Shock surrounding the sudden death of Father John (AKA Jack Nelson), Vicar of Woodstock’s legendary Church of the Holy Transformation of Christ-on-the- Mount, has left the fate of this landmark institution in serious question.
As an article in coming weeks will more fully outline, this tiny chapel first came to world attention under the stewardship of one remarkable priest we knew as Father Francis. It was he who Jane (Mrs. Ralph) Whitehead first brought to Woodstock in the early 1930’s, as a spiritual friend to her troubled son, Peter. (And it would eventually be Peter, the inebriated, if open-hearted, inheritor of the town’s original art colony, who welcomed the likes of a young Bob Dylan into the previously exclusive Arts & Crafts enclave his father built and named “Byrdcliffe.”)
After the destruction-by-fire of his first Woodstock church later in the 30s, Father Francis accepted the chapel atop Mead’s Mountain as a gift from Jane Whitehead, who purchased “the church and its land” adding these to the Eastern front of Byrdcliffe’s already massive hold.
Although the small, modest clergyman discouraged use of his formal title, Father William Henry Francis was actually Archbishop of what is today known as “the Orthodox Metroplia of North and South America & The British Isles,” which found its origins in this country as a branch of the Old Catholic “Church of England.” However, as Father Francis often said, “I came here to convert Woodstock but Woodstock has converted me.”
This transformation, eventually causing him to become somewhat infamously known as “Woodstock’s Hippie Priest,” brought Father Francis into conflict with every authority imaginable until, in 1962, he sought sanctuary in a variant faith. While Communist Russia had universally persecuted Christians (and all theistic institutions) ever since overthrowing the Czar, Premiere Khrushchev finally made statements of appeasement and the Russian Orthodox Church was assured non-interference by the state. At this shift many severed Orthodox branches sought re-acceptance within the venerable institution, and Father Francis joined that movement. He was reluctant, however, to place The Church on The Mount at the whim of a notoriously fickle Communist rule. Even so, his best solution shifted that vulnerability perilously near, when around 1963 Father Francis convinced his old friend Peter Whitehead to leave, in his will, the 400 some acre lot “leading to and including the chapel” to the town of Woodstock.
When asked in recent years about the fact that — in defiance of all law —Woodstock indeed “owned” a church, Jeremy Wilber (certainly the nimblest Supervisor this town is likely ever to see) was said to have made light of the matter by looking up like a startled goat and demanding: “Church? What church?” While back in the day, as the years found Father Francis increasingly frail, the far more pressing question became “Whose church?” exactly, would this be, once our Archbishop had breathed his last?
Like his parishioners, the acolytes of Father Francis were a varied lot.
There was Brother Jude, who our good Father was disposed to place in a mental institution more than once. There was Brother Michael [Esposito], the early rock star who gave away a near priceless collection of vintage guitars upon “forsaking the world” to become the right hand of Father Francis. Chris Groden, also a popular musician of some reputation, was eventually named “some sort of sub-deacon” according to Esposito.
Presciently, a young man named Jack Nelson visited the church shortly after the Woodstock Festival. Jack instantly became a regular attendee, drawn by an ineffable aura he found distinctly older and more potent than conventional Christianity. Finally, there was the long established presence of Brother Matthew, who — being a bit more conventional — soon became important as a dependably traditional force. Yet running contrary to all such traditions, as “heathen” Tibetans arrived and prepared to purchase the vast property highest on his mountain, Father Francis quite visibly welcomed them.
Typical and largely because of such unpredictable and often outrageous views and actions — even as the “undeclared” Archbishop’s soft and other-worldly voice faltered, the legend surrounding Father Francis continued to grow. By now misfits and artists of every stripe, originally proud of having thrown off the shackles of religion, had, in ever growing numbers, fallen under his spell. Yet when the wren-like priest finally met his reward at age 97 in 1979, this ragtag group was faced with “foreign authorities of church” presiding over the funeral and burial of their beloved Patriarch, whereupon a tragicomedy of near epic proportions resulted (to be depicted next time.) Technically, however, any priest presiding over the chapel from this moment forward, did so at the behest of a man then titled “His Eminence,” John LoBue, of New Jersey.
Now the fully ordained “Father Michael” (with the assistance of Chris Groden) carried on as best he could, reading from that massive bible, and performing the liturgy “nearly” as Father Francis had before him. Although mice had helped themselves to the bellows of the tiny church organ “‘til it sounded quite like the voice of Father Francis at the last,” Jeb Welsh, a one-time conductor of the Yale Choir, lead a stalwart congregation in song. The mainstays of this choir were: himself, the world famous astrologer Helen Weaver, and today’s Renaissance singer and Maverick musicologist extraordinaire, Miriam Berg. These were “The Last Temptations” and true to Woodstock spirit, they of course cut an album.
But without Father Francis as bearer of the beacon atop Mead’s Mountain, it flickered (or some would even say it “shifted” next door.) Father Michael had, for some time already, been tugged back towards the world below. Finally, much to the benefit and delight of Marc Black (with whom Michael has played bass ever since), Esposito succumbed. Rival Orthodox churches now began and would continue to compete over the deceptively important if increasingly decrepit chapel.
