to one of his children, he reflected a strong faith that kept him anchored in choppy waters. I know Edgar from a place even though we never overlapped at this place. I have slept in the house he built out of devotion to his family of seven children. I have met Edgar but only indirectly.

Edgar is my mother’s paternal grandfather. He died on May 22, 1930, two years before my mother was born. He was 78. His widow, my great grandmother whom we called Nana, was 64. She would reach her 100th birthday, spending 36 years without her husband. My life overlapped with hers by seven years. I can remember sitting on her lap, a frail woman with a ready smile. She spent summers on the shores of Lake Michigan and so did we. I got to know Edgar through her and in this place that meant the most to him: a farmhouse on Lakeshore Drive in Fennville, Michigan.


When I was young the farmhouse was creepy. Nana was too old to take care of it in the last decade of her life. It went to her daughter, Stella. My great Aunt Stella was of meager financial means, a poor housekeeper and had increasingly dim eyesight. This was a prescription for decay in the home her father had built. When we walked up from our cottage to visit Aunt Stella she would open the creaky door onto the wrap-around porch and musty air would waft out from the front sitting room. It was always dark except for the parlor where she had a floor lamp with a glaring 200-watt lightbulb! I inherited this beautiful piece of home decor for my apartment in Chicago after Aunt Stella died. You know that stage when you accept any item of furniture that anyone will give you? I settled for a 100-watt bulb and that worked well for me.

In spite of the decrepit state of the farmhouse in my youth, I could imagine the glory days from my grandfather’s tales. He and his siblings labored to help their father with the chores. At the end of a sweaty workday, they raced down the bluff and bathed in the lake. An outhouse served the plumbing needs of the family for decades. Edgar built a barn that housed a sturdy mule and some chickens. There was a bowling alley built into the barn that kept Edgar’s seven children entertained. A clay tennis court was smoothed out of forest floor and this, too, became part of the family lore about glorious summers on the lakeshore.

Edgar became real to me through his writings in a farmhouse log where he recorded his activity on their lakefront property at the turn of the 20th century. He and Nana built the home in 1896. They named it Kenwood after their neighborhood in Hyde Park, Chicago. He writes, “The district where we bought our home, 4343 Lake Pk was called ‘Kenwood’ where there were many churches, good schools and no saloons.” His penmanship was beautiful and his Christian values emerge readily from his entries. The details he gave in the log were precise: what varietals of grapes he purchased, how much chicken wire he bought to contain his brood, the Chicago-based company to whom he sold his strawberries. The real treasure was the journal entries he made in the spring as he first arrived at his beloved farmhouse. He described the process of preparing the earth for another fruitful season. Edgar always arrived at the farm a couple of months before the family. He came in the middle of March many times facing harsh weather conditions. He prepared the soil, ordered the plants, cleaned the barn and pruned the fruit trees. He always gave a commentary on the weather, the size of the beach, and social outings that included Sunday drives to visit his sister-in-law and her husband in downtown Saugatuck. He went to church and had nice conversations with his neighbor, a local doctor.

From November through March Edgar worked as a realtor in Chicago. But what he lived for was the spring thaw when he could leave the big city behind and head north to the property along the shores of Lake Michigan. A drive of only a couple of hours now, it would have been a significant journey at the turn of the century to cover those miles. But it became a beloved and familiar trek for generations of Edgar’s family over the decades. It was the place of family reunions with time shared between the gracious home and the beach. The family worked hard to do the chores that come with living on a farm. But they also knew how to take time for meals and tennis matches. There’s a picture I love of my grandfather and his brothers on the roof of the house. Who took the picture and what was the occasion? It captures the fullness of life that was lived in these 19th century walls.

Edgar’s obituary is brief: “Edgar Tharpe [name misspelled] passed away at his lake shore home last Thursday. The funeral was held at the home at 10:30 o’clock Saturday a.m., Rev. F. H. Zerbe officiating. The body was taken to Chicago for services and burial. Mr. Tharpe, with his family, lived at their home on the lake shore summers for many years and made many friends in this locality. He is survived by the widow, two daughters, Mrs. Menard and Stella, three sons, Edgar, Gilbert and Russell.”

The last entry in the farmhouse log is from the Spring of 1929, one year before Edgar died in his beloved home. It paints such a lovely image of the contentment he felt arriving on the lakeshore each Spring that I will close with that:

“Apr.22 Friday the 19th it began to rain and kept on raining hard for 30 hours. Sunday morning the garden and orchard in front of the house was covered with water and the pond and woods clear over to bucks was like a good sized Lake and the road from our south line to Dr. Irwins corner was like a large ditch. At Dr. Irwins road the water ran past his barn to the gulley west of the barn and today the 22nd the road is still full of water and the road near Bucks is impassable being covered 18 in with water. Nothing like it has ever occurred before in the 29 years we have been on the farm. I have had plenty of wood and have kept warm. I drive East through the farm to Westvelds for supplies and Shep [his dog] and I have plenty to eat. E. H. Tharp.” (copied verbatim)

The man in the grainy black and white photos emerges from the shadows of the past in this journal entry. This weekend three generations will gather on the lakefront for “Cousin Camp”, the youngest of whom are five generations removed from our patriarch. Somehow I imagine Edgar looking in on this joyful chaos and smiling.


Iona in Images

So I made it across the ocean without incident to return home. Along with my own bed and Half & Half for my coffee, I gained good internet service. The wi-fi blight is over! I can access emails and upload photos with abandon. Of course, the best images of my trip are in my head. I’m still in Europe in my dreams and awoke the first two nights at home to be confused about where I was. In 30 days I stayed in 16 different hotels! Each day added one layer after another of discoveries about my ancestral roots. I haven’t been able to walk away from this trip easily!

So let me revisit the last chapter of my trip when I didn’t have the technology to share my pictures. The Isle of Iona is known for its beauty and faith so I’m going to give you a glimpse into life on this place of Christian pilgrimage.

It’s not easy to get there. I left the home territory of my MacDougall ancestors by ferry. As we pulled away from the Oban harbor I was able to see the Dunollie Castle, home to the current MacDougall clan chief. From the water it’s easy to see what a prominent position it holds to watch for aggressive sea raiders. The ride from Oban to Mull is scenic, skirting other Hebrides islands to arrive on the Eastern coast of Mull. A bus was waiting so a long line of us loaded our bags into the storage area and jumped aboard a very comfortable coach.

Travel on the backroads of Scotland is very different from American roads. Most people use public transportation so there are very few drivers vying for passage way. The roads are wide enough for maybe one and a quarter vehicles. This means that, as you see a car approaching you from the opposite direction, you make a quick decision about who is going to pull over into one of the designated “passing places”. Sometimes one person has to back up to a passing place so that each can then continue on their own journey. This obviously wouldn’t work if there was heavy traffic but there isn’t. Island residents jumped on and off the bus to get to appointments, jobs and social events. It wasn’t just for tourists. We were also held up at one point by a Highlander cow who was happily grazing along the side of the road. Our bus had to completely stop and yield to the reluctant response of the cow who was much more fixated on the grass than our huge vehicle. After 50 minutes through scenic territory we arrived at another port on the southwest side of the island. The final leg of the journey was a 10 minute ferry ride across to Iona.

The view from the ferry showcases a town that seems very small. The Abbey is the dominant structure and it stands clear from other homes and businesses that cluster around the port area. The evening I arrived I walked from my hotel, the Saint Columba, down to the port and beyond. It’s easy to get a sense of the community. While there are other parts of the island that are developed, the east coast is the destination for thousands of tourists each year. The ferry between the island of Mull and Iona runs frequently all day long, depositing literal boatloads of people to check out the shops, restaurants and natural beauty of the island. It is known primarily as a spiritual mecca and it was evident to me that a yearning for a Christian experience was what brought many people across the waters.

Historically there have been five churches on the east side of the island. The Abbey has morning and evening worship each day and many people visit specifically to participate in those services. There is a chapel among the ruins of a 13th-century nunnery where women served their God for several hundred years. In that same area stands the community church which was for the residents. The Abbey would have been the place for the monks to worship. Therefore those who lived on the island had their own small church where they lived out their Christian convictions. The Bishop’s House is a retreat center and it also houses a lovely chapel. I took a picture of the frontal that covers the altar. It is lovingly crafted to reflect the community in which these Christians serve. You’ll notice that there are sections depicting puffins, sheep, local flowers, and water. The central image is that of a boat whose mast forms a cross. One of the seat cushions on a Deacon’s Bench depicts a nautical scene. Life on Iona is directly impacted by the surrounding waters and the effect that the sea has upon their day-to-day experiences. To find this uniquely reflected in each parish is not surprising. Finally there is a congregation established in the 19th century that hosts a Church of Scotland congregation. Island visitors are warmly encouraged to attend worship at the three churches that still have intact buildings: the Abbey, the Bishop’s House and the Church of Scotland congregation.

In the three days that I was on Iona I attended three worship services at the Abbey. We sat in the choir loft area in upright wooden benches with high backs. The people spoke of major renovations that happened in the 1400s! It is still a work in progress with layers of history that surrounded us as we joined our songs and prayers to those who preceded us. The pianist sits in a loft area, perched above an ancient doorframe. She played beautiful and contemporary music from this archaic stage. The power of the Spirit at the Abbey is palpable. There are graves, statues of holy people and Christian symbols in every part of the monastic compound. Each generation has worked to renew the space and add their own symbolism.

The wind blows continually on Iona and that, perhaps, is the best image for the attraction to this untamed and beautiful place: the Holy Spirit has been a presence and blessing to Christian pilgrims ever since Saint Columba established a monastery in 563 A.D. He arrived by boat with 12 Godly men to serve as Christ’s disciples. Boatloads of us have been washing up on these shores ever since!


A Proper Vocabulary

I’m dying to know what our President and the Queen talked about today! I know, there are reported conversations thanks to the media. But it would be fun to be a fly on the wall to see these two together. With the time I spent in the British Isles it is clear to me that there are different expectations of etiquette and accompanying vocabulary. Even though I spoke English in England and Scotland, it was clear I wasn’t always speaking the same language!

I found myself repeatedly using words on our European trip that I seldom use here. Let me offer a list of those words with confirming pictures!

Quaint: I can’t tell you how many times I expressed amazement at a quaint scene before us. How about these images?

Picturesque: I seldom use this word in my daily life in Belmont, Michigan. But I found myself naming the scenery before me in this way quite often. What do you think?

Darling: There were certain scenes, especially with children or animals, that could only be described as darling. Another word that I seldom use in my Michigan environs. But see if you don’t agree with me!

Charming: Probably our most common association with that word is pairing it with the word “Prince”. No surprise, then, that our fairytales often times came from the British Isles where a monarchy has been firmly in place for generations. Check out these photographic images showcasing a charming life!

