Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Prohibition Communion

A "Rye Communion" was held in Christ Church during Prohibition!
I stumbled across a mention of St. Vincent in a Google Books snippet recently. I tracked down a second-hand copy of the book, which wasn't easy since it's pretty obscure. The title? God's Dodger: The Story of a Front Line Chaplain, by G.W. Stephen Brodsky.

The main scope of the book (written in autobiographic, first-person style) is about a man named Russell Oliver "Rusty" Wilkes. Wilkes was a Canadian officer during WWII, a chaplain (among many other roles) which is what the book is mainly about. He was a hero of sorts, but that is another story. The part of the book I was drawn to was the lead-up - his earlier life as a student, young husband, and new minister. One of the areas he was sent to, was where I grew up. In fact, he ministered to my own family (my grandparents and my mother, then a young girl...) at Christ Church.

The colorful story below is told with the warmth and humor that the perspective of time gives us all of such awkward occasions!
In the spring of 1932...I took up new duties at the town of Emerson, Manitoba, on the Manitoba-Minnesota border. The parish included Dominion City, Ridgeville, and St. Vincent, Minnesota. This was prairie wheat country, and here we experienced the worst of the infamous '20's drought and the awful poverty it brought at the peak of the Depression...[There was a ] scarcity of water in summer. Our basement cistern was cracked and empty, and a sweaty session of pumping proved only that the well was dry. Everybody was in the same fix, and the town's water was carefully rationed. Water came in a tank car a couple of times a week from somewhere west of Emerson, and every morning townsfolk would line up at the railway station with their pails while Emerson's lone constable unlocked a padlock on the town pump.

My usual Sunday routine was to drive to Dominion City in time for a late morning service, then to Ridgeville by mid-afternoon, and back to Emerson in time for evening service. Once a month I'd leave the folk of Ridgeville wallowing in a moral slough, and head across the border for St. Vincent in Minnesota, where the Episcopal Church observed Anglican rites.

These were prohibition days, and I suppose I could have made a tidy profit exporting other kinds of spirit.  But, discretion being the better part of piety, I left my stock of communion wine in St. Vincent in care of the verger. The verger and organist Henry Young was a slightly built elderly gentleman of great devotion and impeccable morals. He would bring the wine faithfully to every service and return it to his home afterwards. One Sunday as I prepared the cruets for communion my nose caught the pungently unmistakable bouquet of 100 proof rye whiskey. I tiptoed from the vestry, across the church to where Henry was at the organ warming up the congregation with a rousing dirge.  He was smiling beatifically, his eyes closed in reverential rapture.  I murmured in his ear, "Henry, would you join me in the vestry, please." Henry came in still smiling vaguely, and stood swaying unsteadily.

When I told him he'd turned wine into whiskey, the smile vanished and his eyes bugged in spirituous indignation. He drew himself up to his full five-foot-three. "My dear Reverend Sir," he burst out, "I have NEVER had whiskey in my home. THAT, sir, is your communion wine." He turned on his heel and stalked out, his dignity marred only slightly as he tripped on the raised door sill and shot back into the church. Consecrate as I might, I didn't have a divine knack for turning whiskey back into wine. But there was nothing for it, so we had a rye communion. There was an occasional grimace of surprise among the kneeling celebrants, and even a smile or two. But nobody commented afterwards except Ethel, who didn't admire my novel approach to the sacrament.
Another interesting aspect to the excerpt above is its opening paragraph. I always wondered how the Depression manifested itself in my hometown area. Whenever I asked my Mom, she didn't have much to say about it. Granted, she was just a kid at the time, but I always figured that people here felt the effects in some measure. Turns out they did.