Saturday, June 20, 2009

A True "Honey-Man": Fr. Zealand Hillsdon Hutton (1932-2009)

When Cheryl, my former spouse, and I were married in a quiet family wedding on March 8, 1980, Fr. Zealand Hillsdon-Hutton, our rector at St. Matthew's, Sacramento, preached on words from the Song of Solomon/Songs alluding to fruit, apples and raisins, in Chapter 2 and probably the honey in Chapter 5. He referred to our need to be "honey-men and honey-women". It was so typical of Zea, as everyone called him. He had a unique sweetness and innocence, almost childlikeness, about him which constantly amazed and delighted me. It's what made him truly a "honey-man" himself. On June 1, Zealand passed away, and I look forward to sharing his memorial service tomorrow with friends and colleagues.

Though he never got to travel to New Zealand, his parents were from there and that's how he came by the name "Zealand". I have vague memories of his mother, Hazel, from my early days at St. Matthew's in the late '70's. Zea was very devoted to her, some would say too much, up until she died in 1978 at age 77. Zea grew up in Modesto and Santa Cruz. After his father's death, he and Hazel moved to my old stomping grounds, Chico, in his last year of high school, after which he studied at Chico State College (now, Universitiy), graduating in 1954 , as I was just finishing my junior year in high school. He graduated from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, in 1957 and was ordained the following January, 1958.

Zea served 10 churches in the Diocese of Northern California through his 51 years of ministry. Some of them were: St. Timothy's, Gridley, Epiphany, Vacaville, where I first met him, and St. Matthew's Sacramento. When I first came to Sacramento in 1976, Fr. Emerson Methven, rector of St. Francis, Fair Oaks, invited me to become part of a Cursillo
team, of which he and Zea, then rector at Vacaville, were co-spiritual directors. In fact, he and Emerson were the only clergy at that time, as far as I know, who were regularly involved with the relatively new movement in the Diocese. After my mentor, Fr. Gordon Cross, retired from St. Matthew's in 1978, I was delighted that Fr. Zea was chosen as the new rector. After his mother Hazel's death, Zea courted Valerie Spencer, a noted and brilliant evangelist in the Diocese and good friend to many of us. They married at St. Matthew's in June 1979. Unfortunately the marriage ended some years later, though Zea often mentioned to me that he and Val had remained good friends and visited one another from time to time.

When it came time for my own marriage in 1980, Zea and Val came to dinner and we shared a delightful evening. Zea had also arranged to use the occasion to give Cheryl and I our pre-marital "test". After Val excused herself, Zea pulled out his famous "85 cards" program. Cheryl and I, sitting across from each other with a cardboard barrier between us, were asked to separate our answers to each card statement according to three categories: "Agree", "Disagree", or "Not certain". We were pleased to discover later that we'd had almost identical answers, except for a few items concerning insurance. Nevertheless, as I've written elsewhere: "I'm less certain that it was a very effective instrument in
evaluating whether or not we were truly suited for one another or even ready for marriage, as later events seemed to show."

After Fr. Cross retired and Zea came aboard at St. Matthew's, he encouraged me to continue teaching Sunday adult classes and to serving as a lay reader and Eucharistic minister. Zea constantly looked for ways to attract people to the Episcopal Church. He was truly inclusive in spirit, very much like the servant of the Gospels who went out to the "highways and by-ways" to bring people in. Some folks, at St. Matthew's and at other parishes where Zea served, weren't always quite ready for this. But Zea took the Gospel seriously, and folks responded. It never ceased to amaze me how he connected with people, particularly children and young adults. Zea was outwardly fairly unremarkable: frail, a slight hunch in his shoulders, and frankly, somewhat nerdy in appearance. But young people took him quite seriously. I saw him one time gather the youth group in the sanctuary, sitting on the altar steps, with nothing more than his Bible, and captivating their attention for a full half hour of study. He was equally energetic and effective as a developer of lay leaders. He periodically had "Discover" workshops on basic aspects of the faith, utilizing lay speakers as well as clergy, and they were always full. Before I left for my first solo cure at Susanville/Lake Almanor in 1983, he'd organized a Saturday breakfast for "elders" of the parish, partly social and partly to discuss common parish concerns and problems. With humility, simplicity, and priestly determination, Zea shared the Good News.

Zealand graciously guided me as he administered the General Ordination Exam, January 4-9, 1982. As I holed up for the whole week in the little room off the left side of the sanctuary with all my materials, he would pop in occasionally to see how it was going. After I'd received the news that I'd passed the GOE's with flying colors, Fr. Judson Leeman, my shepherd from the Standing Committee, got it in his mind that I'd still have to wait six months before coming to the Standing Committee in order to be received as a priest. That wasn't what I'd understood from my conversations with Bishop Thompson. Furthermore, Zea had already been planning for me to be on board part-time during the summer of 1982, to help out while he was on vacation. I presented my dilemma in a memo to Zea and the Vestry, probably towards the end of March, and on Easter Sunday itself, April 11, Zealand called on Bishop Thompson at his home, asking that I be received before summer! The Bishop agreed, and I interviewed with the Standing Committee in mid-May. Soon after Bishop Thompson and I agreed on the date, June 2.

After his retirement in 2000, Zea became a beloved priest associate at St. George's, Carmichael. Despite deteriorating health over the past nine years, he continued gracing people's lives, both in the parish and community. He enjoyed serving as a docent at the Crocker Museum for many years.

From our time together at St. Matthew's up until this year, Zealand and I shared birthdays cards, usually quite
humorous, because his birthday was February 26 and mine is February 27. His card this year arrived in mid-March and read: "I have just gotten out of ICU ward after 17 days & have had my first bite to eat. Thanks for your card. How are you & your son? Cheerio, Zea". Zea had been plagued by asthma and breathing problems all his life, more so in the past year. Nevertheless, his loyalty to his friends and his concern for others was always there.

We will miss you, Zea. You were a true "honey-man".

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Father Hutton, as I knew him, was ordained at St. Paul's in Oroville by Father Holt and Bishop Hayden sometime in the late 1950's. I liked him and he had an appreciation of the mystical. I contacted him in the 1990's but he did not remember me but was very friendly and conversational.

I remember most vividly his account of being miraculously saved from drowning and an account of people seeing angels when his father delivered a particularly vivid sermon. He was certainly kind-hearted.

I also quite vividly remember his mother who attended St. Paul's and had a very thick and lovely (to my ear) accent.

Though I am now essentially areligious I nonetheless have a number of fond memories of being in the choir and being mesmerized by the almost medieval service and a number of charming prayers out of the Book of Common Prayer.