Idyllic: Every now and then circumstances in our lives are idyllic. Too often for me the demands of daily life make it hard to either see those moments or have the time to experience them. On this trip there were countless times when my family and I witnessed scenes that were truly idyllic. Let me make my point!

Exquisite: I walked through enough museums in Europe to be able to verify that I have now seen many exquisite images and items! Here are just a few.

As I found myself developing a new vocabulary to response to my new digs, I also learned to appreciate a few words that I heard repeatedly. These were familiar words but they held a different meaning in England and Scotland. See what you think:

Proper: it is impossible to over-use this word in England. Again, I imagine Queen Elizabeth meeting up with our POTUS and wonder how he was able to be proper in the British sense?! This adjective was even used to describe items on restaurant menus. Here’s just one illustration.

Brilliant: I seldom use this adjective. It seems to either apply to someone like Albert Schweitzer or a stunning diamond ring locked away at Buckingham Palace. It has such extreme value as a superlative word that we seldom pull it out of our vocabulary word chest. It is used in England very often and we learned to drop it in conversation appropriately. A recent example would be the British diver who first found the lost Thai children and their coach. With his headlamp shining on this elated cluster of children, he asked how many of them were there. When they told him, “13”, his answer was, quite simply, “Brilliant!” I doubt that any of us would’ve chosen that word for those circumstances but I kind of love it! So that’s my example.

No worries: Every culture seems to need words of reassurance. We found this phrase to be particularly popular with the wait staff in restaurants where we ate. We were relieved to hear that we didn’t need to worry about asking for extra water (it is not routinely brought to the table and you typically pay for it) or having our eggs scrambled dry! We weren’t going to worry about such mundane details but, with the waiter’s words of assurance, our uncertainty about what we needed to worry about–or not–was allayed! So,



My Clan

I’m on a train clanking south toward Glasgow. Tomorrow I get picked up at my hotel at 6:30AM to begin a long day of travel home. I’m ready. I can’t stand any of the clothes I so carefully packed over a month ago. I’ve added one suitcase that is crammed full of memorabilia and gifts. Yet I’m still almost literally bursting at the seems. It’s time to go home.

But the train is passing through very scenic countryside. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of fields dotted with sheep and lovely “lochs” or lakes carved out by glaciers eons ago. But it’s more than just pastoral hill country that I’m sorry to leave. The train is taking me away from the land of my ancestors. I left the Isle of Iona by ferry this morning and had several hours back in Oban to walk about before hauling my accumulated stuff to the station. So I sat at an outdoor table on the Oban Esplanade and soaked in the city associated with my clan: the MacDougalls.

My paternal grandmother was a MacDougall. She was quietly proud of this. She had a picture of her father—James Ellis MacDougall—who is in full kilt regalia and playing the bagpipes. He has an awesome moustache but it can’t hide his smiling eyes. His daughter Jean (think Brigadoon song lyrics, “…go home with bonnie Jean..”) was very proud of her Scottish heritage. She was my great aunt and I was given her name as my middle name. She had a three piece suit made out of the MacDougall plaid that she wore in all seriousness for special family gatherings. That’s a lot of wool—especially for a middle-aged woman! Loyalty to one’s clan can be sacrificial. So our final leg of the family journey landed my sisters and me in Oban where there are two castles associated with our Scottish ancestors: Dunstaffnage and Donnollie.

Dunstaffnage is three miles out of Oban and is open to the public for tours. My three sisters and I hopped in a cab which dropped us off at the edge of a wooded property. Fortunately there was a sign to reassure us that he had not left us off somewhere to perish. So we followed the indicators into the woods and soon there was a green clearing. An enormous castle loomed in the distance. It was made of the typical Scottish construction material: large stones and mortar built upon an outcropping of rock. No wonder these ancient dwellings endure! We learned that it was built by one of the earliest MacDougalls in 1220 when the clan was relatively newly formed and powerful. If my 13th century kin wanted a status symbol, this castle certainly would have done it!

Really old structures in Europe have layers of history: additions to the building and losses from fire or natural decay. A house was built within the walls in the 1700’s that added significantly to the (comfortable) sleeping quarters the castle could offer. There was a tower with narrow windows for firing upon the enemy. There was a dungeon just beneath the sleeping area of the family. How convenient to be able to hear any uprising-in-the-making of your prisoners while drifting off to sleep! The castle is built on a promontory at the entrance to Loch Etive. It would be impossible for an enemy to approach Dunstaffnage by sea undetected. And if they tried to come in through the backwoods, arrows were poised, ready to shoot through the narrow slits in the three meter thick stone walls. It’s an under-appreciated feature in our modern homes. Perhaps a hidden camera at the front door is our closest equivalent!

The Donnollie Castle was within walking distance of our hotel, the Oban Bay Hotel. We walked up a path that climbed toward a farmhouse built in the 1700’s when the original stone castle was no longer habitable and far too costly to renovate. This was a smaller castle, again built on an elevated parcel of land that looks over the Oban bay. A tower remains and a wall marked by a Celtic cross. In both clan “homes” their Christian faith was evident. At Dunstaffnage the clansmen actually built a chapel within walking distance of the home. As recently as the 20thh century, MacDougalls were buried there. At Donnollie the home is inhabited by the present clan chief, Lady Morag. They live in a portion of the old farmhouse during the summer and have dedicated the lower level as a museum. We carried our great grandfather with us on our tours in the form of a grainy black and white photograph. At the end of the tour we showed this to our guide and told her we, in fact, belonged in this space! She was either threatened or intrigued because Lady Morag’s son emerged from the home to greet us. Three of us were wearing MacDougall plaid scarves so that made it easier for him to identify us. I can’t say that we had particularly remarkable conversation with him or will add him to the Christmas list. But it felt very special to connect with a direct descendant of those who had built and claimed this castle as home for hundreds of years.

