The Story of Father Francis, Part two

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The conclusion of last week’s history of Father Francis found him at a dramatic turning point. In 1936 his rent at Stanford White’s opulent Manhattan town house was poised to double. His father’s scathing criticism of such luxury still ringing in his ears, he traveled north to hear Jane Whitehead’s proposal of “come to Woodstock and help with [her son] Peter” — a proposition which must have seemed like an intercession of Providence towards rescuing this most decadent archbishop from himself.

We know Father Francis embraced this rescue and as a result radically changed the spiritual life of Woodstock more than any Christian clergyman before or since. But first he would be deeply changed by this “Colony of the Arts,” himself. Eventually those old Catholic teachings he espoused were joined with “the back to Nature” credo Ralph Whitehead’s Byrdcliffe had hoped to seed here. Ironically, it was due to privilege and its prejudices that Byrdcliffe failed. In other words, Whitehead foundered on the very reef of class and wealth Father Francis sought to at least partially escape; while, admittedly, accepting the patronage of Whitehead’s widow, Lady Jane.

However FF’s choice of exactly where and how he’d set up in Woodstock reflects an instinct to insulate himself from Mrs. Whitehead’s influence. For had this Lady’s generosity indeed been of the magnitude FF described [in Part I] she’d gladly have transformed an existing Byrdcliffe building or simply built Father Francis a church near herself and Peter in their doddering empire. Instead something happened — something which assured FF it was she, not Peter who was “the problem.” In the end Father Francis converted a barn (off what is today Route 212 on the way east out of town) into a church/residence he called “St. Dunstan’s.” [Deeds for which bear neither the name “Whitehead” nor “Brothers”— so FF likely rented.]

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When St. Dunstan’s burned “despite the heroic efforts of the Woodstock Fire Department” in early January of 1945, the Kingston Freeman snidely reported that the Archbishop’s wife lived in a converted chicken coop next door.

There were treasures lost in the fire, but little else is remembered of St. Dunstan’s except that Father Francis there performed the marriage of Harvey Fite (builder of Opus 40) to Barbara Richards. Harvey first came to Woodstock as an actor presumably to appear at the Maverick Theater. So it may have been at his wedding that FF first met Ralph Whitehead’s self-exiled protege, Hervey White, whose bisexuality was an open secret at his “retort” to Byrdcliffe — that by-then legendary and most radical artist’s enclave Hervey called simply “The Maverick,” four miles away. White’s cryptic (and unpublished) autobiography states that a strong friendship sprang up between these two Edwardian age revolutionaries, and that Harvey become a “confessor” to the archbishop, which we may surmise to have been a reciprocal relationship. For each man was, among intimates, known to be gay (yes, such usage then existed — if obscurely), despite FF’s

“cover” of an insane ward for a wife, and Hervey’s disastrous marriage, the dissolution of which broke his heart in ways too numerous to recount here. (Concerning FF and this claim, I possess testimony of a grown man, fully unnecessary to this account.)

Soon following the fire, FF accepted Mrs. Whitehead’s gift of a modest Episcopal chapel built in 1891, first called “The Chapel of Ease,” which Lady Jane bought from Mrs. Hutty (who’d made FF coffee in her Mead Mountain House that first afternoon he decided upon Woodstock). Hervey White was a year dead, the world war had been won, and our sprawling colony was soon enriched with a second wave of painters, few of whom wanted anything to do with religion.

Yet the tradition sprang up among revelers on Christmas eve of shoving off from the last of many Woodstock parties and somehow negotiating those sweeping turns on Mead’s Mountain to — at its top — attend Midnight Mass at the tiny chapel. Here, at the end of the carefully shoveled path, celebrants packed into that magical shoe-box redolent with Frankincense and lit only by candles. Some of them sang as others snored, while still others listened and gazed amazed at Christ’s mass on Christmas. And then? The aging fox had them just as he’d wished: inebriated, nostalgic, and at his mercy.

Today of Fleischmans and 91, Bud Sife was FF’s driver between 1949 and 51. (He would also eventually build and operate Woodstock’s first late night rock club, The Sled Hill Cafe.) Buddy remembers taking FF on many trips to varying diocese churches in Philadelphia and New York. “He was always preaching and teaching to his clergy. He was a teacher first and foremost. And — although he knew I was an atheist — I admired him for the most part — and his church.” Sife explains that FF spoke about “Christ the man” and the principles laid down by this human being known as Jesus of Nazareth. “I’d say Father Francis was a humanist as much as he was as a Christian with little or no distinction between the two. They were simultaneous in him.”

There were and are many shouters among America’s clergy, but the tiny theater comprising The Church on The Mount allowed Father Francis to instead assume the mantle of The Great Whisperer. Now to explore the remarkable efficacy of those quietly uttered words we jump to the early 1960’s, when FF initiated a wave of conversions which — to this day — boggle the mind.

Father Francis himself recalls his earliest involvement with flower children of 60’s in an article he wrote for “The Churchman” [fast reprinted in the May-June ‘73 issue of The Woodstock Oracle.] Demonstrating no diminishment in his flair for controversy, FF entitled the piece “Hippies — Hope for the future.”

It began: “An article in a recent NY Times referred to a phenomena that has arisen universally as ‘The Woodstock Nation.’” FF next supplied his credentials to comment on the phenomena before explaining:

“My first experience with a hippie was several years ago [1964] when I invited a long-haired youth to spend a January night in my ‘Prophet’s Chamber,’ rather than risk his life in a blanket on the church grounds. Over a cup of coffee this youth quoted Kahlil Gibran and other such writers. [The] next morning he remarked on my building project (I was only 82 years old then), ‘Father, you need help.’ That was a gross understatement! Well, Frank stayed with me, worked with me and later brought some of his hippie friends. This beginning started my life in another world — a world that I had long sought in holy Mother Church. Sharing with these youths my home and life I learned first hand of their hopes and aspirations in this crazy, confused world — the world rubber-stamped with ‘In God We Trust,’ a sad slogan to try to cover hypocrisies.”

In essence, Father Francis (who’d recently been dubbed “The Hippie Priest” by the NY Daily News), became a bridge between that fantastical realm of the 1960’s and his own brand of Christianity, which in its sanitized form proved a religion most convenient to the dog-eat-dog world surrounding and soon re-conquering the brief experiment known as “Woodstock Nation.”  However, FF clearly sided against the dogs and wolves of the world, as well the machinery of Rome (and its grand equivalents in Reformation churches) upon becoming shepherd to the many lost lambs hurried away by — among other horrors — corporate religion’s rumblings.

In what now emerges as an increasingly complex chess match, it was also around this time that FF, in his official capacity, made a trip to California. Here he tangled with Richard Nixon (whose presidential bid had just been stolen by the Kennedys and was soon narrowly defeated in his attempt to secure Governorship of California in ’62.) Predictably enough Father Francis is said to have given Tricky Dick quite the trouncing in a private kitchen, a battle which evidently inspired him to go even further in speaking out against “this crazy confused world…rubber stamped with In God We Trust.”

But before proceeding we need to recognize the hole cards of history at play here, namely: a) Richard Nixon’s beginnings with Joe McCarthy (which puts Dick in tight with J. Edgar Hoover); b) Nixon’s strong tendency to hold a grudge and seek revenge; c) FF’s “coincidental” decision in 1962 to align his church with The Russian Orthodox church — itself at the whim of a flimsy olive branch held out by Khrushchev.

While, d) FF also safeguarded this radical removal from perceived stateside enemies, by his creating a loophole — unique to the nation’s history — here in the US of A. Through it the archbishop also protected his entire church from a change of policy in Moscow. Such Richelieu-like maneuverings soon found FF’s old friend Peter Whitehead leaving the 400 some acres associated with The Church on The Mount to the town of Woodstock [more thoroughly explicated in a piece concerning the The Church some weeks ago]. This in turn reflects a portion of the grandiose offer FF alluded to that fateful day in ‘36 when he accepted Jane Whitehead’s proposal that he move to Woodstock in exchange for “part of the mountain.” Do note however, the gift to Woodstock from Peter W also proves that FF was never formally deeded such lands — but that Peter Whitehead made good on  his now deceased mother’s promise, nonetheless. What we don’t and probably will never know is to what extent FF undertook the spiritual guidance promised to Lady Jane of her son Peter (which Mike Esposito suggests was nominal.) Now back to this remarkable period in the 1960’s when FF spearheaded what became known as “Hippie Christianity.”

Father Francis

While His Beautitude, Metropolitan John Lobue (the present head of FF’s order) insists that Father Francis sought first and foremost to formally convert attendees of the Church on The Mount, a great deal of evidence argues otherwise. Many of FF’s  flock, for instance, had or would kneel at the feet of a vast assortment of teachers, seers, gurus, and would-be messiahs on their way through town — proselytizers who certainly sought to “sign ‘em up” — whereas FF required no such membership from his growing family of, shall we say, problem children. Any one of whom was free to try out Sufism or Taoism or go to this or that new meditation center. Yet if or when someone freaked out, faltered, or fell, The Church on the Mount was always there to welcome them home. And so, by specifically not insisting upon strict conversion — by the droves — that is precisely what Father Francis accomplished. For instance…

Contrary to popular belief, Michael Esposito was already retired from the seminal psychedelic rock band The Blues Magoos by the time he moved to Woodstock in 1967. In fact, he was reading The Lives of The Saints — so he was ripe for the picking.

Michael recalls an aura surrounding Father Francis. Furthermore Esposito clearly states: “Father Francis didn’t reach out to people, they pretty much came to him. [He’d be] sitting in that little study back there…[that room] from another epoch. You go back 500 years and there would be someone like him sitting in his study, with the same old books and artifacts from the church. He was the conduit for all these ancient things. And they had a power all their own — just being in the same room with them and with him — their messenger…it cast that aura. It was like living inside a really well-written novel.”

Someone wove Michael a medieval robe and he moved into a tiny room on the side of the church; the periodically-unwound Father Daryl (the shotgun bearing Father Jude of part one) lived in similarly cramped quarters. But around all this Christian pseudo-renaissance — what of FF’s reception among the other churchmen in town?

