Saint Stephen’s was fortunate in that its founding members included children and people in their 20s along with the usual Continuing Church contingent of older folk. With only a few dozen members in our first full year, 1983, we still managed to acquire five teenage altar servers and two layreader-acolytes in their 20s, as well as a noisy baby or two. Throughout my rectorship, while the parish certainly had many older members, it always had children present and usually had not only boys to help at the altar but also altar servers of the young professional or graduate student sort.
Our first services were held in a community room of what was then called the Athens First Savings and Loan on Alps Road. The altar and chairs had to be set up and taken down every Sunday, so the portable altar was a folding table elevated on coffee cans with a cloth frontal, fair linen, candles, missal stand, and cross on top. The setup was not very stable. One Sunday just as I turned to begin the communion of the people, one of the acolytes, Greg Griffeth, began to bow profoundly by the side of the altar. ‘This is very devout,’ I thought to myself. Then it became apparent that Greg was not displaying Eucharistic devotion so much as fainting. As he went entirely prostrate, he hit an altar leg, shaking the whole ensemble dangerously. His mother hurried forward, and consciousness was quickly resumed. In future weeks I think we endeavored to keep the temperature a little lower for the sake of the heavily vested servers and clergy, but in any case a parishioner, Robbie Robinson, made wooden braces to hold the table legs more securely.
In that period I was still resident in Durham, North Carolina, and travelled to Athens twice a month on weekends to help the new congregation. Parishioners would organize dinners and receptions on Saturdays to introduce me to potential members in a social setting. On one such occasion I met Ann Hammond Dure, a good friend to several of the founding members. Ann told me that she planned to join us for church the next day with her 13 year old son, Beau. She added, however, that Beau was just joining the choir at a local Episcopal church, and that they would therefore very likely not switch churches. I said I did understand.
The next day the service began with an abbreviated Morning Prayer, including the General Confession, with its erring and straying lost sheep following the devices and desires of their own faulty hearts. I think there also was an unintended second confession inserted into the Eucharist, and the lessons and perhaps the sermon were rather penitential in character as well. Later Ann told me that as they left church she asked Beau what he thought of it all. His reply: ‘I feel like scum, Mom. Can we come back?’ They did. Beau became an acolyte and served at the altar for the rest of his high school years. Ann became a faithful member and a good friend. Children often can distinguish the genuine from the false better than adults, so I took Beau’s impulse as a good sign. Years later a family with four or five children came to the parish after bouncing around many churches for years. One of our members, Bill Herringdine, asked one of the children what she had made of Saint Stephen’s when they first came. She answered: ‘It’s as if we’d been living on fast food, but at Saint Stephen’s got a home-cooked meal.’
Also in our first year we had at the altar the Adair boys, Alex and his younger brother, David. Like Beau Dure and Greg Griffeth, Alex and David continued to serve through high school. At Christmas one year I gave Alex and David each an envelope with a small gift to thank them for serving so faithfully. The two gifts elicited two thank-you notes, whose striking similarity suggested either fraternal collaboration or parental assistance in composition. The notes, nonetheless, were not quite identical:
From David Adair –
Dear Father Mark,
Thank you very much for the Christmas present. Money is always a welcome gift. I will use it wisely.
From Alex Adair –
Dear Father Mark,
Thank you very much for the Christmas present. Money is always a welcome gift. I will use it wisely. I’m not so sure about David.
The first baptisms in the parish included one out in Crawford, Georgia. We had only temporary quarters for worship at the time, so I agreed that Ezra Montgomery Lewis could be baptized in a punch bowl at Dot and Marion Montgomery’s house. Ezra at that stage in his life was generally called by family members ‘Ezra Lee’. When I said, ‘Name this child,’ his godparents clearly and confidently and mistakenly said, ‘Ezra Lee’. Unfortunately his ‘real’ Christian names were supposed to be ‘Ezra Montgomery’, with his surname ‘Lewis’. Ex opere operato, Ezra is in the eyes of God ‘Ezra Lee’.
