FEW APPRECIATE how much the Anglo-Catholic movement both here and in England owes to men who, never well known even in their own time, are now completely forgotten even in what had been their own parishes. One such person was long connected with historic St. Clement’s, Philadelphia. A few months ago he passed on to his reward, unhonored and unsung, except for a few of the former members of St. Vincent’s Guild in the parish. It is a satisfaction to record that Sheldon Potter Ritter, a grand nephew of Bishop Alonzo Potter, and the accounting warden of St. Clement’s, attended to the details of the funeral. To Mr. Ritter and another former member of St. Vincent’s, now a devoted priest of the Church, I am indebted for the facts upon which this article is based.
Lewis Thomas Pratt Downing, of whom I am writing, was no ordinary person. In the history of the Catholic Revival in St. Clement’s parish, he deserves, my clerical correspondent writes me, “a memory all his own, not only for the spiritual devotion and organizing ability which enabled him to help to make the parish what it became, but also for his own sake. He left an impression of his personality on the heart and soul of every man or boy who ever came under his direction. The writer wishes to make his individual tribute.”
He was born of old Quaker stock, on both sides. His mother, with whom he lived, and whom he cherished lovingly, remained a member of the Society of Friends until the closing years of her long life, when she asked for baptism. He was related to the family of the Pratts, of Philadelphia and New Jersey, and to all the Quaker Downings of Delaware and Chester counties. After a short business career in office work, which he never liked, he became so interested in the work of St. Clement’s, then growing into the Catholic Faith, that, somewhere in the early eighties, he gave up business, and at the invitation of the Cowley Fathers took up his residence with them in the clergy house, and remained with them all the years that they continued there and for some years longer. To all who knew the parish through the Cowley years, he was a definite institution, as if part of the very structure itself. The personnel of the clergy changed, but he remained always at his post. If he was not an officer on the bridge, he was a very important one in the spiritual engineroom.
Beginning as an acolyte and cross-bearer—when such things were new and strange, in our American Church—he began that work of sacristan, and director of acolytes, and ritual, that made St. Clement’s the model large parish of any notableness in the land. Never for a moment, however, did he imagine that ritual and ceremonial were in themselves of any value apart from reverence to God, and as a help to holiness. No man or boy he ever trained missed the realization of the holiness of the sanctuary, and the awe of the Divine Presence, as the purpose of all worship. “He preached not himself”—he was just an agent, a servant of our Lord, to whom had been assigned the care of the ceremonial, and the responsibility of training those men and boys who served before the Altar, that they should worship with their souls as well as with their bodies, and live, in their daily lives, as true and moral men.
The first St. Vincent’s Guild for Acolytes was formed in St. Clement’s, and worked out those rules which have been adopted by St. Vincent’s Guilds everywhere—worked them out by trial and experiment over several years. This was mainly Downing’s accomplishment, for the fathers appointed him warden, and committed to him the spiritual direction of the goodly number of acolytes (generally twenty-five to thirty), except in those matters which necessarily belonged to the priests.
Equipment for ceremonial and the training for it were not developed as they are now. These things were unknown in the American Church. To quote my clerical friend again, “I remember the first time we attempted Solemn High Mass with three priests, and full ritual. There was no book in English which contained full directions, and I recall the rector standing in the Chancel, for rehearsal, translating from a French book the Catholic observance. For some time the priests went through the high masses with little papers in their hands, describing what each had to do. I can see Fr. Benson, the founder of S.S.J.E.—a dear, old, and very nearsighted man—trying to read his notes while the acolytes stood long waiting, until he could decipher what he had to do next. Mr. Downing had seen to it that we knew our parts thoroughly. I have seen many acolytes, and many St. Vincent’s Guilds, since those distant days, but never a guild with the order, the training, the discipline, the reverence—complete without staginess, or self-consciousness—as in that guild which he founded, moulded, worked over, prayed over. In saying this I know I am only expressing the conviction of every man and boy who went through those years under his direction.”
ANOTHER GOOD WORK he started with the acolytes was a Mortuary Guild. Its object was to be responsible for the funeral and burial of every inmate of the Philadelphia Almshouse, who died a Churchman. Inmates who died without some funds to pay for their funeral, in those days, went to the dissecting table of the Medical School. The terror of this weighed upon them all. So Mr. Downing raised the money to purchase a large piece of ground in a public cemetery, where was erected a very decent Christian monument, and took entire care of the lots, and on the day of each burial, one member attended the Requiem at St. Clement’s and another attended the interment at the cemetery. The expenses for this work were raised by the guild. Not a very big work, perhaps, but it is mentioned to illustrate the spirit Mr. Downing instilled into his guild members.
“If you were to meet any of the ‘old fellows’ who belonged to that guild,” says the Reverend Father, “and were to mention the name of Lewis Downing, you would find that, for every one of them, this meant the opening of a perfect flood of reminiscence, and enthusiasm. This is just a brief tribute to the memory of one who, though unknown to fame, lives still in the hearts of a large number of men who had the fortune to come under his influence in the formative years of their soul’s life. May God grant him rest eternal, and may perpetual light shine upon him!”
Sheldon Ritter, in the course of his reminiscences, says, “When I went to St. Clement’s in 1890, I applied for admission to St. Vincent’s Guild and at once came under the influence of Mr. Downing.”
I believe, he tells me, that Mr. Downing came to the parish in the late 70s. He was at that time engaged in the insurance business and lived in or near Bristol, Pa. I am told that the rector of the church there offered to educate him for orders if he would place himself entirely in his (the rector’s) control. This Mr. Downing would not do. His employer offered him his insurance business upon his retirement; but Mr. Downing had no taste for business and did not accept.
At this time Mr. Downing came under the influence of St. Clement’s. The Catholic movement was developing rapidly and Mr. Downing took an active part in the formation and development of the guilds. With the development of the ritual and the enlargement of the equipment the work became considerable. Many candles were used in those days. The hangings, which were very large, were changed at the seasons.
Gradually, all the care and training of the acolytes fell to him in conjunction with his other work. He was a firm believer in the right of our Church to have such ceremonials as were suitable, but he taught that it must be done for the glory of God, not for any other reason, and every effort was made to keep out those who liked show.
“I believe,” continued Mr. Ritter, “that he served for some years, but during my time he stood in the sacristy door during the late services and any errors on the part of the servers were quietly corrected after the service. No one spoke after vesting and he too observed the rule. We had an annual breakfast always ending in ice cream and cake! I think that was a novel idea. Mr. Downing was a deeply religious man of strong convictions but in all his work I never heard any pious cant or any effort to be other than he was a layman.”
Many works were developed under Mr. Downing’s direction, the acolytes decorated the church at Christmas, assisted in changing the baldachins, cleaned all the brass for church and chapel twice a year, took the night hours on Rogation days and when requested kept night watch by the dead who might be in the church over night. From this he developed a work among the church poor at the almshouse.
After his connection with St. Clement’s was severed, he and some of his friends went to work at St. John Evangelist, Essington, where they laid the foundation for the present parish.
After Mrs. Downing’s death he returned to Philadelphia and spent much of his time with the late Coleman Hall. It was on his return from Mr. Hall’s house that he had a stroke and died in the Germantown Hospital alone. It was not until the next day that he was missed and his body claimed. He was buried from St. Clement’s.