“Here is the challenge to the Parish Historian: to revivify the stories of the Fathers of the early American Church until they are of as real importance and significance to American Churchmen as are those of the patriots who founded the American nation. The information is available, awaiting interpreters; the privilege and duty of familiarity with this information is part of our churchly inheritance.”
–Ann Maria Mitchell. “The Advent Parish, Boston – Pioneer of the Catholic Revival.” The Living Church, December 14, 1935
Born in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, in 1869 to Joseph B. Mitchell and Mary Ann (Taylor) Mitchell, Ann Maria Mitchell graduated from Wellesley College in 1890 with the Bachelor of Science degree. Her father, a tinsmith, had died three years before her graduation; her mother would die the year after. After completing her studies, Miss Mitchell lodged in the Boston household of James Grimes, MD, his wife, Eliza, and their four children, ranging in age from 18 years old to two months old, and a servant. The six other lodgers comprised two salesmen, two nurses, a stenographer, and a bookkeeper. They lived in a five-story brick building with bow windows at 428 Massachusetts Avenue, near the intersection of Columbus Avenue. Throughout her time in Boston, her occupation was listed variously as school teacher, social worker, and superintendent.
She was also a writer, penning articles on varied topics: “A Novel Garden Party” (Good Housekeeping, 1896), “Old Days and New in Northfield” (New England Magazine, 1897), “The White Blackberry” (Rhodora, 1899). Her heart for social justice is evidenced by a letter she wrote in April 1907 to Louis D. Brandeis reporting that Metropolitan Life Insurance agents were “conducting inquiries among Negro policy holders in order to learn whether they had made deposits in savings banks.” As far as she could tell, no white policy holders had been questioned. Brandeis promptly wrote back: “I am much gratified by your interest in the subject.”
By 1909, she had moved to 14 Concord Square, a gracious brick townhouse on a quiet side street in the Boston’s South End, where she lived for several years. Sometime before 1925, she took a position as Superintendent at the Home for Incurables (now The Boston Home); she was 56 years old. Located at 2049 Dorchester Avenue, the Home for Incurables cared for chronically ill young men and women who had no place to live. An article from the Boston Evening Transcript of March 13, 1926, describes how young female residents of the home, after years of treatment, were “waiting word from the medical staff, and from the superintendent, Miss Ann Maria Mitchell, and the head nurse, Mrs. Helen F. Buxton, that will open to them a life on equal footing with their girl friends of the outside world.”
Miss Mitchell’s work at the Home may be the most concrete clue to her association with the Episcopal Church. The Home for Incurables was founded “to address itself to the sorest need” in 1881 by Cordelia Harmon and the Rev. Philips Brooks, then rector of Trinity Church in Boston; Charles R. Codman, Trinity’s junior warden, was on the Board. During Miss Mitchell’s time there, the Home embarked on a fundraising campaign to expand their crowded facility, allowing the patient population to increase to 61 from 41; the staff, numbering 24, would grow commensurately.
After leaving her position at the Home for Incurables, she lived at 81 Revere Street, near Charles Street — and the Church of the Advent. Here, in the final years of her life, she found a true calling as a parish historian. “Serving as Parish Historian is inherently a delightful adventure,” she wrote in Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church (Volume VII, 1938). “Our religious forebears were generally meticulous in keeping full records of their daily activities, a task which they seem thoroughly to have enjoyed.”
In the same article, she relates the history of the role of Parish Historian, and traces the evolution of the Library of the Diocese of Massachusetts, culminating in June 1928 with a dedicated room on the sixth floor of the Diocesan House at 1 Joy Street. Her description of the Diocesan Library is a fine example of her eye for detail and lively writing style.
“The room…is a delight. It faces the South and West, is flooded with sunshine, with a view extending to the Blue Hills of Milton and over the Charles River Basin to Brookline. An oriental rug, twenty-four feet by twelve, made by the Kurds of southern Persia, in the Shah Abbas design, is on the floor, a gift to the new library. At one time this rug was much larger, experts say, twenty feet wide, and the length in proportion. The rug is known as the ‘Iron rug of the East,’ and, as originally made, its value was several thousands of dollars.
“There is a roomy fireplace, and over it hangs a portrait painting of Bishop Brooks. There is a variety of chairs, some of historic value, two of these formerly owned by Bishop Brooks and presented to the library by his two brothers, and other chairs of less value but extremely comfortable. There are old chests, desks and tables, each with its history. The library has recently acquired a glass showcase, in which small articles may be kept on exhibition…The library is indeed a delightful place in which to linger and refresh one’s soul.”
She is less poetic and more pragmatic–but equally thorough–in reporting how “…a canon was enacted in 1935, which decrees that the rector of each parish shall appoint a Parish Historian” in the Diocese of Massachusetts. (An Editor’s Note appears with her article: “This story is printed with the hope that other dioceses in the Church will follow the example of Massachusetts both in building a diocesan library and the appointment of Parish Historians.”) She continues by giving examples of the duties of the Parish Historian: “first, gathering current material pertaining to the parish and its activities; second, studying and interpreting the past with a view to writing parish history.
