02 March 2016

The Holy Water Font


Just inside the main doors of the church in the narthex is a simple marble holy water font. On a typical day during the year, hundreds of the faithful dip their fingers into its water to make the sign of the cross upon themselves, both as a blessing and as a reminder of their own baptism. This means that over the course of an average week, water from this font has been taken thousands of times, and yet few know the rich history of where it had been and how it came to be in our church.

It was in the year 1895 that a young woman, Lurana Mary White, began a correspondence with an Episcopal cleric, Lewis Wattson (later known as Fr. Paul of Graymoor), because of their mutual interest in the life and spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. Both of them were Episcopalians at the time, although both were searching for the fullness of the Catholic faith. They felt a call to the religious life, and had the sense that God was calling them to found a Franciscan community within Anglicanism.

Through various circumstances, Lurana White (with a few companions) was able to pioneer this effort, with Fr. Paul joining her soon after. An unused chapel called St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness in Graymoor, New York, was put at her disposal, along with a building in some disrepair, called Dimond House, which was about half a mile from the chapel. Now known as Sister Lurana Mary, she arrived there on a bitterly cold day in December, 1898, and so began the foundation of the Society of the Atonement.

In Lent of 1899 funds were raised to begin building a convent near St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness. Combined with donations from others, Sister Lurana (now known as Mother Lurana) gave the totality of her own personal funds for the purpose of building and furnishing the convent, along with its chapel, known as the Oratory of Our Lady of the Angels. One of the items chosen and purchased by Mother Lurana was a simple marble holy water font.

The Oratory of Our Lady of the Angels has seen a number of historic events. It was there that the first Atonement Sisters made their religious profession; it was there that Fr. Paul spent the night in prayer before being clothed in his Franciscan habit, becoming the first Friar of the Atonement; it was there that the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity was prayed for the first time; it was there that the members of the Society of the Atonement were received into the Catholic Church; and it was at the Oratory altar that Fr. Paul celebrated his first Mass as a Catholic priest. Through all those events, and more, the simple marble holy water font stood at the entrance.

Sadly, when the misguided ideas of “renewal” after Vatican II swept through the various religious communities, the Society of the Atonement was not spared. Things which had been given for the glory of God were ruthlessly tossed aside, and one of the casualties was the holy water font which had stood guard for so many years inside the Oratory of Our Lady of the Angels. It was thrown outside behind the convent, where the erstwhile font became a makeshift birdbath – and there it remained until I happened to be visiting Graymoor shortly after my ordination as a Catholic priest.

One of the aged Sisters pulled me aside, and asked to talk to me. Sr. Cyril, S.A., was one of the last of “Mother Lurana’s girls” – members of the Sisters of the Atonement who had been formed as a religious by their Mother Foundress – and she told me how she was heart-broken to see “Mother’s holy water font” thrown outside in the garden. Sr. Cyril asked if I would consider giving it a home in our parish, and I told her that if her superiors approved, I would happily have it transported back to Texas. She asked; her superiors gave permission, and so I set about finding a way of getting it shipped to San Antonio. One of my father’s old friends, who happened to own a long-distance trucking company, was able to accommodate my request, and in due time the font arrived at the church.

After all the history it had seen, the holy water font was for a time put to yet another use – we had no baptismal font when we first built our church, and so Mother Lurana’s holy water font became our baptismal font for some years.  In fact the first child baptized in it was my own daughter, Lurana, named after the Mother Foundress of the Sisters of the Atonement. For several years all the children of our parish were “born again in the waters of baptism” using that simple marble holy water font, which had come so far from its original home.

It was not until the church was expanded to its present size that we were able to have a proper baptistry, and a real baptismal font, which finally allowed us to return Mother Lurana’s font to its original purpose. So it stands at the entrance of Our Lady of the Atonement Church, more than a hundred years after it was lovingly chosen by Mother Lurana to stand at the entrance of her little Oratory, now serving the same purpose of providing holy water for the Faithful who come to give worship and glory to Almighty God.

The Altar in the Oratory of Our Lady of the Angels.