For us 21st century MacDougalls, the most meaningful aspect to these castle visits was to experience the life of our ancestors by breathing their air, standing in their personal living space, and looking out their windows at stunning scenery. We learned a few things about our clan through these tours. At Donnollie Castle there was a room for making cheese (one sister’s eyes lit up and she said, “I like cheese!” Proof of our heritage, no doubt!) They did weaving and crafted lovely items. I’ll claim the aesthetic roots. They were thrifty! Check. Wherever they journeyed, they took samples of local plants that they liked and added it to their lovely garden. The result at Donnollie is an estate filled with a very unlikely and interesting mix of foliage. We learned that the MacDougalls have a progressive attitude toward women! A couple of generations ago the clan chief had three daughters and no sons. Normally he would have nabbed a nephew or younger brother as his successor. But this leader divided up the land three ways and gave each daughter a parcel. The present clan chief is a woman and she is respected in her role. Finally we learned that our clan was peace-loving–another attribute that we liked. We provided safe keeping for those on the run. We declined participation in a couple of wars, wishing to simply tend to our land and family instead. So we were all about that feature of our heritage. But that strong point became our weakness, as is often the case. One guide, before she knew we were MacDougalls, stated that the clan was known for making poor decisions. Dang. We were doing so well! It turns out that being peaceable in times of savagery was disadvantageous!

Aren’t we still trying to figure that one out as Christians today? How do we preach Christ when the arrows are slinging at us from above? When do we pick up a sword and when do we walk away from a fight, exposing our hind quarters? How do we muster the courage to take a stand for a just way of life when it might cost us our castle, like it did my ancestors? Dunstaffnage was overtaken by the Campbell clan which was much more aggressive at war. Donnollie had to be abandoned for a long period because they refused to fight against the king and chose to stay home and mind their garden. This cost them their land and home. Peace is costly. History tells a story that often isn’t evident in the moment. I`ll proudly claim my MacDougall clan, warts and all. I suppose that’s what being family is all about.



As I leave worship today I walk along a stone path believed to be more than 1000 years old. It’s called “The Street of the Dead” because generations of believers have processed along this route between church and cemetery. Humble monks are buried next to kings. The inscription on grave coverings harkens back to bloody battles when the pious men who lived in the Abbey took a stand for the faith that cost them their lives. Their community reverently carried their bodies from sanctuary to graveyard on The Street of the Dead to their final resting places. To be buried on the sacred isle of Iona was regarded as a quicker and more sure entry into heaven. I return to my hotel room and am irritated that I have a lousy wi-fi connection. I can’t even upload pictures to my posts. Honestly! From sacred to sour all in a Sabbath morning! I find it interesting that I can simultaneously treasure the ancient remains of holy sites yet expect my favorite modern conveniences to be available at my beck and call.
I’ve gone as far west as I can with my journey. I’m on the Isle of Iona, part of the Hebrides Islands off the west coast of Scotland. An Irishman sailed across the waters with 12 brothers in Christ to establish a worshiping community here. He became known as Saint Columba and his arrival in AD 563 was the beginning of a spiritual transformation for this small parcel of land. He built a monastery that became known as a center of Christian teaching and artistic trade. He was greatly respected for his wisdom and miracles of healing so pilgrims like me have traveled long distances to tap into the Iona holiness.
St. Columba died at the Abbey and a shrine was erected over his casket. I’ve spent time in prayer in this tiny dwelling (it seats four and one at the kneeler) a couple of times. I learned that none of his mortal remains are, in fact, still on the premises. Ancient churches like to have relics, items of particular holy power because they are attached to a revered saint. (In one of the churches we visited it was the kneecap of their beloved saint! It was tastefully displayed atop some pretty fabric in a glass case. Lovely.) It seems morbid to us modern folks but people were willing to kill to obtain these things. The Vikings started invading the Abbey because they heard there was good stuff to be had. In 795 they rowed one of their long boats up onto the beach of this peace-loving community and exercised force to grab some goods. They came back a second then third time, ransacking with abandon. So the monks packed their few treasures away, including the weary bones of old Columba who got relocated to a monastery in Ireland, his homeland. But the fascination with relics continued to entice the Vikings whose worst attack on the monastery was in 825. The monks were tortured and killed for not revealing to the invaders the new resting place for Columba’s body. My faith seems paltry when I consider the willingness of these men of God to give up their lives rather than the brittle remains of their patron saint. I imagine the burial procession for these courageous souls that perhaps followed the stony path of the Street of the Dead, realizing that the cross I bear for my faith is not nearly as heavy as I sometimes believe. The Iona Abbey is built on martyrs’ blood yet I am able to sit peacefully in their sanctuary on a cool July morning to connect with the same God these monks worshiped when Vikings came bursting through their doors!
There are no signs of such violence now. To the contrary, pilgrims from different countries, old and young, male and female, wander the grounds of the Abbey quietly. I attended a prayer service this evening that gave most of the time for personal prayer. It was guided by a liturgist at its conclusion. The surroundings of the Abbey are pastoral. Two highlander cows caught me off guard tonight as I walked past the Abbey toward the hills beyond. Looming a good two stories over me on an adjacent hill, one made unashamed eye contact with me. I was zoo material for her just as she was for me. We engaged in a stare-down of polite curiosity. The land is “bumpy” with grassy hills that are relatively treeless. Rocks stick out of the earth everywhere. I looked at a large hill in the distance and noticed it was bespeckled with white sheep. They talked to each other as the evening light began to dim. Animals have a good life here. There’s a wind off the water and the air is pure. I think of my ancestors as I take in the beauty around me.
Iona became a destination for me at least 15 years ago when I first discovered their worship resources. Wild Goose Publications is their printing house and I have borrowed from it for years. They have an order of worship for a healing service around which we have shaped our own Sunday service during Lent. I have used their rich liturgies and melodic harmonies by noted musician, John Bell. When I learned that these materials were born out of an intentional faith community on a Scottish island about three miles long and one mile wide, I plugged it in as a future destination. I am soaking in the sacred while here. In addition to the monastery which sits immediately to the north of my hotel, there is a 12th century nunnery just to the south. Many of the walls are gone but the footprint of a once-active convent is excavated with explanatory signs that describe the function of each space. The Chapter House is a room where the nuns met daily to process the days’ events. They confessed their sins and expressed their gratitude in communal prayer. The stone benches upon which faithful women perched in black habits for hundreds of years still line the walls. So I have collapsed the distance between my Scottish sisters and myself by praying there. My Spiritual Director gave me a three day plan for a retreat and I am following that in any number of inspiring settings on the island. I am reflecting on the passage she gave me: the Road to Emmaus. Not coincidentally the words to the refrain of our final hymn in morning worship were: “Singing, we gladly worship the Lord together. Singing, we gladly worship the Lord. Those who are travelling the road of life, sow seeds of peace and love.” (The Living God. Music is a Guatemalan folk melody arranged by John Bell.) Yes, Lord, I am listening!
It will take a long time for me to fully process this chapter of my life that has moved me from Munich to Iona over the course of a month. I’m grateful that I have a Biblical three days on this mystical mound of Scottish soil to rest in God’s presence after a whirlwind journey of Nourishing Roots. The people and places, the sights, sounds and smells along the way have been an even greater blessing than I could have imagined. And I had high expectations as I took off from Gerald R. Ford International Airport a lifetime ago. God has been very much present and even now, as I sit alone in a hotel room and eat my meals by myself in the adjoining restaurant (I have a new insight into how hard that is for those without spouse or family), I know that I am always in good and holy Company.
By the way, I won’t have the internet connection necessary to upload pictures to this post! I’ll have to add them later. But, if this is my greatest hardship today, my heart is filled with gratitude!



