Friday, March 13, 2009

Strength in Weakness: A Portrait of The Humble Bishop of Haiti

I never cease to be amazed at my lack of awareness and understanding of the rich and humble sanctity, dedication and often groundbreaking ministries of African American Episcopalian pioneers.  James Theodore Holly was, until this week, a name I didn't recognize.  What a refreshing discovery it has been!

In Facts About the Church's Mission in Haiti,  published in New York in 1897, when he was 68, Bishop Holly gives a glimpse of what he'd accomplished there to that point, as well as specific needs for the future.  He writes about this so humbly that you might get the impression that he's referring to another person.  What was even more helpful for me, since I knew nothing about him, was his autobiographical information.

James was born on October 3, 1829, in Washington, D.C., near Georgetown, and received his schooling there until the family moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1844.  His older sister taught him in an "infant school" when he was five.  He notes that when his father, James Overton Holly, was thirteen, in 1799, his grandfather, Reuben Holly, migrated from St. Mary's County, MD to Washington and was one of the laborers on the construction of the U.S. Capitol building.  

James Holly and I share something in common: the fact that both of us were born into and raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  Bishop Holly recalls that his first Bible was a Douay-Rheims version, as was mine, given to him when he was about fifteen by Rev. Felix Varela, pastor of Transfiguration Catholic Church, New York.  He notes that Fr. Varela, a Spaniard, was apparently a relative of Queen Isabella of Spain.  Since James Holly had indicated a interest in ministry, it was only natural that Fr. Varela would want to send James to Rome to study for the priesthood.  I'd be interested to know the motivation for sending him to Rome, since there were any number of U.S. seminaries operative at that time.  My guess would be that, with the existence of slavery in this country for another twenty or so years beyond this time, this was, perhaps, the only option. As it turned out, the very gift of the Douay-Rheims Bible, "full of explanatory notes in the Roman Catholic sense", which Holly assiduously read, "...gradually weaned me away from the unscriptural ways of that church, and when I was in my twenty-second year I withdrew from membership therein..."  He doesn't elaborate on which "unscriptural ways" led to his transition into the Episcopal Church, but I can identify with his choice, having made the same one myself in 1977 for different reasons.

When James Holly was 26 he was ordained deacon by Bishop McCoskry at St. Paul's, Detroit, MI, on June 17, 1855. 
James returned to New York the next month with a letter of recommendation from Bishop McCoskry, which he had requested earlier, to be sent as a missionary to Haiti.  The Foreign Committee of the Episcopal Church commissioned James to visit Haiti and to collect information on the feasibility of establishing a mission there.  He arrived in Port-au-Prince on July 31, 1856, and spent a month gathering data which he presented to the Foreign Committee upon his return to New York in September, 1856.  In the meantime, he was made Rector of St. Luke's, New Haven, CT, where he'd been ordained a priest, January 2, 1856, by Bishop John Williams, then Assistant Bishop of Connecticut.  The Foreign Committee, in the meantime, though it was favorable to Holly's report, didn't find itself immediately able to establish a mission in Haiti.  Five years later the President of Haiti invited the "colored people" of the United States to send a pastor and a group of emigrants to Haiti.  The Bishop of Connecticut concurred with the request, approved James Holly as a missionary to Haiti, and provided commendatory letters to the President of Haiti, since there was no Episcopal/Anglican bishop there.  Holly set sail on May 1, 1861.  He began his ministry immediately by baptizing a child of one of the emigrant families, who had been born during the trip.  The baptism took place at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, "...the President of Haiti and Mrs. Geffrard standing as godfather and godmother of the child..." The President further made a spacious hall available in his private mansion for the celebration of Sunday Eucharist.

Then came a time of testing.  A deadly fever broke out among the colonists, and within six months there were 43 deaths. Holly notes that it was so bad that " many as four persons in one day had been committed to their last resting-place..."  Most sadly, Holly's family itself was touched directly.  Having sailed from New Haven with his family of eight, within nine months after their arrival "...only three remained alive, myself and my two little sons, aged respectively three and five years..."  Where people of lesser mettle would have given up, James Holly reflects on his life then with unshakeable faith in the face of adversity:  "...God remembered me in eduing my soul with patience under my affliction, and with resignation to His blessed will.  He comforted me with a sense of His goodness;...gave me peace by bringing to my spiritual apprehension that, as the last surviving apostle of Jesus was 'in tribulation and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ,' on the forlorn isle of Patmos, so, by His Divine Providence, He had brought this tribulation upon me for a similar end in this isle of the Caribbean Sea.  St. John had a mission to writing to churches that had fallen away from their pristine Gospel integrity.  I had come to Haiti to bear a pure Gospel testimony to a nominally Christian people whose knowledge of Christianity had been received from a church which had also fallen away from its original purity..."

James Holly, leaving his two boys in the care of one of the member families, attended the General Convention of 1862, seeking a missionary stipend and funding for a house within the city.  Previously, he and the group had been living on a farm outside the city, where the environment was very unhealthy.  As a result of the devastating plague, most of the remaining emigrants, except for about 20 people, chose to return to the U.S.  In 1863 an American resident there offered a large hall in the city, free of charge, if they would conduct their services there.  Holly and the group, of course, readily accepted.  Having received a stipend through the American Church Missionary Society, he was able to rent a house in the city from which to carry on his ministry.  "From that moment the work went on encouragingly, so that Holy Trinity Church, Port-au-Prince, was organized" on May 25, 1863, and taken into union by the Episcopal Church's General Convention.  

Within three years, a deacon and a priest were ordained, and the Haitian Church Convocation organized.  Three new missions were established.  Within another six years two students, who'd been sent to the Mission House in Philadelphia, returned to Haiti as priests.  A church, rectory, and schoolhouse was erected at Port-au-Prince.  Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe, upon his visitation in 1872, ordained six deacons and five priests, and consecrated the new Port-au-Prince church.  All this within 10 years, and with much hard work and suffering!  Bishop Coxe was the catalyst in promoting the importance of the Haitian missions to the Episcopal Church and the idea that the time was ripe for a Bishop for the missionary jurisdiction.  The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1874 entered into a covenant with the Haitian Convocation paving the way for this.  James Holly's consummate humility and servanthood is reflected in what he writes next about this:  "...Under this covenant the first Bishop of the church in Haiti was consecrated on the 8th day of the same month [November], in Grace Church, New York City, by Bishop [Benjamin Bosworth] Smith, then presiding Bishop of the church in the United States, assisted by six other Bishops, among whom was the Bishop of Kingston, Jamaica.  Since the conscration of the Bishop for Haiti he has confirmed upwards of 500 candidates, ordained ten deacons, and advanced nine deacons to the priesthood..."

Bishop Holly concludes his small treatise with a simple statement of what is currently needed for the Church in Haiti, and commends them to "American Christian patriots" for generous contributions:  a new parish rectory in Port-au-Prince; the means to reopen and carry on the program of the Primary Normal School; a dispensary and hospital at Port-au-Prince; and a training school for candidates for Holy Orders. 

Today, 112 years after Bishop Holly wrote his small treatise, Haiti has 96 parishes/missions; 83,869 baptized members; 8597 church school pupils.  Each year approximately 1182 children and 917 adults are baptized; 180 marriages are celebrated; and 200 burials performed.  And all because of God's grace of a missionary vocation given to a young man, who, acting on that grace, found strength even in the weakness of his circumstances.  And a "Roman retread" at that! How happy I am that both James Holly and I found our way into the Episcopal Church! 

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