The Story of Father Francis, Part One

The man Woodstock knew as “Father Francis” is not remembered to have ever publicly discussed his decision to become a priest. The clergyman, who presided over the Church on the Mount atop Meads Mountain from the 1930s until 1979, who enchanted Woodstockers, married many and guided the spiritual needs of an unruly community, would refer as his great turning point to an act involving him, as an archbishop, assisting Clarence Darrow in defending a high school instructor arrested for teaching Evolution in what came to be known as “The Scopes Monkey Trail.” So while 1925 newsreels of Darrow and Father Francis may somewhere exist, Tobey Carey’s remarkable 1974-75 documentary Father Francis doubtless remains the most thorough audio/visual record of the clergyman, and it can be found at the Woodstock Library. Hence, where historical disagreement in public record exists, I defer to this unsworn testimony of Father Francis. The half hour film captures FF nearing his end, and is therefore missing a few beats in the remarkable delivery which endeared him to so many. However, one of the most striking features of these interviews remains the following: Originating as he did from upper-crust England — and obviously the product of a rich storytelling tradition — the monologues of Father Francis rarely differentiate between “the speakers” populating his anecdotes. Instead, like his contemporaries Joyce, Faulkner, and later, Cormac McCarthy, the teller of the tale leaves that work to us.

He began English-born in 1882 as William Henry Francis Brothers, the eldest son of a Nottingham lace manufacturer (“Dad ran with Lord Buxton and that crowd”) who emigrated with his large family to America just before the turn of the last century before settling in Illinois. William was 12. Ordained at a very early, if unidentified age “Father Francis” soon joined the Benedictine Monastery in Waukegan where he worked primarily among a the local poor, largely illiterate immigrant population. In 1907 the monastery and its missions were accepted into The Old Catholic Church based in England, and Father Francis became abbot of the community in 1913 at the age of 25. Consecrated as bishop on October 3 of 1916 (by Bishop and Prince de Landes and Burghes de la Rache of the house of Lorraine-Brabant) FF immediately became embroiled in inter-denominational battle. For the very next day a certain Carmel Henry Carfora was also consecrated as bishop and soon assumed leadership of Northern American Old Roman Catholic Church, whereas Bishop Francis was a defacto patriarch of The Old Catholic in America.

In 1917, clergy of these “Old Catholic” branches met in Chicago and pronounced each bishop the archbishop of the two rivalrous-if-related sects, (neither of which acknowledged the Pope as a supreme or infallible spiritual leader.) The upshot being, as Alf Evers put it, that each man soon “accus[ed] the other of being a self-made archbishop.”

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In Carey’s film, Father Francis, then 93, recalls at first, while “very conscious of being a bishop” he remained “an unashamed Pacifist when there were only five known Pacifists in public life.” As such, around 1916, he sought to free an imprisoned young draft dodger while knowing he’d need “the attorney for the damned” Clarence Darrow, to get the job done. “Of course I’d heard of Darrow. Who hadn’t?”

Without making an appointment FF found his man on the 9th floor of the Cunard building in Chicago, where the chain-smoking attorney quick waved off his staff with: “He’s a bishop? I’ve never talked with a bishop before.” Father Francis’ love of paradox leaps from the recollection with: “Darrow was so ugly he was good looking.”

“You’re awfully young to be a bishop.”

“Well, I’ll grow up.”

“Do you eat?’

“Well, I don’t drink.”

Moments later the notorious firebrand took “a young cleric’s arm” and walked him through an amazed Henrici’s restaurant. At the end of the meal, during which Father Francis had pleaded the draft dodger’s cause, Darrow said, “I won’t let you down” before asking if FF came into town often.

“If necessary I do.”

“Well, whenever you come into to town, come have lunch with me. I kind of like you.”

“Well, I kind of like you, too — especially if you take the case.”

They became friends. They went night clubs together. They even got into an automobile accident together.

