The Priest and His Daughter

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by Anne Mazlish

The life of James Kent Stone is a haunting tale.

I first came upon the story while editing a mid-l9th century diary, an account of a month long summer holiday in a notable little village at the head of a fjord in coastal Maine. A party of friends, actually five families from New England and New York, parents and children, totaling about 30 people in all comprised the group, who in August of l855 made a long three day journey by the common transport of the day, carriage, steamer and wagon, to Mt. Desert Island. The island today is still an astonishingly beautiful resort of mountains and lakes surrounded by the sea. Among the group of visitors was a lively young man of fifteen, James Kent Stone, “a good fellow” remarked the diarist.

The summer adventure was instigated by the artist, Frederic Edwin Church, already a recognized painter, and familiar with this area of Maine through his mentor, Hudson River painter, Thomas Cole. The diarist was a lawyer from New York named Charles Tracy, whose daughter was to later marry J.P. Morgan, and who peppered his account with anti-Catholic diatribes inspired by his recreational summer reading on the subject of the Immaculate Conception, an eerily prophetic introduction to the story of James Kent Stone. (For when a child overhears prejudice, his curiosity is aroused as he instinctively recognizes the irrational feeling beneath the words of the adult.)

It soon became apparent that all the adult visitors were socially prominent descendants of old New England families, for the most part Protestant Episcopalians, including an Episcopal divine, two lawyers of whom one would distinguish himself shortly as a novelist and then later as the first casualty of the Civil War, a businessman, and a painter. The men were all successful in their professions, and possessed substantial incomes, earned or inherited. Intrigued I decided to further identify them and record something of their history. The search was an interesting and challenging undertaking in itself, and it was in this process that I uncovered the bare facts of the life story of Kent Stone, a boy then on the threshold of manhood, admired by both adults and peers. Those facts continued to haunt me until two years ago when I decided to look further into his life, see what new information I could unearth, and perhaps undertake a biography. This article is based on both earlier and subsequent research.

Throughout the forthcoming book I hope to suggest a means to a greater understanding of the tragedy, of the many individuals involved, of an explosive era with very different mores from our own, and of the ultimate “overwhelming” of two people in particular, Kent Stone and his eldest daughter, by his consuming search for an absolute TRUTH, and by the need for unconditional love and security that gripped Kent Stone. It will I think be a cautionary tale, as appropriate for now as then.

Kent’s father was the Rev. John Seeley Stone, who eventually was appointed first dean of the newly founded Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. A distinguished evangelical Episcopalian clergyman of his day, he served many parishes from Boston to Philadelphia. (Kent himself was born in l840 in Boston but spent his childhood in a parish in Brooklyn, N.Y.) Rev. Stone wrote numerous sermons defending the (low church) evangelical position against (high church) Anglican thinking, a major Episcopal controversy sparked by the Oxford Movement in 19th century England. Kent’s mother was Mary Kent, daughter of Chancellor James Kent of New York, a famous jurist at that time, who came to be known as the Blackstone of America. Kent’s mother was eager to honor her father by naming her first born after him, although at the time Kent’s father remarked anxiously, that the baby might not be able to live up to his distinguished grandfather!

Kent was top of his class at Mr. Dixwell’s private school, an institution popular with Boston brahmins. In l856, Kent was enrolled in Harvard College which he shortly left in order to make a grand European tour with his half-brother, Archibald Morrison, and half-sister, Mary, postponing his graduation year to l861. He again departed for Europe in l860 to climb mountains in Switzerland, which he did at an astonishing and record pace, confounding even his Swiss guides, occasionally leaving them in his wake. His climbing feats, aided by his great height and great stride and powerful build, and the training and inspiration he received at Franconia, N.H. (which the family regularly visited) and Mt. Desert Island, recommended him as a companion on the mountains to the Rev. Leslie Stephen, an Episcopal cleric at that time, and later noted English biographer and scholar, and father of Bloomsbury’s Virginia Wolfe and Vanessa Bell. After climbing with Stephen, he was proposed for membership in the English Alpine Club of which Stephen was a founder, and so became the first American to be elected to the distinguished group. From the Alps, he went on to Gottingen, Germany to study, only returning to America for final exams before graduating with his class. A famous classmate of Kent’s at both Dixwell’s School and Harvard, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had once remarked that Kent was always several steps ahead of him. After graduation, in l861, he became an instructor at Mr. Dixwell’s where he was popular with his pupils.