Ezra grew up in the parish. Some years later he appeared in the parish hall wearing a t-shirt displaying the name and shield of Yale College. I thought that no one in the family had attended Yale, so I said with my Yankee accent, ‘Yale, Ezra?’ Ezra’s Georgian ears heard something different. He looked at me somewhat quizzically, then, obedient child, did what he was told: ‘Yell, Ezra.’ It took me a minute to realize what had happened as he shouted away. Years later after doing clandestine things with the military Ezra showed up at the coffee hour one Sunday in another t-shirt looking for his grandparents. He told me he had just returned to the country from Afghanistan. I told him that the Montgomerys had already headed back to Crawford. ‘Darn it!’ he said, or words to that effect. ‘Atlanta traffic was awful. It’s so frustrating. In Afghanistan my vehicle had a turret and people got out my way. Not in Georgia.’
Ezra’s brother, Josh, began serving at the altar when the parish moved to our second venue, Bernstein’s Funeral Home. One summer Josh attended the diocesan youth camp. It became apparent as Josh was checking in at the camp that he had a pocket knife on his person. The knife was duly confiscated, and Josh was promised it would be returned to him after the camp was over. He rather guilelessly said, ‘Oh, that’s alright. I’ve got another one in my backpack.’
In our first year or two the parish had more boys than girls. One of the girls we did have was Erika Haas. Erika was part of a clan who enthusiastically joined in the Athens First days. The family included Erika’s mother, Karen, who was a midwife; her grandmother, Ann Turrentine, who was the widow of a former University of Maryland football coach; her aunt, Susan Turrentine Meeusen (later Surrency), who quickly volunteered to accompany hymns on an electronic keyboard; and Susan’s baby, Brian, whose infant gurgles and cries accompanied not only hymns but also, and more controversially, prayers and sermons. Erika, the daughter of a midwife, proved to be wonderful with babies and children, so we acquired with the extended Turrentine clan not only an organist but also a nursery tender. Let it be added that Ann was a fabulous cook, whose food featured for years thereafter at many a parish potluck and coffee hour.
Over the years the number of children continued to be replenished, though the parish as a whole leaned to the older side of things. We gained members the old-fashioned way, as existing members had offspring. Bill and Connie Herringdine’s son, Jay, was the first child baptized in the church building, in 1987 even before the parish formally moved in. His sister, Helen, was baptized a couple of years later. Susan and Robert Surrency were the first parish wedding, before we moved into the church building, and thereafter they also had children to be baptized.
We also had people join us with children. Bettina Freeman, as she became, joined us after we were in the church, with her children, Kurt and Maria. Kurt later became a server, and one year we asked him to read the Fourth Prophecy (from Deuteronomy 31) at the Easter Vigil. Kurt reads well and has a nice English accent. It was difficult to maintain composure, however, when twice in the course of the reading he read ‘Joshua, the son of a nun’ for ‘Joshua, the son of Nun’. Kurt is resigned, I think, to the fact that this incident is not going to be forgotten anytime soon.
John and Clare Larkins also joined the parish in its early days. At the time they had two boys, Jake and McKinley, who later were supplemented by Matt. The Larkins boys seemed naturally devout. Clare told me that at age three Jake walked into her bridge party and said to his mother and her friends, ‘Lift up your hearts!’ He is now a federal magistrate. Jake and McKinley were both very slow in hitting their growth spurt. My sister, Penny, knew the boys when they were very small. Years later I told her that I was going up to Greenville, South Carolina, to do McKinley’s wedding. Penny said, ‘McKinley Larkins can’t get married! He’s only three feet tall.’ Not so. McKinley has his generation’s ideal job: designing computer games for a highly successful company. While he and Jake could hardly have more different careers, they are best friends and, happily, remain active church-goers in Atlanta.
Also after we moved into the church we were pleased when our long-time occasional visitor from Boston, Betty Alice Fowler, moved back to Athens, with her son, Hugh Schlesinger. After Hugh’s birth Betty Alice brought him to Georgia to meet her Athens friends and her parents’ friends. One of those meetings was a group affair: a lunch organized by Mrs. Fowler for her contemporary lady friends. The ladies had been told that Hugh was the grandson of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. As Betty Alice was moving between the dining room and kitchen to help her mother, she heard one of the friends say to another, ‘That baby doesn’t look a bit like Henry Kissinger!’ Hmmm…. Betty Alice says that she later told Professor Schlesinger about the incident: ‘Arthur didn’t think it was funny.’ Well, everybody else does.
The Snyder family came to us with toddler triplets, Amy, Bethany, and Aaron, and an older daughter, Rachel. All four were baptized at Saint Stephen’s on the same Sunday. One day at the coffee hour I was standing outside as the fraternal triplets were playing near the patio. Rufus Adair asked me if I could tell Amy and Bethany apart. I said, ‘Not easily, but if you wait a few minutes you usually can tell them apart, because Amy is accident-prone.’ As those words left my mouth, Amy fell down and began to wail. ‘Yep. That’s Amy,’ I said.
Several of the ‘graduate student types’ mentioned above eventually manifested an interest in Holy Orders. Fathers Jerry Bruce, Shaughn Casey, and Jonathan Foggin all were university students in the parish who eventually were ordained and began families. Father Foggin has stayed put in Athens, and his children, Will, Charlotte, and Henry, are growing up in the parish. When Will was a toddler his father often brought him to the Tuesday Mass. Father Foggin said the Mass, and I usually did combined duty as server and childcare giver. Will was a well-behaved child, but when he became fussy I would try almost anything to keep him diverted and quiet. One day we almost had gotten through Mass without incident when, during the postcommunion collect, Will began to rumble. I put my zucchetto on his head. That had the effect of quieting Will. Unfortunately, when Will’s father turned around for the dismissal and saw Will wearing a bishop’s skull cap, he began to rumble. He did not actually laugh out loud, but it took about 90 seconds for him to regain composure, which is an eternity during a service. A year or two later, when Charlotte took Will’s place on Tuesdays, she often wanted to wander about the church, including up into the choir loft or out into the flower committee’s cutting garden. She liked to throw stones at the garden statue of Saint Fiacre and to examine, and on occasion perhaps taste, the ladybugs with which the building abounded during certain seasons. Henry, despite being in general the most mischievous and destructive of the Foggin children, was often the quietest during weekday Masses. One had to keep a sharp eye on him afterwards, however. One Tuesday as Father Foggin and I were in the sacristy after Mass, I happened to look out to see what Henry was up to. He had the credence table linen in both hands and was about to pull everything – linen, lavabo bowl, water and wine cruets, and bread box – into a glorious crashing heap on the floor. A lunge on my part stopped that just in time. Some months earlier Henry crawled for the first time after Mass in the nave – an event recorded on his father’s telephone for later viewing by his mother and grandparents.
Will Foggin sometimes would accompany the clergy down to the offices after Mass. Kathy Snyder was for a couple of years a volunteer parish secretary, and sometimes she would help look after Will. (She had her revenge when she gave Will a set of toy instruments of the very loud, noise making kind to help his parents entertain him. Father Foggin prudently left the gift in the offices for Will to enjoy while at church.) One day, however, it fell to me to look after Will while Father Foggin and Kathy were occupied. We looked at elephants and lions on the computer for a time, then we decided to toss a small foam football. Will had a good arm for a toddler. Mostly I tossed the ball to him softly underhand. At one point I threw it a little faster and overhand. Will shrank back and let the ball fall to the ground. Immediately, however, he got a very determined look on his face and said, ‘Be bwave, Will! Be bwave!’
Kathy Snyder taught Sunday school for a few years. One year she might have awarded the prize for most stubborn parish child. Matthew LePain as a toddler decided he did not want to be in Sunday school, but was not given any option by his parents. So every Sunday for a year he turned his chair around and sat with his back to Mrs. Snyder. Then one Sunday he suddenly seemed to be fine. In any case it quickly was apparent to everyone that despite his seating habits, Matthew was absorbing information: better that, I suppose, than that he pretend to attend but in fact absorb nothing….
A parish curate, Father John Cotterell and his wife, Emily, had three boys. As Father Cotterell liked to say, he didn’t believe in asking parishioners to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. Emily was Welsh and Father John was an Englishman who grew up in Wales. Father Cotterell was a late vocation, and on two occasions he owned his own restaurants. The boys grew up with English cookery and English table manners. Michael once was reprimanded in an Athens’s school lunch room for eating his French fries with a utensil rather than fingers. He said to the critic, ‘My family is English, and the only thing we eat with our fingers is asparagus.’ One suspects he was quoting his father. The oldest son, Richard, was out of the house and in the Navy when the Cotterells moved to Athens, but Simon and Michael were young enough to need babysitting when they first arrived. One evening my sister was sitting for them while Father John and Emily were out. Upon arrival Michael wanted Penny to come see the space craft he had invented. Simon, the youngest of the boys, said, ‘I never get to invent ANYTHING.’ Penny said, ‘Don’t worry, Simon; you’re a cutiepatootie, and all the little girls will love you.’ That seemed to please him.