Then FF became “Archbishop Francis” and moved to his church headquarters of Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan. In the process a greatly misunderstood event occurred (which recently prompted an eloquent if unevenly researched letter to the editor of this paper, proposing proof of FF’s “dark side” with descriptions of matrimonial abuse.) The truth was this. At an unknown date the parents of mentally disturbed young woman were killed in an accident. FF was charged with the care of their daughter, Edna, who became his ward. To fulfill this duty even after becoming archbishop, FF tried to take Grace with him to New York City, but was blocked by Illinois law from transporting a minor across state lines. Darrow often said that Father Francis would’ve made “one hell of a lawyer,” a claim which FF initially proved by flouting laws of both church and state in promptly legally marrying Grace. Needless to say, the marriage was never consummated, though — yes, several decades later FF found it necessary to  place Grace in a mental institution where, yes — he likely responded to her complaints in explaining “there is no justice in the world…[only in heaven.]”

It was 1924. Clarence Darrow had tracked down the phone number of FF’s new headquarters to inform the archbishop that a young high school teacher had been arrested for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee.

“Well that’s ridiculous. They teach it in every high school.”

“Oh no they don’t. Now I want you to go down there with me if you can. I need your help to steer me through the bible. You must know it better than I do.”

Father Francis asked for a day or two to think it over, then agreed. He next asked Darrow to transport him to Chicago so they could prepare and FF could see his father.

“You can’t get mixed up in this business,” his father told him, “besides it’s impossible.

“But Dad…I’ve decided I will get mixed up in it.”

“Well, when the church throws you out what will you do then? What will you put on your altar then?”

“I’ll put you on the altar, Dad.”

Father Francis capped the story: “He looked like he’d punch me.”

Although the archbishop was careful never to state this fact, his Beautitude, Metropolitan John (the present Archbishop of FF’s order) assures us that it was indeed Father Francis who supplied Darrow the remarkable strategy which eventually set John Scopes free. The figurehead advisor to the prosecuting attorney in the case, of course, had been orator William Jennings Bryan (who’d repeatedly run and was once only narrowly defeated in assuming the office of President of the United States.) As memorably documented in the play and film “Inherent The Wind” Darrow and Bryan were old — if rivalrous — friends. Even so, the battle playing out in Dayton, Tennessee soon took on shades of a modern day David and Goliath with Darrow, naturally, defending the underdog, and Bryan using the implicit publicity to embolden yet another attempt to lead the nation back to God as President.

Then on July 20, 1925, after excessive heat had moved the proceedings outdoors, Clarence Darrow called his evermore confident adversary, William J. Bryan, to take the witness stand as an authority on the Bible. Although star reporters from all over the country had presumed upon a stunning defeat for Scopes and so had already left town, Clarence Darrow now mounted what is generally considered the single most brilliant gambit in the history of the American courtroom. It went something like this:

“Do you believe in the seven days of Creation?”

Under oath Bryan assured the court he did.

“And by the dictates of this belief, when was the sun made?”

“On the third day.”

“Fine, and with the sun made on the third day, if you would sir, might you please explain how the sun might rise or set on the first and second days? Indeed, could you explain how these periods might be called ‘days’ at all without the sun providing such ‘days’ their light?”

Bryan was hogtied. Utter chaos resulted in the courtroom and in the following weeks, months, and years in churches, schools, and governments all over the world. The following day the judge refused to withdraw the testimony and, after a seven minute deliberation (one minute — no doubt — for each day of creation…) Scopes was judged guilty of teaching Evolution in violation of the recently passed Butler Law, and fined one hundred dollars. Darrow offered to pay the fine which was soon withdrawn on a technicality. Five days from the ruling William Jennings Bryan was found dead in his bed. Father Francis’ comment being: “And so the world’s greatest prohibitionist had eaten himself to death.”

After inspiring this blistering defeat to Old Time Religion Father Francis returned to New York where he was literally spat upon by the righteous, and found “old friends wouldn’t even look at me.” Still shocked by the events well past age 90, FF — since famously known as “Woodstock’s Hippie Priest” — seemed mortified all over again while admitting, “It completely changed the whole course of my life…[Then] instead of spending my time with bible-loving people, I found myself with those who ultimately formed the civil liberties union.” But once branded a renegade there was no going back, so the Archbishop embraced the controversy surrounding him, and used it towards his own ends.

“…I’ve also spoken before the Aetheists Society of America which is also known as The Libertarian Society [and] The Society of Anarchists…And that was the time I told them: ‘Now give me three minutes and if I don’t make my point throw me off the fire escape at the back. Because I want to tell you about the greatest Anarchist I ever knew: Emma Goldman.’ [Aside:] After that I was with Emma Goldman on the platform of the Town House in New York. ‘I knew Alexander Berkman [who attempted and failed to assassinate Henry Clay Frick], Ben Reitman [who drove “Free Love Emma” into murderously jealous rages]…names familiar to you all. But the greatest Anarchist of all — you didn’t know — but I did. Now let me tell you about him — and he was Jewish, too, as most of you are…Jesus of Nazareth.’”

Father Francis also adapted, produced, and acted in plays to packed houses at St. Marks and the Bowery. To cast the first of these, a nativity play, he appealed to Eva Le Gallienne, “the great genius of the Civic Theater, who knew exactly what I wanted — but she didn’t…Finally she brought me a willowy 17-year-old Martha Graham [Graham was 25], who had never danced in public before [probable.] I remember I said, ‘But she won’t do at all. I want a big fat Yiddisha Mama.’ And Le Gallienne thought that very sacrilegious. But well, isn’t it true? The Blessed Virgin Mary? She probably wasn’t in the least as we think she was — certainly not afflicted with chronic anemia. [Laughter.] Yes, that’s how I knew Martha Graham. She performed in mime. We had readers between us. I said, ‘Well, she’s read the script. Let Miss Graham see what she can make of it.’ And in the end she was so beautiful, so wonderful…I won’t say who wept but most did. So I looked at her and said, ‘You have a job.’ And apparently we were good because the Moscow Arts Theater had gotten into the country somehow, and they came to see us. And they approached [co-producer] Dr. Guthrie and expressed an interest in hiring me. [To which] Dr. Guthrie said, ‘You can’t hire him, he’s a bishop!’

‘— He’s not a bishop, he’s an actor!’

“So they came to see me and I said: ‘No I’m not—I’m both!’”

(Courtesy of Lawrence Fine)

Like all charismatic spiritual teachers Father Francis was and obviously remained a showman with the sin of pride shining through his piety like a mirror’s silver through the glass. This gifted actor of an archbishop, for instance, specialized in dragging high society matrons to charity hospitals. Here, while softly intoning prayers over the semi-conscious, he inspired such wealthy friends to write checks for newer and better such institutions — checks often accompanied by a surprising number of zeros. The opening of such purses evidently justified (and paid for) Father Francis’ domicile in what was likely the single most gorgeous residence in all New York. It had been designed and built for his own use by the man commonly considered America’s greatest architect, Stanford White, who was obliged to vacate the premises the night he was shot dead in the tower of Madison Square Garden (which White also designed) by Harry Thaw, for making love to Thaw’s intended, Evelyn Nesbitt, on a velvet swing which hung from the high arch of that tower.

And so eventually, for exactly ten years between 1926 and ‘36, while attended by four other priests, Father Francis (…the closeted Grace no doubt playing Mrs. Rochester in the attic above) underwent his most decadent phase. It, nevertheless, abruptly ended with the confluence of three increasingly remarkable events.

First, Father Francis received a pompous visit from an officer of the savings bank on 72nd Street informing him that his ten year lease had expired but since — in light of the numerous repairs and improvements he’d made on the place — the archbishop could plainly not afford to not sign another ten year lease, though the rent was now doubled. The document along with a priceless fountain pen were then placed before his Eminence. “Well, [said FF] I can live in the gutter but I won’t be blackmailed by a banker.” So, as he invariably would in such circumstances, Father Francis exasperated this most self-important chiseler in requesting “two weeks to think about it.”

Only a few days later a subordinate, visibly flustered by whatever was making quite a ruckus below, climbed the stairs and entered FF’s cloistered apartments.,

“There’s a man to see you. He says he’s your father.”

“Well, I had a father — I’m not fungus growth.”

“But it can’t be your father — he has blue eyes.”

“My father has blue eyes!”

So Father Francis descended the grand velvet stair to find his dear old father unwilling to pay a cabbie.

“Dad! Why didn’t you write to say you coming?”

At this a torrent of vitriol poured from the mouth of the elderly gentleman, ending with: “Why Jesus Christ couldn’t get to see you!”

“But Dad…He wouldn’t come to see me, He knows me too well. Now come upstairs to my private quarters.”

“Oh and you’ve a private quarters in addition to a palace for a home!”

“Well, I am an archbishop…”

“And you’re well aware of it, aren’t you?.. With people starving to death on your door — I’m ashamed of you!”

[FF recalling the event:] “And his blue eyes were flashing fire…but of course, he was right!”

Finally within the same week Father Francis remembers receiving a letter from “Mrs. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, saying she had problems and we had mutual friends and would I come to spend the day with her at a place called Woodstock. Probably I’d heard about it. Of course I’d heard about it. Everybody had heard about Woodstock in those days.”

Father Francis arrived Woodstock in 1936, here met by Jane Whitehead “this tiny little woman in seven veils,” who soon revealed that her son Peter, then in his early 30s, was a problem. “Peter was not a problem,” Father Francis explicitly states in interview, “…she was the problem. Peter was never a problem to anybody.” This euphemism politely communicates the fact that Peter Whitehead was a jovial if chronic drinker for whom procuring more alcohol — and just about anything else he desired (except a suitable wife) — never presented a problem to anybody. So Peter proceeded, in an affable way, to remain what he was: an ever-welcoming and most generous drunk. Nevertheless Lady Jane, his mother, was convinced that a teetotling, non-smoking, eloquently amusing, yet distinctly pious Archbishop could and would somehow produce a remarkable change in her sole heir. She was so convinced of this, in fact, that she made Father Francis an extraordinary offer, which — in his way — he requested some time to think about.

Peter drove him the back way up the mountain destined to become his domain. “I’d never been up a mountain like this before.” Father Francis knocked on the door of Mead’s Mountain House and the surviving grand daughter of old man Mead answered it to say they hadn’t any rooms at the moment. Father Francis said he was neither a roomer nor a rumor and simply wanted to rest a while and think. She started coffee for him.

“I told Peter [back in the car] he should call for me in two hours, for Mrs. Whitehead had told me that if I’d come to Woodstock part of the year she’d give me the mountain. I said, ‘I don’t want the mountain, I want part of it.’ And Mrs. Whitehead said she’d give me what I wanted if I’d come and look after Peter. So I thought it all out and they picked me up about four o’clock and took me tea at what is still Byrdcliffe, and I decided in the affirmative and that’s how I came to Woodstock. I liked it. I tasted freedom here. I started to build what was a house that turned into church…” Here the interview is cut short and so, in the same spot, is this history. But next week Father Francis will be alive again for a few thousand words anyway and — despite a dark and fearful world howling all about us — some might look forward to that.

One again I wish to thank Tobe Carey, whose documentary supplies virtually all the directly quoted material above or within. 

In Part II, we learn of Father Francis’s years in Woodstock. 

There is one comment

  1. Russell Wilber

    Father Francis married me and my wife on June 24th, 1978. Told me he married Celeste Holmes and my wife, Michele Gardner was prettier. A magnificent day. What happened to the Bible and art work he had? Treasures for sure.

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