5-4=1. One.
I started off this Roots Pilgrimage with my husband, Garrett, and daughter, Maria. We flew into Munich where we learned the word “glockenspiel” and battled our way through jet lag. We moved on to Austria to dip into the Sound of Music story and claim the inspiration to my daughter’s name. From there we traveled to Paris where I studied for a month almost 40 years ago. We far surpassed 10,000 steps per day, climbing up to the upper dome of Sacre Coeur and the winding streets of Montmartre. We headed into rural France to visit our French daughter’s parents in Villerville and enjoy their hospitality in provincial France. We smelled Monet’s garden flowers. I loved being able to speak in French again and was just getting back into the flow of this romance language when we jumped on another train.

We journeyed to Amsterdam, which my daughter found to be the most interesting city we visited from the vantage point of a Fashion Designs major. Garrett heard the native tongue of his ancestors spoken. We rented a car and headed into the Dutch countryside. It is idyllic and criss-crossed with serene canals. We worshiped in the church his great grand-father pastored many years ago and had rich connections with some of the parishioners there. We have been extended gracious hospitality in countless ways on this trip. We left Holland by train, traveling underneath the English Channel to arrive in London. After an upper deck Hop On-Hop Off bus tour of the city, Garrett and Maria left me to resume their lives in Michigan.

As those two left, however, three sisters flew in to join me for the leg of the journey that explores our roots. Now there were four of us exclaiming over the discoveries we made that link us to the British Isles. We spent only a day in London before heading into the villages of England. The Seymour branch of our family hails from Sawbridgeworth so we spent time in a church in that sweet town that was home to an ancestor in the 1500’s. We moved on to Rochdale, the birthplace and home to my grandfather, Walter Chapman, for at least the first five years of his life. We never knew him so it was significant to walk in the places where he likely played as a child with his parents, Thomas and Maria. I felt a strong connection to this place that I will carry back with me to my son, Joe, who carries my grandfather’s name as a middle name. We sisters pushed on to Barton Mills where we lived as little girls when my father was stationed in Lakenheath Air Base. I had graciously been given the opportunity to preach in Cloverfield Community Church in Thetford which is just a stone’s throw from the town where we lived. We have found that each worship experience has made us feel “at home”, even when we didn’t speak the language!

