Thoughts on the Life of Henry Robert Percival, Priest, by Robert Ritchie (1903)

To know what is in every man’s heart, and so to be able to judge him, is a Divine prerogative which is extended to none but to the Son of Man. We read that oh a memorable occasion, when the sons of Zebedee, with their mother, had made a request of our Lord, the remainder of the Twelve were moved with indignation against the two brethren. Nevertheless, although from a worldly point of view their indignation would seem reasonable, they were not justified by the Master; rather, they were included in the correction which He administered. Both the two and the ten were thinking wrongly and about a forbidden subject. So it is when we attempt to judge one another.

When therefore we come, to review the life of one whom God has called put of this world we are not to be faulted for insincerity if we have nothing to utter but praise. We are not capable of estimating his character justly. We are liable to think there were faults when there were none. We are sure to be blind both to failings and to excellences. But we are not denied the great privilege of looking upon the magnificent gifts of God’s grace to His servant departed. We can rejoice greatly in the glories that are so revealed to us, and draw comfort and admonition to ourselves from what we do see.

In this spirit, not trying to be fair, but to be appreciative, we think of the life of our brother, who has gone to his rest.

Henry Robert Percival was born on the thirtieth of April, 1854. He was the son of Thomas Cuthbert and Elizabeth Percival, of old Philadelphia families. He was brought up religiously in the sound and godly teaching of the Church. From very early childhood the idea of serving God in the priesthood was instilled into him and embraced by his mind with enthusiasm. Very delicate bodily health might have seemed an obstacle, but happily it was not allowed to prevail. He wept to school at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, and from there to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating Bachelor of Arts in 1872, at the early age of eighteen,. He took a post-graduate course in Latin with Professor Francis A. Jackson, and in due time was made Master of Arts. As he did not reach, the canonical age for the priesthood until six years after his graduation, there was time for a journey in Germany, Italy, France and England during the years 1874. and 1875.

It will be well understood by those who knew him that this was no idle holiday, but that his mind was then stored with treasures upon which he drew throughout his life. Ardently, with keen delight and most intelligent discrimination, be fed upon what was excellent in art, architecture and ecclesiastical tradition.

Returning to this country, he became a candidate for Orders in the Diocese of New York. His health precluding a residence away from home, he pursued his studies, privately, under the direction of Dr. Davies, now Bishop of Michigan, Dr. Hoffman, late Dean of the General Theological Seminary, and Dr. James W. Robins, then Headmaster of the Episcopal Academy. He passed his canonical examinations in the Diocese of New York and was ordained Deacon in 1877 and Priest in 1878, by Bishop Horatio Potter.

His first cure was the Parish of Grace Church, Merchantville, New Jersey. After a short time there he was associated with the Rev. G. Woolsey Hodge, at Christ Church Chapel, Philadelphia. But his chief pastoral work began in 1881 when he became Rector of the Church of the Evangelists, Philadelphia. In the early part of this incumbency there were oppositions and difficulties of a distressing nature arising from the strong and bitter Protestant feeling of some members of the parish. These people naturally felt that the sympathy of the majority of the Diocese and of its rulers was with them rather than with the young rector who was imbued with an earnest zeal for the true and ancient doctrines of Christianity. They therefore proceeded to great lengths, in litigation and in yet more questionable ways to oust the priest who had been duly chosen and appointed.

Dr. Percival in these trying times conducted himself with singular wisdom, discretion and charity. He held back nothing of the truth, but was careful to insist upon nothing that was not clearly essential. With dignity and gentleness he strove to persuade those who opposed themselves, and in fact converted not a few of them who with their children have continued to be faithful Catholics.

Dr. Percival’s conduct towards the bishop is in contrast to much that we have seen in other parishes. From the first he assured Bishop Stevens that any features of ceremonial to which he objected, if not clearly required by the Prayer Book or not essential, would be excluded from the services in the Church of the Evangelists. Thus for seven years there were no vestments, lights, nor incense. The Daily Sacrifice was offered and confessions were heard by a priest wearing a surplice and black scarf. Thus an example of obedience to authority was given which was perhaps more valuable than the lessons derived from a full presentment of the lawful external order.

It does not follow that such a course is best in all cases; but in this instance the sober sincerity and self-denial of the priest were made manifest, and the people were taught, in a very telling way, the relative proportion of obedience and mere ceremonial. When the time came, seven years afterwards, that obedience no longer required the sacrifice, it was announced, on the Sunday preceding All Saints’ Day, that on that Feast the lawful vestments and ornaments would be restored (not introduced) in the Church of the Evangelists. Dr. Percival, was a firm adherent to the law of the Church. He used such things because they were rightful, not because they were pleasing. And he knew the law better than most.

The things for which a faithful priest most deeply feels that he is responsible, the things of pastoral care, are not largely brought into general notice. His good work in the care of souls is done as it were, in secret. But enough is known of Dr. Percival’s pastoral labours to move us to great admiration and thankfulness. While his health permitted he was diligent in season and out of season. His visits, especially to the poor, were full of grace and kindness. “How he cheers me!” was the exclamation of one poor woman. Many rejoiced in the sweetness of his care over them. It was not his custom to give much money, but counsel, uplifting sympathy and tenderness.

In teaching, for which he had eminent gifts, he was most conscientious and successful. There were wonderful Friday night instructions, which were catechetical, from which many obtained a firm grasp of the truth. Daily Mass was the custom from the beginning of his incumbency, and Dr. Percival himself never failed to celebrate every morning except when physical conditions made it impossible. In his late years of increasing weakness and torture from disease, he had a chapel and an altar in his country home at Devon, duly licensed by the Bishop, where he stood morning by morning before the Lord and rejoiced in the performance of this chief priestly duty. 