The resulting disarray was only set straight when Father Matthew reappeared to lead. But his stolid, perhaps two year tenure abruptly ended the day Father Jude showed up with a shotgun, and Father Matthew was forced at gunpoint off the mountain. Then who knows exactly what ensued in the Church on the Mount? Except that this renegade priest quickly threw open the chapel doors even wider than [had] Father Francis, while obviously lacking his power to pacify Woodstock’s many “lost sheep.”
Now priceless relics brought to Woodstock by Father Francis, including a Gutenberg printing of Thomas Aquinas and a wooden chest with a Botticelli Madonna in its lid, were doubtless awarded some insulting price, instantly pocketed by Father Jude. Father Francis’ gigantic gold ring, denoting ultimate office, likewise disappeared in this period.
The outrage came to an end in 1991 when Bishop LoBue, backed with the staunch support of Mrs. Mario Cuomo, brought the matter before the Woodstock Town Board. At this meeting, the now fully ordained Father John (nee Jack Nelson) — who’d himself been a rock troubadour, master carpenter, and something of a rover in his day — was most appropriately named the Vicar of the Church on the Mount. This strong and highly competent young priest braved at least one Catskill winter in a rude structure, emulating Christian monks of old. Furthermore, Father John’s passionate accomplishments (neatly limned in Violet Snow’s obituary several weeks ago) immediately returned to the tradition established by Father Francis, of aiding those both within and without his immediate domain. Father John, for instance, rode on horseback alongside “The Red Man” to Washington DC in defense of Native American Rights. He was said to have marched in Jerusalem (though I have not verified this), and yes, he sought to preserve our local railroad. At the time of his death Father John was involved in an effort to secure parcels of land for American Veterans of War, while more publicly spearheading a massive movement he called “Live Peace,” the future of which seems dubious at best without his inspiration. Of course, he also was instrumental in placing the chapel — this one-time world seat of Orthodoxy — into The National Register of Historic Places, where, duly noted by a plaque at roadside, it remains to this day.
“I didn’t plan on any of this. In fact, I had a lot other plans,” Father John once told me. “But then I heard the word of God, and after that…your other plans become your other plans.”
Father John differed most from his illustrious predecessor, however, in an initial obvious antipathy towards the Tibetans. (Although who is to say how Father Francis, himself, might have reacted to the construction of KTD’s enlarged monastery, which indeed dismantled and displaced the doddering Mead’s Mountain House.) The inheritor’s rancor came to its inevitable climax during the famous visit of His Holiness The Dalai Lama to Woodstock in 2006, before which rumors arose among Buddhists that Father John planned to assassinate the all-but-universally loved spiritual leader of both the Tibetan people and Tibetan Buddhists around the world.
It is to the credit of KTD that abbot Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche soon paid a visit to Father John at the Church on The Mount to formally apologize for the ridiculous rumor. Furthermore, it was due to this visit that Father John eventually “made his peace” with what some consider an inappropriately large facility in the shadow of which the chapel has long stood dwarfed. However, it remains particularly commendable that KTD sent no less than three high ranking Buddhist monks to attend Father John’s lengthy funeral (Tibetans being no strangers to prolonged ritual).
After a crammed full ceremony, during which Frankincense-fuming-censers and lit candles created an atmosphere Michael Esposito noted as “dripping with nostalgia,” world head of the order (and therefore now) “His Beatitude,” John LoBue, assisted by two fellow clergyman from New Jersey, prayed for 24 hours over the grave of Father John; exactly as LoBue had prayed for the immortal soul of Father Francis almost 40 years before. The Archbishop’s grave lies behind the church; Father John’s immediately to the right of the chapel entrance. In keeping with the solemnity of a small parish rocked to its core since their passionate priest’s passing, Father Vincent has travelled from New Jersey each Sunday to conduct the liturgy.
However, the question foremost on the minds of any familiar with its enigma remains: what will happen to this frail shell of a building which these days birds, squirrels, bats and mice inhabit more frequently, if less fervently, than its worshippers?
The good news is that “His Beatitude” John LoBue will, within the next few months, ordain Father John’s successor. Of this I have been assured by that pre-eminent leader of the church. However, it will apparently come as some surprise to Benjamin Carrus (who for some time has functioned at the chapel as “The Reader Benjamin”) to learn that His Beatitude intends to ordain him in October, before pronouncing him the next Vicar of The Church on The Mount later this fall. LoBue also states that the considerable preservation and repair already undertaken by Father John will continue, in hopes that monks’ quarters added during Father Francis’ tenure might be rebuilt. This would allow for both the vicar and his wife — or an acolyte or two — to take permanent residence in the rear of the chapel. Then? Who knows but that the ancient light carried through most of the last century by Father Francis which again wavers atop Mead’s Mountain, will once more shine out to inspire Faith, Hope, and Charity among appropriate members of an increasingly prosperous Woodstock below. For myself, I might also hope that this famously open-minded church will continue to most fittingly embrace those of a similarly peaceful and loving faith found “just over the wall.”