“As it grows, a parish develops a personality of its own. The town of Provincetown at the tip end of Cape Cod rejoices with reason over the parish church, St. Mary’s-of-the-Harbor. Though young and small, few parishes have a more distinctive place of worship. By joining forces with the summer colony of skilled craftsmen in various arts, the parish can point to a result which, while strictly churchly, has an atmosphere in keeping with its unique New England setting.
“Pre-Revolutionary Trinity Parish raised the money for its foundation by subscriptions carrying with them the right to the ownership of pews; this was a distinctly American method of procedure. The pew-holders were called the proprietors and held the governing power in the parish….
“In contrast to this, the Parish of the Advent, not yet one hundred years old, founded as a free Catholic parish, knew at the time of its founding that it faced bitter animosity. The founders took careful precautions to ensure the perpetuity of the ideals with which it came into being. The control of the parish was vested in a close, self-perpetuating corporation, a startling procedure for that time, as close corporations did not begin to become common or popular in the business world until two decades later.”
She further displayed the historian’s “privilege and duty of familiarity” with both institutional history and theological developments in a lengthy article published in The Living Church (December 14, 1935), exploring the origins of the Church of the Advent and rightly identifying its beginning as “a youth movement.”
“The church of the Laodiceans is rebuked in the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine because it is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. The parish of the Church of the Advent, Boston, whatever its errors in the past may have been, has never been accused of tepidity. Very soon after it struggled into existence on Advent Sunday, 1844, it found itself in hot water and for over ten years the waters seethed and boiled with the struggle between the two rectors, the saintly Dr. Croswell and his successor, the doughty Bishop Southgate, on one side, and the obstinate and irascible head of the diocese, Bishop Eastburn, on the other.
“The reasons for the new parish as formulated by its founders sound unobjectionable enough. It was to be a church with open doors ‘formed on the spirit and principles of the Book of Common Prayer; a church supported by free will contributions of the worshippers, with free seats where rich and poor meet alike without distinction for worship; a church where daily as well as Sunday services can be held.’
“The majority of the group who met on Beacon Hill to make plans for the new church as above outlined were men under thirty, resolute and fearless in their determination that Boston should have a place for worship where a vital, living faith might be preached and practised instead of the dry formalism of the Puritans which dominated alike the Prayer Book churches and the various Congregational bodies. It was a democratic group, composed of men from various walks of life, but alike and united in their determination to see through the task they had undertaken. This was essentially a youth movement, a sot of by-product of the Tractarian or Oxford Movement in England, reports of which had traveled across the Atlantic.”
The Advent Archives hold her notes on a presentation she made about the parish historian, and biographical manuscripts on of Charles Chapman Grafton, a young Advent parishioner who went on to become the parish’s rector from 1872 to 1888, then Bishop of Fond du Lac, and Martha Sever, a young nurse in the Civil War who on her death at age 25 left a substantial bequest to the Church of the Advent. (“Miss Mitchell I like this” the rector, Whitney Hale, wrote in the margin.) Her typescript “Advent Annals” or “Annals of the Advent Parish, Boston” is a work-in-progress of eight chapters. None of these manuscripts is dated, nor has the date of her appointment as Parish Historian been found; most of her work in this area was likely done between 1935 and 1942.
Miss Mitchell’s residence in the 1940 census is 273 Clarendon Street, known as Morville House, a home for aged women owned by the Diocese of Massachusetts. She died in April 1942 at age 73; the Rev. Whitney Hale, the Advent’s tenth rector (from 1937 to 1960), presided at her funeral. No eulogy or obituary survives, if indeed one was ever created. Her work is briefly recognized in John T. Maltsberger’s Preface to The Church of the Advent, First Years, published in 1986: “Ann Maria Mitchell, an historian of the parish before 1942, took her work so seriously that special stationery was printed for her task.”
Wallace Goodrich is slightly more effusive in his Foreword to the centennial volume, The Church of the Advent, Boston, 1844-1944: “Miss Ann Maria Mitchell, a devoted communicant of the Church of the Advent and the appointed Historian of the Parish, prior to her death in 1942 had assembled much valuable material relating to the parish from its earliest days, which has been most helpful in the compilation of this work.”
But surely this is the right time, and the right place, to let Miss Mitchell have the last word.
“[The] common conflicts and difficulties of the past gave the parish of the Advent a solidarity which stands well the test of time. The parish tie is a close one and many who are connected with it but are called to live elsewhere, will, when opportunity offers, return to its fold like children to a beloved home. ‘No place can seem quite like the Advent,’ they say.
“There has also been fostered a spirit of sturdy independence in the parishioners. …On occasion they may become vocal in a manner and to a degree which will give those who have parish matters in charge unhappy and anxious moments. On the other hand, true to the tradition of the whole Anglican communion, they are able to turn and present to the world a solid and united front as befits the members of an honorable and historic clan.”
Well done, thou good and faithful servant!