We left England by train and headed into Scotland. My grandmother, a MacDougall, carried her Scottish roots proudly. We knew, even as children, that there was a MacDougall plaid and that her father—my great grand-father—played the bagpipes and wore a kilt. We had a grainy photograph to prove it! From the first day we arrived and everyday thereafter in Edinburgh, we heard bagpipes! Men wore kilts commonly and castles dotted the land like chess pieces on a lush green playing board. We toured through the Highlands which are stunningly beautiful to arrive at Oban. Two of the castles we visited there belonged to our MacDougall clan. We felt a kinship to these long lost forebears as we breathed their crisp, clean air and listened to the gulls swooping in from water to the land. Once again we claimed a place we could call home.

I am overwhelmed by the discoveries this trip has provided! I pieced together a Nourishing Roots journey with family members that would deepen our self-understanding. I have been blessed far beyond what I could have imagined. I have been in the constant and wonderful company my family. Today we go our separate ways. Two sisters are on the way to the airport. The other sister is joined by her husband and they are extending their trip to bike around the island of Mull for several days before returning home to their lives in Ohio. The five of us (three sisters and one brother-in-law) savored seafood on the waterfront of Oban last night and toasted an unforgettable trip that will be a blessing to our children and theirs.
Today I am one. Alone. On my way by boat, bus and ferry to the final destination of this pilgrimage: Iona. I have wanted to visit the Protestant worshiping community on this island ever since I started using their rich worship resources at least 15 years ago. I will stay on the island for three days, tapping into their worship life. I won’t have a train to catch, a dinner to share, a castle to explore. I can take the countless pieces of this trip and begin to place them in some sort of holy order. I can spend some time in quiet so that God can speak to me of what significance this trip holds. It is clear, from the beginning of my dream to pursue this Lilly Foundation “National Clergy Renewal Grant”, that God has been with me and given me far more than I dared to hope. Today I travel on alone. I have a 6PM phone date with my husband because it is our 33rd wedding anniversary. We will remember the day in Hyde Park (Chicago) on July 7, 1985, when loved ones traveled in from near and far to celebrate our love. I will be away from him on this significant day for the first time in our marriage. It is an odd day. Even sitting in my hotel room alone feels different. I cannot remember a time in the past 35 years that I have spent three days on my own with no one else that I know to keep me company. It feels strange—but it also feels right.
Pray for me as I intentionally place myself in God’s good keeping. A three day stint in the Bible is always a gestational time. Biblical figures emerged from three day retreats different from when they started the journey. Jesus, for Heaven’s sake, resurrected from the dead in three day’s time! So pray for the Spirit to move over the Scottish waters of my ancestors and to speak to me through the cry of the gulls who fly over the same waters as did their ancestors. Pray that the worship services I will enjoy with my brothers and sisters at the Iona Abbey will go to places deep within where I need to find answers. And pray for Peace. The Peace that passes all human understanding.
Today I am all the more aware that I am not traveling alone. This is and has been a journey of God’s choosing. I am so grateful!


National Pride on

I’m thinking the Queen is on to us. First, she throws her annual Garden Party to honor the good deeds of regular citizens in London the very day we’re at the gates of Buckingham Palace. As we fiercely held our places in the crowd, just hoping to catch a glimpse of the changing of the guard, two soldiers on horses approached the gate. They swung open and a royal procession of horses, police officers and cars with honored guests drove through the mob, into the inner sanctum of the palace yard. The gates swung shut but elevated cell phones continued to capture every move of these poor folks on the other side of the bars. It was only later, by asking folks around us, that we learned the cause for the pomp and jubilation (I don’t get to use that word nearly enough and this is as good a time as any!): a royal Garden Party! Splendid!

Yesterday my sisters and I were happily strolling along the Royal Mile in Ediinburgh (pronounced Edinboro with the end of the word falling off—Edinburra). Again there was a crowd massed around a wrought iron gate peering in with pairs of eyes and cell phone cameras. There were occasional cheers. We didn’t pay too much attention as we were taking in the new digs. The voyeuristic event seemed to end and the crowd dissipated. But after about 10 minutes we heard bagpipes. Truthfully there has been a bagpiper on the streets playing in full Celtic garb every time we’ve been out on the Royal Mile. But this was not the strains from one lone piper. The gates to the courtyard opened and a squadron of bag pipers marched out in unison, their music drawing people in. We soon realized something formal was happening as the musicians were preceded by a battalion of soldiers. They stared straight ahead and moved in sync. Royal Police cleared the way since the street is usually a pedestrian walkway. A couple of cars were led out with grand ceremony as we videotaped the event. Again, we didn’t know what party we had crashed. But, through frantic questioning of those around us, we learned that it was the annual Garden Party for honorable Scottish citizens, just as she had done for our benefit in London the week before! Though we never made it to the other side of the iron gates, she let us get pretty close! Long live the Queen!

Yesterday was our first full day in Edinburgh. In fact, for me it’s first time I’ve been in this country. You guessed it—Scotland claims a part of my roots. Two of my sisters have been here before and say that they feel like these are “their people.” I feel that way in England and my DNA cheek swab confirms this. I am 87% English, 5% Scottish, 5% Scandinavian and 3% something else. We’re anxious for the sisters to get results from a DNA test to see if the Genealogical Soup the six of us share as children of Jim and Katie Chapman has significantly different breakdowns of the same ancestry! Do the two who really relate to the Scots have a higher percentage of Scottish blood flowing through their veins, prompting them to wear plaid and whistle mournful bagpipe tunes like my grandmother did? Does my English make-up predispose me to laugh more heartily at Monty Python jokes? I jolly well think so!