Kent was the eldest of six children of the Rev. Stone’s second family (from his first marriage only two children survived). With his brother Hal, a sibling with whom he had a close relationship at the time, he enlisted in the Civil War, Massachusetts Volunteers (Company C, second Regiment) in August of l862 and distinguished himself in the Battle of Antietam, where he developed an unromantic disability, a hernia, returned to Massachusetts to be operated on and essentially never fought in another battle again. He was discharged in January of l863. However, in July, following the battle of Gettysburg, where his brother Hal was killed, he journeyed to the battlefield to find and bring home his brother’s body.

Soon after in August, he was married to his fiancée, Cornelia Fay of Brookline, eldest sister of his best friend from school years, James Fay. Both sister and brother were part of that trip to Mt. Desert described earlier. Cornelia Fay was mentioned frequently by the diarist because of her many accomplishments, one of which was in music. The pianist of the group, she regularly performed for their daily worship services. Cornelia was also 6 years Kent’s senior. He must have admired her over many years for he was surely often at the Fay family residence in Brookline with her brother. Both families, Fay and Stone, lived not far apart. At that time Kent’s father was rector of St. Paul’s Church, Brookline, of which Mr. Fay was a prominent founder and layman, and Cornelia was the organist. Both families also vacationed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

After their marriage in l863, the couple moved to Gambier, Ohio, where Kent had been offered an assistant professorship of Latin at Kenyon College, an Episcopal College of the evangelical persuasion. His half-brother, Archie, was already on the faculty there. During his years at Kenyon, he was ordained as an Episcopalian cleric, also taught mathematics and moral philosophy, and received two advanced degrees, a Master of Arts and Doctor of Theology. In l867, following a theological controversy among his colleagues at Bexley Hall and subsequent presidential resignation, Kent, still a young man of 27, was appointed president of the college. Kent and his wife, Cornie, as she was called, were reportedly very happy at Kenyon and there their first two daughters, Nellie and Ethel, were born. After a year of the presidency, Kent who was already under suspicion by his controversy-ridden, theological colleagues for high church leanings, delivered a sermon on The Incarnation for which he was openly attacked from the pulpit the following Sunday. Kent was an exceedingly popular teacher and his students were outraged by the attack and rushed to his defense. At this point, he perhaps made a crucial mistake, by telling his young followers they could always walk out on a sermon they didn’t like. A error of leadership by a man perhaps too young for such high and politically delicate office.

The upshot was Kent resigned the Presidency of Kenyon after only serving one year and was promptly called to the presidency of Hobart College (where his father had also once taught). Although an evangelical institution, it appeared to be more accepting of differing theological positions. It was during the summer transition from Kenyon to Hobart that Cornie returned to her family home in Brookline, particularly anxious this time about the delivery of her third child. Another daughter born there at the end of August was eventually named Frances. Cornie became seriously ill after the birth, with what may have been “subacute bacterial endocarditis” by today’s analysis, but then unknown and fatal. Kent meanwhile made the move to Hobart. Cornie’s health went up and down throughout the fall, and by the new year she was very sick indeed. She died in February 1869.

During her long illness throughout the previous autumn, an experience at daybreak of a December morning in l868 changed Kent’s life forever. He had a vision. He saw “a light of unimaginable beauty….the vision of a great white city descending” and although much afraid, he pledged to himself “to be true, true to God…and conscience.” He was convinced that it was a call from God to return home to the Roman Catholic Church. What followed from then until spring were months of study and meditation during which he kept his own counsel, and then following commencement, he made his change of heart known to the local Episcopal Bishop, announcing that he could no longer serve as president of the college and that he was planning to convert to Catholicism.

Would his wife Cornelia have understood and followed him into the Catholic church? Perhaps. A shared religion and interests have always been considered prerequisites for a strong and happy marriage. In those days, it was the woman’s responsibility to bend her interests to match his. Would he have converted if she had lived and he had had more time to absorb other changes in his fortune? Yes. But he most likely would have remained a lay Catholic, or a parish priest with a special dispensation from the church so that he could continue to remain with his family. This was an option open to him even after she died, but taking vows in a monastic order was what he chose. Why?

Both families, Fay and Stone, were staunch Episcopalians steeped in anti-Catholic bias. They were stunned by Kent’s “perversion,” as they liked to call it. Undoubtedly, it was at this time that his father tore pages relating to Kent’s birth from his diary, so great was his anger and disappointment. The families assumed at first that he was unhinged by grief. Although grieving over Cornie’s death and shaken by the multiple upheavals in his life, he was also responding as well to what he felt was a call to a higher purpose and the intellectual conviction that the Roman Catholic Church was the only true and legitimate church of God. When the families were presented with the full reality of his decision, his former friend and brother-in-law, who was a lawyer in Boston, threatened to have him committed as insane. It was at this point, he snatched his children, ages 6, 4, and a few months from their Fay grandparents house in Brookline and took them in July l870 to a convent in Manchester, N.H., The Sisters of Mercy, presided over by its founder and Mother Superior, Frances Warde, a famous Irish Catholic missionary in her own right and someone who proved to be a concerned and loving temporary guardian.

Previously, on December 8, l869, in Madison, N.J., on the feast of the Virgin Mary and the anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, he was converted to the Roman Catholic faith and soon thereafter became a novice at the Paulist Fathers’ community in New York, although prior to joining the community he made a retreat at St. Michael’s in West Hoboken, a Passionist monastery, where he made his first communion. This was a decisive encounter for him, for in l876 he left the Paulists to join the Passionist order, where he took the name, Fidelis of the Cross, and where he remained for the next 45 years, establishing missions in this country and South America, serving as Provincial in this country and Consultor General in Rome, and as Catholic orator of renown throughout the United States, until his death in l921.

You may wonder, what of his little daughters? The second daughter Ethel died of influenza in the convent in New Hampshire. Under pressure from his Paulist colleagues, and in particular, Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist order who feared a conflict of interest with the order’s missionary purpose if Kent remained responsible for his daughters, he was introduced to an affluent, childless Catholic family who wanted to adopt. This was accomplished through the good auspices of one of the Paulist fathers for whom Stone felt a deep affection, Louis Rosecrans, the son of Civil War General William Rosecrans. Thus came Mr. and Mrs. Michael O’Connor from San Raphael, California, known to the Rosecrans family, who then demanded that Kent give up not only legal claims to his children but also any rights or influence as a natural parent. This demand appears to have come as a surprise to Kent at his meeting with the O’Connors in New York City to turn over his daughters and sign the documents. Ever after, Kent blamed the businesslike Michael O’Connor for insisting on those stringent terms out of fear that Kent would at later time try to interfere. There ends the personal story much as I first learned it, with the exception of the fact that he saw his daughters again in l921 just before he died and met his one sole descendant, Michel de Cazotte, grandson and then student at Stanford University, class of l924. It was Michel who would present the Fay family with their only line of descent and James Kent Stone with two great-grandsons and many more great-great-grandsons This was a happy ending of sorts, albeit an imperfect one for the once much-loved, eldest daughter Nellie, now Mrs. Mary O’Connor de Cazotte, widow of the French Consul in San Francisco, Charles de Cazotte.

Thus two childless men helped push Kent toward a fateful decision. I was taken aback by this history, like many others to whom I have related the tale. “How could he!” is everyone’s first reaction. This central tragedy of two life histories, his own and his eldest daughter’s, inserts itself intractably in the narrative at this point, and becomes the hinge point of the story I hope to tell more fully in a biography.

Who then was Fidelis Kent Stone? A much admired and handsome youth, brilliant student, linguist, mountain climber, beloved teacher, occasional poet in English, Latin and German, and letter writer of charm, interest and clarity. An equally able administrator and leader, he was chosen in his late twenties to head two separate academic colleges. Kent was ordained twice, first as an Episcopal cleric and later as Paulist priest. His first post as a Passionist was Director of Novices. Then some years later he became Provincial (head) of the Province of St. Paul of the Cross, and later Consultor General (the representative) in Rome of that Province. He was also put in charge of a number of South American missions during his 45 years in the Passionist order, spending many years particularly in Argentina and Chile. Many lay Catholics regarded him as something of a saint, or at least an American Newman. He was decidedly an intellectual with a insistent desire to reconcile the Episcopal and Catholic traditions, leading him at first into the camp of high church Anglicans, and ultimately like John Henry Cardinal Newman, tumbling over the very brink of the “true church” debate into the arms of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. He was a charismatic teacher and also a great orator with a melodious voice. He was often asked to speak on important occasions. He delivered the memorial eulogies in this country of both Pope Pius IX and Leo X111, as well as spoke at the opening ceremonies of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and in the l890s, most rewardingly for him in Appleton Chapel of Harvard University, his alma mater, where the audience who came to hear him spilled out the doors.

But there were others who had less flattering thoughts about Kent, including his own father in times past who accused him of living a profligate life in Germany, which evoked a fierce letter of rebuttal from Kent and brought to a head his own anger and disappointment in the relationship with his father. Both Isaac Hecker and Father Hewit of the Paulists thought him too much of a dreamer, foolish and misguided in his rush to become a Passionist. And his own biographer accused him in one letter of suffocating superiority! There were flaws, in spite of the laudatory treatments of his life by so many who knew and wrote about him, but as a full human being that was only to be expected. And, of course, one cannot forget, for a moment, his eldest daughter who bore the brunt of his self-absorption. There is evidence that her hurt at his removal from her life certainly led her to reject his later overtures after she came of age. Among his detractors, there was his one time best friend, his wife’s brother, James Fay, who was never able to forgive Kent, for both his betrayal of Episcopalianism, or for whisking his daughters away from Jim’s mother’s care. Mrs. Fay and her children, with the exception of her daughter, Frances, never saw the little girls again.

And lastly, there was Kent’s own suffering, on a self chosen cross, the loss of his children. He loved them dearly, there is no question of that and it is obvious in his letters to Frances Warde, who had become a real surrogate mother to them. Yet deep within himself something allowed him to relinquish them. Perhaps his inexplicable sense of sin, which was powerfully expressed in his writing. However, he never gave up trying to re-establish contact with them, and as the years passed he was less rather than more reconciled to his loss. Strong memories of those lovely and loving little girls, who had touched his daily life for years, haunted him continually. Today, neither Paulist nor Passionist orders would ask such a sacrifice of its members. However, neither he, nor any other l9th century individual in the story expressed concern for the feelings and suffering of the children, a startling lack of empathy, culturally based most likely, and noticeably prevalent among males of that era.

I will attempt to suggest just a few of the influences at work in Kent’s life. Although the facts available to me are often slim (while his own letters are many, saved by family and friends, as a monk he destroyed most of the letters he received), yet the pressures he experienced in his life led to an outcome from which it appeared there could be no turning back. And from this century’s vantage point we might say he was indeed a very emotionally inexperienced young man to make the momentous choice that he did.

The temper of the l9th century was very different from the century before. Time itself begins to speed up. It is an era of technological and scientific revolution, bringing paved roads, electrification, and the railroad. A time of revolution in Europe, an effort to overthrow oppressive governments and institutions. A time of massive immigration to the United States caused by both revolution and famine. And in the second half of the century, Civil War between North and South, a conflict long in the brewing, dramatically affects the cultural, political and economic structure of the country. A time of religious ferment for Catholic and Episcopalian, who were warring intellectually both inside and outside their respective institutions, and Kent’s life is imbedded in these theological currents. At a time of loosening bonds of governments and institutions, freedom is the cry and a new tyranny of “the people” is envisioned and feared by many.

Anti-Catholic sentiment was virulent during the years that Kent was coming of age. Wave upon wave of immigrants came to America, including impoverished potato farmers from Ireland, all staunch Catholics, who in particular were to suffer the indignities of prejudice against The Roman Catholic Church. In spite of Protestant antipathy, the church did indeed begin making inroads in Protestant America, and by the end of the century was the largest single religious group. The Protestant majority, who linked democracy with Protestantism, felt deeply threatened by an authoritarian Catholic Church. In fact Catholicism was growing throughout the globe. The Paulist Fathers, a new order primarily of converts in this country actively sought to convert the Protestant population. The Passionists, too, a newly arrived order in America, were missionaries as well as contemplatives. The two Popes most influential throughout the second half of the century, Pius IX and Leo XIII, supported and applauded this growth. As their temporal power dramatically contracted with loss of the Papal States, they encouraged vigorous proselytizing by the Catholic priesthood world wide. Politically and theologically, however, the church itself was still a conservative body in spite of English and German liberalism knocking at the door and a somewhat more flexible approach with the new churches in America. The religious orders continued to maintain strict vows of poverty and chastity and total submission to the rule of each order. Novice monks were expected to bring down an iron curtain between past and present lives. A monk ideally turned his back on all that had gone before.

Not only was the country ruled by male institutions and values, the family too was still patriarchal, the father the all powerful provider. Fathers taught and disciplined but rarely nurtured. For the most part by end of this century, men had removed their workplace from the home. Servants were plentiful in the homes of the comfortable as well as the wealthy, and in Boston and New York they were often Irish. Children’s emotions were rarely taken into account, and it was assumed that childhood was so fluid that most would adapt. Well into the 20th century, there was a Victorian reticence about expressing one’s feelings, and biographies were circumspect, or reticent on negative aspects of the subject.

My research has led me in fact to two stories, the father’s and the daughter’s, that need retelling. While rooted in a culture of an earlier time, the stories plumb the wellsprings of humanity with cautionary echoes for all time.

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