Thursday, June 19, 2008

THE SHERWOOD MISSION

Although my friend Vickie and I now attend Episcopal services regularly at St. Mary’s Sewanee, we have sometimes ventured into the valley of the Cumberland Mountains to the Epiphany Mission Episcopal Church at Sherwood, TN. Because of my long years as a parishioner at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, LA where I was ordained a deacon, I was drawn to the “same-name” church where Sister Lucy of the Community of St. Mary served as rector for 17 years. Coincidentally, when Sister Lucy returned to Sunday sermonizing at St. Mary’s, we moved with her.

The Epiphany Mission Episcopal Church at Sherwood is 76 years old, and for a long time, it was supported in its work for the poor and needy by what Fr. George Jones called “The Greater Congregation,” friends and generous benefactors of the Mission. At its most active in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, the small stone church boasted a walled garden built in Spanish Mission style with an open air chapel where the Eucharist was often celebrated during the summer. In the garden, the chapel had an altar and a statue of Mary, “Our Lady of the Hills.” In 1960, fire destroyed both the church and most of the walled garden, but today, a new church structure has been rebuilt, and the pool, fountain, and a partial wall guarded by “Our Lady of the Hills” still stands. The cavernous interior of the church could serve a few hundred people, but the entire town of Sherwood only has 200 inhabitants, so the congregation is small. One of the outstanding features of the Mission is the beautiful triptych behind the altar, a Greco-style rendering of the Baptism of Christ and two depictions of St. John the Evangelist . The original full-sized triptych, painted by Phillip Perkins and given to the Mission, was destroyed in the fire, but a study, or half-size rendering,of the original was found and presented to Epiphany Mission in 2003.

In an area where only 200 of 1200 former residents remain, due to a shutdown of an old limestone quarry in the late 40’s (quarry buildings resemble old castles sitting in a pasture), the Mission is a small beacon of hope parishioners refer to as a Phoenix that has arisen from ashes.

The Epiphany Mission is located near railway tracks where a mid-morning train shakes the drowsy worshiper awake, and the piercing whistle disrupts celebration of The Eucharist as it did one Sunday morning when we were worshipping there. The sound inspired the following poem from my chapbook, JUST PASSING THROUGH, published by Border Press.

INVITATION

Sister Lucy stands at a surround altar
consecrating the elements;

Outside blue and red panes
the hot air of August

settles on Our Lady of the Hills
perspiring, still guarding a walled garden

where dry leaves curl up
and fall without the grace of wind.

Sister extends her hands over the chalice,
the train from Cowan tunnel

whistles three long notes.
rattling through, rails chanting

The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming.

Her hands drop near His chalice,
pause for the whistle to be no longer,

and ringing rails echo:
The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming.

Chests heave and cough in the cavernous silence,
Sister’s deacon turns a page,

near blind, she stumbles on the words:
“we celebrate the memorial of our redemption,”

no one listens, no words act as intermediary,
the train has already brought them to the table

singing, the Lord is coming, the Lord is coming.
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