The name that brings us to Scotland to close out this amazing journey is MacDougall. My paternal grandmother was named Katie Florence MacDougall. We have always had floating in our family photo gallery a grainy black and white print of her father, James, wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipe. There are times I have looked closely at that man and marveled that he is my great grandfather. He and his wife, Florence, raised a very musical family, immigrating first to Nova Scotia and then to Massachusetts. My grandmother’s affirmative response was always “Aye”, pronounced “Ayah.” She adopted the Boston speech pattern of dropping the “R” where it clearly is printed (i.e. ”Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd”) and adding it where it has no right to be heard (she called her father “Papper“ rather than Papa). We knew she had Scottish roots but really attached her more to Massachusetts than the British Isles. We were kids. It was hard to think beyond our experience.

But finding ourselves inadvertently in a royal parade with a bevy of bagpipers and uniformed RAF soldiers struck me deeply. In that moment as I stood alongside the fanfare with all the marks of a Scottish grand occasion I realized that this was me, to some extent. Once again I was witnessing sights and sounds that were familiar to my ancestors. My sisters shared similar reactions of experiencing uniquely Scottish goosebumps during the ad hoc parade! Our DNA had found a piece of home.

So I don’t have much theological insight about this experience. But I am realizing, as I look at monuments and lavish buildings built by generations of royals to commemorate generations of royal events (like marrying a woman, making her your Queen only to have her beheaded later! Not everything has a pretty ending!), that having a functional monarchy certainly has its advantages. Kings and Queens serve their best interests by showcasing their wealth in some exquisite way for their people and the world. Since their budget is quite lavish and their workforce is relatively unlimited, a bunch of spectacular stuff can be built that lasts for a really long time. Tourists like us get to visit and gawk and take pictures of which Prince did what when and what china pattern was created to commemorate the event. It’s a distinctly un-American political environment and funny that I should be reflecting on it today, July 4, 2018. There has been nothing Fourth of July-ish today, apart from wishing each other joy as American sisters. Instead we’ve witnessed what the beneficence of a faithful Queen toward do-gooder citizens can do to bolster the national joy of her people. Its quite easy to get pulled into the jubilation!
God save the Queen!


Placing Walter

My father’s birth certificate gives us information about his father, Walter. His place of birth was listed as Rochdale in Lancaster, England. At the time of my dad’s birth in 1931 his father was 53. He married my grandmother later in life and became a dad when his contemporaries were welcoming grandchildren. My grandmother, much to the chagrin of her family initially, was twenty years younger than her groom. She insists she wouldn’t have changed a thing about their marriage. They were happy and had a quarter century to enjoy each other before he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 70. My father was a senior in high school. Walter never met his son’s beloved, my mother. He didn’t have the opportunity to play with his grandkids. Apart from family stories, Walter was lost to us. On this side of heaven we know people by physical place but my grandfather claimed no physical corner of my life. We gave our second son the middle name of Walter to honor the man we had never known. In our Nourishing Roots journey, Rochdale figured importantly.

We pulled into town around noon on a Friday. A stunning old building was marked as the town hall. Offering public parking, we took advantage of that and headed into a nearby pub for lunch: The Flying Lion. Assessing our options we saw a dish on the menu that cried out to us: Rag Pudding. That had to be a historic recipe! No self-respecting chef would give that name to a dish today. Sure enough, it’s a recipe that dates back to the 19th century when peasants would wrap a mix of ground beef and some spices into an old rag to give it some shape while it cooked. Think of it as meatloaf wrapped in phyllo but you remove the phyllo at when finished to reveal a savory dish served with brown gravy and a mash of peas (that’s a very popular menu item here, we’ve noticed). Nowadays, pushing poverty aside, the meat is cooked with a crust around it. We had no choice but to order it. We were meeting Walter through our food.

We know, from the copied page of an 1881 census, that Walter lived with his parents and maternal grandmother at 6 Broadley Place. His mother’s maiden name is Broadley. One couple sitting in our corner of restaurant looked approachable. They acknowledged that they were locals. Since our GPS didn’t pull up a location with the Broadley address I asked them if they had heard of it. Never. But she gave us crucial information. At an art gallery/local museum/archive office we could dig through artifacts from 125 years ago. It was within walking distance. After savoring our Rag Pudding (so-so, sorry to say) we headed to Touch Stones to try out our luck with the local data base.

However we didn’t get far because we were drawn into the local town hall that was across the street from the pub. There are so many buildings on this trip that are so grand and spectacular that we have felt pulled inside. An older gent sitting behind the reception desk told us that the spacious entryway was the only part of the building that we could explore. In all other areas the Rochdale government was in process on just another business day. They do offer tours but not on the day we were there. To give you an idea of the size of this building, the tours were 2 ½ hours long! My sister disapeared and returned wtih a woman who was willing to do the 5-minute tour! We happily followed her and she led us into an incredible banquet hall that is open to community members for celebrative events. Construction was completed in 1871, seven years before my grandfather was born. It makes complete sense that he would have been here with his parents or maybe his grandmother, Mary Broadley. We were already beginning to place Walter.

We walked on to Touch Stones and saw the needed bureau tucked back to the right of the entryway: Local Studies Centre. While my sisters explored the displays that comprised the Rochdale Museum (don’t you love small town pride?) I pried the very helpful women who sat behind computer screens near the entryway. My personal investigation quickly became their project. I had several questions I was hoping they could answer through the stacked and piled resources in the small office. Are there any baptismal records for Walter Chapman or his parents, Thomas and Maria? Could we pin down their home church? Are there records of any other Chapmans in local cemeteries? Could they help us find 6 Broadley Place listed as their address in 1881? One woman went one way and plopped onto the floor in front of some very large books. The other started shuffling through enormous plastic sleeves that held maps from the past. Soon we had some answers!

