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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A church, a bell, a minister

A church, a bell, a minister

          What does Washington DC, Paul Revere’s family and a kid from Winthrop have in common? Let’s start with Washington DC for it was there that the history began in 1815. Benjamin Henry Latrobe had been appointed by President Thomas Jefferson as Surveyor of Public Buildings and Architecture of the Capitol. This man was responsible for building the White House, the Capitol, and the Decatur House, all of which have ties to significant historical events. But in 1815, he began another project, the design of a church. This church would become the second building on Lafayette Square, right after the White House. He took no fee for his design and, in addition, composed the dedication hymn and played the organ on Dec. 18, 1816 at the consecration of St. John’s Church, which became known as The Church of the Presidents. Every president since James Madison has attended this church.
          Now, enter in the son of Paul Revere. Joseph Revere cast a bell in his Boston Foundry in August 1822 and the bell was installed on St. John’s Church on Nov. 30 1822.  It tips the scales at 1000 pounds and has been in continuous use since its installation. The Revere Co. also had a smelter in Winthrop MA later in the 1800’s.
And, now we go to the kid from Winthrop.  John Carsten Harper was born there around 1925, the son of Rev. Ralph M. Harper and graduated from Winthrop High School in 1942. His father was the minister at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Winthrop who married my parents, my aunt and uncle, my sister and who baptized my sisters and me. We called our minister Mr. Harper because that’s what he wanted.  His children were quite a bit older than my sisters and I so we had no interaction with them.  Imagine our surprise when we heard the announcement in 1963 that our Mr. Harper’s son had been called to St. John’s in Washington DC.  That was quite an honor for another one of Winthrop’s sons.
       So there is the connection between Washington, the Revere family and a Winthrop kid. Dr. John C. Harper graduated from Harvard in 1946 and from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge MA in 1953. In between those two events he spent some time in the Navy, serving in the South Pacific, and then taught school in CT for awhile. After graduating from the seminary, he married and began his ministerial duties in MA, RI and NY. When he was called in 1963 to be Rector of St. John’s in Washington DC, it would be the start of a 30 year career, preaching, teaching and guiding what was to become a diverse flock.

          Soon after he was installed as rector of St. John’s, he had a most distinguished visitor, President John Kennedy. This was Kennedy’s first visit to a Protestant church, as President, which was followed by his attending Mass at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. As I noted in an earlier post, JFK’s grandparents had a summer home in Winthrop, where the President and his older siblings learned to swim and sail. Mr. Harper had been invited to the White House a few days before the President visited the church. One can only imagine the conversation considering they had Harvard, Winthrop, the Navy and WWII in common.

       During his 30 years as Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, The Church of the Presidents, he preached to eight presidents and brought about reforms to this national historical church that took it from a ‘society church’ to a church of the people. He retired in 1993  and devoted his time to raising funds for an International Study Centre at Canterbury Cathedral. He was instrumental in organizing Friends of Canterbury Cathedral in the USA and was its first chairman. He died on Friday, Sept. 13, 2002 at Sibley Hospital in Washington, DC from a heart attack.  He was 78.





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