Frederick Spies Penfold, Priest (1874-1926)
By the Rev. Vivan A. Peterson
THOSE who received telegrams on Sunday morning, November 28th, announcing the fact that Fr. Penfold had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was reported to be dying, were shocked only slightly less than when the messages came later in the day announcing his decease. The loss of a friend is appreciable at once. The loss of a distinguished priest to the Church Militant is felt increasingly as his abilities and talents and wise counsel are no longer available. The testimony to the loss that has been suffered in Fr. Penfold’s death is witnessed by the series of resolutions which have been published by the various bodies with which he was associated.
The Rev. Frederick Spies Penfold was born in New York City, March 10, 1874, and died in Providence, R. I., on the First Sunday in Advent, November 28, 1926. Brought up under Baptist influences, he did not come to a knowledge of the Church until he had reached early manhood. He was fortunate, however, in learning the faith from one well able to impart it, the late Fr. Frank Sanborn, to whom he never ceased to be grateful. Entering the General Seminary, he made his preparation for the priesthood and was graduated in the class of 1900, receiving his B.D. degree the following year. He was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Starkey of Newark, and to the priesthood by Bishop Abiel Leonard of Salt Lake. The first years of his ministry were spent as an assistant priest at Mount Calvary parish, Baltimore, and later at Holy Cross Church, New York City. During the period that he was attached to the latter parish his particular field was the work among German-speaking people, then a flourishing activity. In 1902 he became rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Quincy, Ill., and also a canon of Quincy Cathedral. From that post he was called to Marinette, Wis., where he served as rector of St. Paul’s parish, and as archdeacon. In 1911 he became rector of St. Luke’s parish, Racine, Wis. As pastor of an important parish, as a dean of convocation, and as deputy to General Convention he served the Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. During his rectorate a parish house was built, a chapel arranged and properly fitted, and the entire interior of the church was renovated and practically rebuilt.
War Service in France In the spring of 1917, immediately after the United States had declared war upon the imperial German government, Fr. Penfold was offered a commission as chaplain in the First Wisconsin Field Artillery, which was later federalized and became the 121st F. A. of the 32d (Red Arrow) Division. Accepting this commission, he was ordered to active duty with his regiment at Camp Douglas, Wis., and served with them through the training period in Texas and through their active service in France.
Returning to the United States in April of 1919 he found a communication awaiting him advising him of the fact that he had been elected to succeed Dr. George McClellan Fiske as rector of St. Stephen’s parish, Providence, R. I. To this important post he gave the remaining years of his priesthood. The work that was accomplished during the seven and a half years of his administration was no less distinguished than that which had marked his activity in other fields. With a vastly improved fabric, with large additions to the parish endowments, with the constant work with souls in every strata of society, Fr. Penfold leaves a monument to an effective priesthood. Fortified by the sacraments whose efficacy he had proclaimed throughout the twenty-six years of his ministry, he departed this life.
Varied Activities Busy men are the ones who can be depended upon to do things. Fr. Penfold was such an one. His entire ministry was that of a parish priest. The constructive programs carried to completion under his leadership witness to his industry in the field where he labored. But over and above, there was the ever widening circle of activities of a larger sort, in the diocese and the national Church. Whatever task was laid upon him found him ready and able. As a member of the committee which organized the Priests’ Convention of 1924 he gave largely of his time and strength. As secretary of the first Catholic Congress held in New Haven, Conn., in 1925, he gave himself to a degree that is known only to a few of those on the Congress Committee. Most of his summer holiday that year was given to the labor of organizing and making that gathering the success that it proved. Precedents were established and methods evolved that will be of permanent value in future congresses.
The keen mind and the splendid talents which were shown in these activities that brought him in contact with a wide circle of Churchmen, were ever at the disposal of the Church. By his vigorous pen, which he used from time to time, and by his clear thought and forceful presentation of truth from the pulpit, he did much for the promotion of Catholic belief and practice. A clear thinker himself, he demanded clarity of thought in others. Vagueness of thought and expression which so often indicates looseness of faith and timidity left him cold. He felt that the head as well as the heart must be dedicated to the cause of God. Nothing less than the full counsel of God could satisfy him. A compromise might be a passing phase but it was never a settlement of any question.
It was this tenacity in all matters of principle that gave effect to his words and work. Forceful as a preacher, he nevertheless counted chiefly on pastoral work done with individuals for the results which he gained. Advising a brother priest who was struggling to inculcate certain standards of devotion among a group of poorly instructed people, he wrote, “Do not row them too hard from the pulpit. I have got my results by individual work with one at a time.” The detailed labor which it involved was time well spent. And the numbers of souls who profited by his ministry will continue to look back with gratitude for the blessings that such pastoral care brought. His letters from France during the war are preeminently the letters of a pastor. They are chiefly accounts of work being done among the troops, interest and suggestions for his parish at home, advice for his vicar, and requests for prayer for various objects.
Such unique abilities combined to make an outstanding priest and leader. The parishes over which he presided were enriched not merely in the building up of substantial fabrics, but in the developing of souls, and the devotional life. In each of those parishes he established the holy Mass as the chief act of worship, not merely as the norm during his own incumbency, but as the standard for the years to come. That was his continual thought: the placing of foundations for the future, and the erection of nothing that lacked in permanent value.
“Other men labored, and ye have entered into their labors.” The power of the Catholic movement in America has not been in great leaders in the sense that they have had great leaders in England, but it has been found in the ever-lengthening roll of parish priests conscious of their priesthood and what it involved. By quiet work with souls, by uncompromising adherence to principle, and by a readiness and ability to give an answer to every man for the hope that is in them, the cause is set forward and God is glorified while man is edified. The counsel and the help of Fr. Penfold will be missed by those with whom he worked, but the remembrance of a strong and effective priesthood will be cherished by many souls, both clerical and lay, whose road has been made easier by his work.
Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei.