Father John Nelson, deacon of Woodstock’s Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount, died on August 1 of liver cancer. In the past decade, Nelson was a familiar figure in Woodstock, striding down the street or riding on his motor scooter in his full-length black cassock and cap. He was passionately engaged in many social issues, from Native American rights to peace activism to railroad preservation.
John Nelson was born in 1950 in southern Maryland, where his grandparents raised him on their farm. He came from an old Virginia family that numbered the semi-legendary John Alden as one of their ancestors. Nelson attended college for one year and became involved in music, studying with the designer of the Hammond organ and playing flute on the street. Tall and lean, he was also athletic and was scouted as a pitcher for pro baseball. During this time, while living near Washington DC, he married and helped raise a stepdaughter.
In the 70s, his path led him to the Woodstock area, where he joined an intentional community forming around the owners of a farm and bakery in Stony Hollow. There he met his second wife. They left the community together, setting up a household in Shokan and later in Old Hurley, where their son was born. Nelson continued to play music and was known for his skill and creativity as a woodworker and carpenter.
In the late 80s, the couple went their separate ways, and Nelson pursued an interest in the ancient Celtic church. He lived in Ireland for two years, fell in love, and brought his partner to the U.S., where they were married, but she ultimately decided to return to Ireland.
Nelson had long been attending the Church on the Mount, as the little wooden church high on Meads Mountain Road is commonly called. After the death of the charismatic Father Francis, known for creating a vibrant spiritual community in the 60s and 70s, the church was in limbo for some years. In the early 90s, Nelson went to study at the Western Right Orthodox Monastery in New Jersey, where he was inspired by Father Theodore, a Russian priest who had escaped the revolution. After years of internship and initiation, Nelson became Father John and dedicated himself to the life of the church.
He continued to live in Woodstock, and began leading services for the small congregation remaining at the Church on the Mount. Due to past incidents of vandalism at the church, Father John decided to move onto the property. He built a beautiful baptistry by closing in the old pavilion, creating a sleeping area, and lived there as a monk, under simple, primitive conditions. He also worked on the church structure, rebuilding the rood screen and shoring up areas that were decaying.
In 2015, Father John was instrumental in obtaining historic landmark status for the church, which was built in 1891. Other initiatives over the past ten years included a series of peace marches, connecting towns around the world to pray for an end to war. He communicated with the Lakota Indians and helped bring them to Woodstock on their cross-country horseback ride to bring attention to Native issues. Recently, he joined the effort to save the historic Ulster and Delaware Railroad tracks from being torn up.
Father John is survived by his first wife, Pamela Twining; stepdaughter, Charlotte Alyxandra; second wife, Roberta Sickler; son, Blake Nelson; two sisters and a brother. A funeral service was held on August 5. Father John is buried in the cemetery at the Church on the Mount.