Space would fail the writer to tell of the unproclaimed and loving, ingenious pastoral works which in the sight of Heaven adorned his life. We can only get hints and see a suggestive portion of the whole. He never thought he had done enough. He could not abandon his poor parishioners even when they were so unfaithful that it seemed useless to strive longer with them. In these things, as in all departments of his life he lived very near to the Good Shepherd.

The faithful pastoral work we have been contemplating was by no means all. As a scholar, in all manner of sacred learning, Dr. Percival excelled. Men of all schools and parties testify to this. There is only one voice. His great library he collected in his earlier years, constantly adding to it. and constantly both using it and allowing and encouraging the use of it by brother clergymen who were not so endowed. Five books from his pen give evidence of his diligence in study and his great ability. His firm faith in the Catholicity of the American Church is shown in these works, and the evidential value of that conviction lies in the fact, which his books also show, that he had a sound and well-founded knowledge of Catholicity. He knew whereof he wrote. The Doctrine of the Episcopal Church was followed by The Glories of the Episcopal Church. There is also a very useful Digest of Theology. These compendious handbooks were followed by a treatise on The Invocation of Saints, concerning which I will only say that it is as sound as it is fascinating, and that it is hard to understand how any one who will read it, with a mind that is open at all, can thereafter be willing to shut himself out from the privilege of asking for the intercessions of the Blessed. Dr. Percival’s last book was Vol. XIV of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, The Seven Ecumenical Councils. In this, his work of editing, with notes, has been very highly praised.

These five books do not begin to comprise all Dr. Percival’s writings. There were many magazine articles; notably a series communicated to the American Church Review on Canon Law, an irenical article in the Nineteenth Century, a number of unsigned articles, privately printed, on the Revision of the Prayer Book, a series of articles in The Churchman on Swedish Orders, which were afterwards put into pamphlet form, many Commentaries and Meditations, unsigned communications to The Guardian on the Clementine Liturgy, an Introduction, which is, perhaps, the most valuable part of the volume published by the Clerical Union under the title of Catholic Papers. There are also many manuscripts which have not yet seen the light, from which, it is to be hoped, we shall hear. He was on the editorial staff of Catholic Champion during its whole course, and a frequent contributor to other Church papers and magazines. He was always busy in his Master’s work except when his physical sufferings forbade. Nashotah Seminary conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity, and never has it been more worthily bestowed.

Dr. Percival’s work was in great part, though by no means entirely, polemical, but the occasions were very rare in which he even unwittingly transgressed the line of courtesy, and whenever he was thought to have done so, he was most ready and even eager to make amends or to explain. He was, in the best sense, a broad-minded man, and all that he did and said and wrote was in the spirit of charity. This was realized by those who differed from him, and, of course, great persuasive power was thus added to all his contention.

The clergy; in large numbers, from bishops and heads of religious communities to the humblest fledgling priest, were enlightened, encouraged, consoled and strengthened by intercourse with this wonderful man. His beautiful and ever ready hospitality, in which his mother and sister most lovingly took part, made his home a haven for many priests, who will never forget the help and comfort bestowed on them in the house of this man whose body was so feeble, but whose heart and spirit were so mighty.

Endowed with a moderate fortune, Dr. Percival has left an example of liberality in many gifts to sacred uses; He also doubtless inspired others to join him in thoughtful and devout offering of their substance. It is impossible to give details, but it could not be hid that his was the moving spirit in the erection of two noble churches—the new Church of the Evangelists and St. Elisabeth’s—and that by his zeal and taste they were enriched with treasures of art. He was largely instrumental in the rearing and perfecting of the Church of St. John Chrysostom, and other parishes in their need were strongly aided by his exertions and his influence. It is impossible to say how many young men were guided and largely formed by him and led or assisted in many ways into the sacred priesthood.

In an important sense he was the founder of the admirable Congregation of the Companions of the Holy Saviour. Reflection upon St. Mark iii, 14, “He ordained twelve, that they should be with Him, and that He might send them forth to preach,” kindled the first spark of the fire of love that animates that useful and justly venerated religious body. Dr. Percival devoted himself in every way to its growth and welfare except that, because of his illness, he could not himself become a member. He would have been glad to do so, but, after careful consideration, was convinced that it must not be. The community residing at St. Elisabeth’s, Philadelphia, has affiliated priests in other places numbering about thirty. Its organization is chiefly pastoral and missionary. Its motto is “Ut essent cum Illo,” and as long as the sweet and ardent spirit of Dr. Percival remains with them they will be found faithful Companions of the Saviour.

The imperfect digestion, which, with many attendant ills, had been Dr. Percival’s drawback and torment, seemed increasingly to sap his strength of late years. For a year previous to his death this was especially remarked. Even the power of using his magnificent mind and acquirements seemed, to some extent, to be impaired. When; in the early summer, he left his city house to go to Devon, he expressed his own conviction that he would never return. And so it was. He was permitted to lay down his burden in peace on the afternoon of a beautiful day, September 22d, 1903, in his forty-ninth year. Is it not a strange and wonderful proof of God’s goodness that in these modern days, in the midst of materialism and worldliness and self-seeking, we have seen the shining light of a man whose natural brilliancy was enlightened by spiritual strength, his learning made glorious by the light of faith, his natural grace made the handmaid of an evangelical and soul-winning brotherly love, his earthly possessions turned into heavenly treasures, and even his bodily ills made the fuel of high spiritual attainments?

Holy Cross Magazine (West Park, New York), November, 1903, pp. 37-40.

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Filed under Anglo-Catholicism, Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Church history, Pennsylvania German

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