According to a map from 1892, 11 years after the census data, there was no Broadley Place. But there was a “Broad o’ th’ Lane Place. This could have been a longer version of the same street name. The archivist said that buildings in that area would not date back to the 1870’s but assured us that it was still a residential area. She gave us the needed post code for our GPS and we moved on to the next issue.
The Protestant church in town was St. Edmund`s. The Local Studies Centre had the records from the other churches in town but not that one. They gave me the email address I can use to track down those records. But there was something they found that indicated that the Chapmans were a part of that congregation. When we looked at the 1892 map we saw that the suspected neighborhood of my grandfather as a small child was within walking distance of St. Edmund’s. The pieces were fitting together even if they weren’t backed up with a paper trail yet.

Final issue: burial. I knew that my great grandparents and my grandfather are buried in New England, where we will travel in August. So I wasn’t looking for their final resting places. I was looking for traces of my family from earlier generations in this English town.There was only Chapman listed in their records: Thomas Chapman of Low Mill who died August 5, 1839 at the age of 54. This would probably put him a couple of generations before my great grandfather, Thomas and three generations before Walter. His name was listed in a tedious book that only an archivist could navigate: Schedule and Inscriptions—Disused Burial Ground, Drake Street (St. Chad’s New Burial Ground). This was the parish whose spire towered over the Town Hall with a daunting set of steps climbing up to it. She explained that a grave from that long ago was probably located in an enclosed area that housed historic markers that were no longer intact or standing. She was too polite and professional to use the word “creepy” but that’s really how she was describing the historic cemetery on the grounds of St. Chad’s. It would be nothing short of a miracle to find any evidence today of an earlier Thomas Chapman but at least we knew where to look.

Armed with postcodes, email addresses and vague indications of neglected tombs, we left Touch Stone with the obligatory books from their gift shop that could give us even more information about my Grampa Walter’s birthplace. We were ready to place Walter, the grampa we had never known.

We knew that St. Chad’s Church was in the general direction of the car, if you add a steep climb up a hill and subsequent descent. So we started hiking along a path and stairways that must have been there for close to 100 years. Of course our thoughts were always whether this was a pathway that might have been traversed by our very young grandfather nearly 140 years ago. St. Chad`s is a stunning cathedral that has a great view of Rochdale. We looked unsuccessfully for the abandoned graveyard. It didn’t really matter. We weren’t altogether sure that this Thomas was an ancestor and, if he was, it felt holy to simply walk among the other graves and know that he was buried out of this church almost 180 years ago. The tiled walkway that surrounds the church is a block mosaic of marking stones with inscriptions bearing names and dates: final love letters to the saints beyond. Just as we saw in the floor of so many ancient churches, the rectangular stone that sealed each tomb was laid right next to another so that the stone path we walked on was a stone quiltwork of Rochdale’s dead. We looked for the name of Thomas Chapman to no avail. We know that Walter’s grandfather perhaps lived his days in this town and was buried at St. Chad’s in a place marked only by history.

We returned to our car and plugged in the address given for the supposed residence. It took us away from the town center into an area that appears to be home now to hard-working laborers. We found ourselves on a street that presently is called Molyneaux. We parked and wondered if we had placed Walter correctly. I got out of the car to take some pictures and noticed that the string of homes where we were parked bore the even numbers stretching between 2 and 18. There was a tan home whose door was ajar: number 6. This could be the place! It wouldn’t have been the same buildings but it would have been the same street. The layout of the homes from the 1892 map looked similar to the long strings of tenements that stretched along the streets of this modest neighborhood now. When I turned back toward the car, having captured the desired pictures on my phone, I saw a stone tower looming above the rooftops. I shot a picture of that as well and joined my sisters in the car. I shared the news with them that the street number lined up for Walter’s 1881 home. My sister had pulled up a google image of St. Edmund’s Church so that we could hunt for that. When she showed me the Wikopedia image, it lined up perfectly with the tower I had seen over the homes! We got out of the car and started walking to church, right along the path, we imagined, of Maria, Thomas, young Walter and Grandma Mary. Once again we felt like we were placing Walter.

The walk to St. Edmund’s was easy. This would have been a natural choice for a spiritual home in an era when people walked to church. It was another impressive structure that dates back to 1873. Walter was born in 1878. We walked around the church which had a locked gate forcing us to keep our distance. Was our grandfather baptized here, welcomed into the faith that he would pass on to his children? Did he squirm in his mother’s arms as she invited God into her life for another week? We may find out definitive answers from the data base we can access by email in the town records. For now we wonder. We walked all the way around it, placing Walter in this sacred spot that now is used for community events and addiction outreach. Sadly it was closed for worship in 2007 and bears no signage that indicates an ongoing purpose apart from what we read on line. Though the Word is no longer preached in this place that perhaps welcomed my grandfather into the Christian faith, the Spirit moved from his life to my dad (who was ordained more than 50 years by the time he died) and later to me. Fortunately our faith is not reliant on places but on people who invite the Spirit to be their guide. The Word takes root not in real estate but in human hearts.
Although we didn’t have the hard data we might have liked for our grandfather’s past life in Rochdale, we left very contented that we had finally placed Walter!