Esposito remembers: “Yes he was — you might say — voluably disparaged by the local clergy. Most of the local churches here, they’d have a smattering of attendees on a Sunday, whereas Father Francis had a real following. [Part of the reason being] Father Francis gave great sermons. It was like being backstage on a late night talk show. He was wit incarnate and knew history, cold. He wouldn’t get into the moral side of right or wrong. But he would make fun of people who thought they were right, and he’d make fun of people who were clearly wrong. And his delivery, that soft but deadly erudition — you didn’t — you couldn’t hear anything like it anywhere else. And so — yes, he was adored for it.”

Michael also distinctly recalls Bob Dylan’s spectral presence. “He’d be in the back room, looking over the ancient tomes, eavesdropping you could say on the liturgy and sermons while rarely showing his face. But Father Francis would go back and speak with him at length — you bet your chasuble he did.”

The Metropolitan Museum eventually undertook to publish FF’s 1965 “Day Book” (copies of which are purchasable on Amazon at $600). It contains numerous mentions of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, whose many appearances at the chapel may well have inspired Dylan’s interest. (It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Jack provided a model for Bob…) While Dylan’s “Born Again” period didn’t formally begin for another decade, the anomaly of his “Father of Night” (many believe to have been inspired by FF) on Bob’s 1970 release “New Morning,” more than testifies to the life-changing charisma approximated here. Embedded in a lyric supposedly commissioned by Archibald MacLeish (which certainly refers to a grander subject than FF, namely, the architect of the universe) Dylan includes the lines “Father of loneliness and pain, Father of love and Father of rain.”

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Although Father Francis must have presided over many funerals, the predominant youth of his flock finds him best remembered for joyous marriages and baptisms. He married most all the artists in town and our hippies [as well my mother, “both times,” while baptizing two of three sisters and myself at five.]

Elsewhere, Tobe Carey’s priceless documentary “Father Francis” captures many of Woodstock’s more memorable reprobates in highly incongruous worship. Yet FF’s most lasting achievement remains his insistence upon looking past divisions in religion to concentrate on a universality at their core. For instance, as Violet Snow noted, on Saturdays FF “opened up the building to a Jewish congregation for their services.” (Although I can’t resist mention that John Lobue speaks with frank admiration of FF’s specialty in converting Jews.)

The most controversial — and some would say harmful — aspect of FF’s spiritual generosity, of course, was the remarkable welcome FF gave to Kalu Rinpoche and his Tibetan retinue when, in the early seventies, they began negotiations to purchase the Meads Mountain House along with its meadows and orchards. This being the exact spot where in 1902 modern Woodstock’s discoverer, Bolton Brown, and then 34 years later, Father Francis, each fell in love with all that surrounded them, the distant Hudson, and the jewel of a village nestled below.

Michael Esposito: “Father Francis was always aware of his duties both as archbishop and local friar. He was off to several of his churches Lord knows where and we’d drop in on Woodstock parties where he’d pay his respects before being off again. So when he suggested a tea with the Tibetans in the meadow over the wall, I figured [this would also be] a short, polite visit…I took his arm and up we went, [there was] bowing with clasped hands at chest and all. Father Francis was invited into a suitably grand chair — he liked that — and tea was prepared. English style for him, of course. But once the translators got to work something remarkable happened. The two masters’ faces lit up with what you’d have to call an astounding — yeah — a recognition of one another…and they started to laugh. Soon the translators couldn’t catch up and the two were convulsed in peals of laughter before either knew exactly what he was laughing at. And evidently they hadn’t stopped laughing for the entire two hours I [went away and] left them to their fun before finally returning for Father Francis who spoke to me of little else for several days.”

But what no museum has yet placed hands upon is the diary Esposito kept through many of those remarkable days, days which ended for him when he came off the mountain; days which ended for us all when, after many a glorious summer, our ancient Patriarch finally breathed his last in 1979 at the age of 97.

At the ornate funeral, however (after which priests of his order performed 24 hours of prayer over Father Francis’ grave) many of the ragtag parish grew impatient with a most alien-sounding liturgy read in what now seemed the grating Brookyn-ese of a one-time cub reporter for the NY Times, His Eminence John Lobue. Indeed, as all inheritors of FF’s worm-eaten throne would quickly learn, their predecessor was one tough act to follow. For soon, after a period of increasing grumbling, actual rebellion broke out. Three of the more colorful Woodstockers scattered among the crowd caught one another’s eye, fell into conspiracy, and stormed the tiny bell tower. Now S—, B—, and E— violently rang that solemn bell, succeeding in drowning out the ceremony until they were restrained, whereupon the trio promptly left in disgust.

Of course, the reasons for their ringing of that bell were initially plain enough. Yet in coming years, after the first had been shot through the heart by a jealous husband; after the second — terminally ill — bravely chose to take his own life; and after the third — without a single complaint — finally died of the drink… Yes, I would distinctly hear Father Francis carefully reminding us all in that frail, quivering, if ever-passionate voice, of Donne’s admonishment: “Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls — my dears…it tolls for thee.”

Portions of the above have been adapted from a previous article, “When Woodstock Went Woo-Woo & Why.”

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