Connecting with Our Past
In my early years at Dumbarton, I got the impression that modern, enlightened parishioners had replaced narrow-minded, intolerant church goers in the 1960s and 1970s. My work on Dumbarton’s history project in 1992 convinced me that things weren’t that simple.
For our book "Many Witnesses," I had the good fortune to be writing about the era of the early 20th century, up to 1968, when Rev. Harry Kiely became pastor. I interviewed many of the surviving church members and found them to be honest, kind-hearted people who had many of the concerns, faith issues and problems that members of Dumbarton face today.
The experience deepened my connection with Dumbarton’s past. Sometimes I look at the plaques on the wall and appreciate long-gone families who worked tirelessly for the church or those killed in past wars. As we stand in a circle for communion on some Sundays, I often feel the presence of those who worshiped many years before us.
The church of the past was not a force for social action, and the people probably left their political opinions at home. But they appeared to seek comfort in life by worshiping God with a community of believers. Their faith was tested by much harder times than we have experienced: two World Wars and the Great Depression. (Looking back further, can you imagine what the Civil War must have been like for a congregation in which parishioners fought on both sides?)
Instead, church members took to helping needy neighbors. Food baskets were delivered to the poor. One family delivered coal or food to members suffering from the Depression.
For me, the most rewarding part of the project was bringing a long-time member back to Dumbarton, probably in the late 1990s. For a Wednesday night discussion of church history, I took Dr. Luther Gray from a nursing home to visit the church that he had not seen for over 50 years. I got him to describe his recollection of the church going back, I think, almost to the First World War.
Then he talked to some of our members and went upstairs to look around the sanctuary. He marveled at the surroundings and was quite satisfied and happy with what he saw.
Not only did I feel a connection with the past. I felt that the long-ago Dumbarton was connecting with us, as well.
(The book we worked on was “Many Witnesses,” edited by Jane Donovan and written by a collection of Dumbartonians. There is actually a copy of the book available at Amazon.