25 January 2018

Fr. Paul and St. Barnabas, Omaha

"Father Paul of Graymoor"
Painted by Tony Pro

Many people are not aware of the connection between a priest now in the process of canonization and one of our Ordinariate parishes, St. Barnabas, in Omaha, Nebraska.

There is an excellent article about the Rev. Lewis Wattson, (later known as Fr. Paul of Graymoor, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement) and his many excellent works, at this website. The whole article is well-worth reading, but here is an excerpt describing Fr. Paul’s early years, leading up to his move to Omaha.

Father Wattson was comfortably settled in at the parish of St. John’s [Episcopal Church] in Kingston, New York. He was beloved by his parishioners for his obvious holiness, speaking ability, leadership and for his personal refinement, charm and kindness. He was a natural sermonizer, rarely preparing his talks ahead of time; he spoke from the abundance of his heart and with trust in the Holy Spirit to inspire him.

A momentous step for him during his time at St. John’s was the beginning of his publishing apostolate. Although he began the publication of The Pulpit of the Cross as a parish bulletin, he began to broaden its scope almost immediately to include articles on doctrinal points of the Faith. It was at once controversial, and we can understand why when we read some of the titles of the articles therein: “The Doctrine of the Real Presence,” “Extreme Unction,” “The Forgiveness of Sins,” “The Sacrifice of the Mass,” “Confirmation.” Rev. Wattson deplored the divisions of Christianity and hammered home the belief that Our Lord founded One Church. He firmly believed that the many splintered sects that Christianity had become were scandalous to the doctrine of Jesus Christ. He considered the many divisions of Protestantism to be due to heretical innovations. When asked in 1895 what he believed the One, True Church of Jesus Christ to be, he answered, “I understand it to be that mighty Christian organism, which has come down to us from Jesus and His Apostles under the name of the Holy Catholic Church and which exists today in three great historic communions: the Roman, the Greek, and the Anglican Communion, the last of which comprises all the English-speaking Catholics throughout the world who are members of the Anglo-Catholic Church.”

At first, as a good Anglican, he did not accept papal supremacy or infallibility as the Roman Catholic Church taught it. He believed it to be the only major error of the Roman Church. In retrospect, we can see that Father Wattson was following the pattern of John Henry Newman fifty years earlier, for three years after the above statement, he did what appeared to be an about-face, and, through divine grace, realized the truth of the pope’s full authority and unique charisms to teach, govern, and sanctify the Church.

Now, as long as he served St. John’s in Kingston, he was a beloved pastor. Something kept gnawing at him, however. He had not yet founded “a preaching order like the Paulists” for his church. It was at some point during his tenure at St. John’s that Father Wattson, after reading a book about the life of “Il Poverello,” fell under the influence of St. Francis of Assisi, his dedication to total poverty, and his complete resignation to the Will of God. As we can see, he was moving closer and closer to a Catholic spirituality. Here at last was the moment he was waiting for — he would found an order patterned after the Franciscans, dedicated to total poverty, chastity and obedience to the superior. He dreamed of beginning his little group at a small mission church on the outskirts of Kingston that he had built to accommodate the growth in numbers of his parishioners.

Now he was faced with giving his order a name. After much prayer before the altar of his church, he determined, like St. Francis, to base the name and rule on how Providence would direct him by opening the Bible randomly three times and choosing the verses from those pages. The randomly chosen verses were St. John 7: 37-39 (receive the Holy Ghost), Romans 5: 11 (Atonement through Jesus Christ), and Corinthians I, 11 (the institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass). (All references are to the King James Version of the Bible.) His eyes zeroed in on the word “Atonement” — the name he gave his order. It would be accomplished through the promise of the Holy Spirit and perpetuated through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He then read the word “atonement” in another way — “at-one-ment.” He would hereafter work for the union of all Christians in one body, as Our Lord intended when he founded His Church. Then he heard a voice tell him, “You will have to wait seven years for this to be realized.” Although surprised and disappointed, he took this as a sign that God wanted him to remain in his pastoral duties at St. John’s for the time being.

As believers, we know that all things work in God’s good time. So it was with Father Wattson. He went along with his parish duties as always. Two years later, he returned home from a round of visiting parishioners to find waiting for him a young minister who introduced himself as the Rev. Mr. Johnson, member of a group of unmarried Episcopal clergymen who were living a semi-monastic life in Omaha, Nebraska [centered at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church]. Rev. Johnson offered Father Wattson the position of superior of this group of dedicated men who called themselves the Associate Mission. Such a life appealed to him because of his unmarried state and his strong ascetical leanings. He began to believe that the Associate Mission was part of God’s plan for his eventual success as a preaching friar of the Episcopal Church and decided to accept the offer.

Needless to say, his congregation at St. John’s was devastated to lose their beloved pastor, although most seemed to understand that he had a special kind of spirituality and was destined for greater things.

Father Wattson arrived at his destination in September of 1895 on the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. His elderly mother accompanied him and occupied a private apartment at the monastery, passing into eternity two years later. He was a faithful and beloved son, and much admired for his loving treatment of her.

Life at the Mission was very much to Father Wattson’s liking. They prayed, worked, studied the Scriptures in their original languages, and attended the spiritual needs of the people of their individual missionary districts. The field of action of the Associate Mission was greatly expanded under Father Wattson, as he added more and more territory to each member. He began to impose a more monastic kind of life, incorporating silence at meals, spiritual readings, and a more rigid schedule. Some of the men were not happy with this new development, and in later years, after he had entered the Catholic Church, Father Wattson — who had become Father Paul — told his friars amusing stories of making monks out of men who did not want to become monks.

Knowing the power of the printed word, Father Wattson revived his old parish bulletin The Pulpit of the Cross from his Kingston days. He installed a hand operated printing press and hired a skilled printer to operate it. His object was to spread the word of God far and wide for the salvation of men.

Shortly after his arrival in Omaha, Father Wattson began a serious study of the Roman Catholic Church, her teachings and claims. This was something that he could never bring himself to attempt in the past. Over the years, many had speculated in print and in the spoken word that one day, Father Wattson would indeed “go to Rome,” as the bishop had in anger told his father so long ago. A seemingly innocent occurrence — missing his regular train back home after a long day’s missionary work — brought him to visit a Catholic Church near the train station to “pass some time.” As he entered the dimly lit church, the sanctuary light drew him to the altar and the Real Presence of Our Lord and Savior. There he knelt for a long time and poured out his soul to Jesus in the tabernacle, asking for guidance to see the truth and the courage to accept it, even if that truth would force him to admit that what he had accepted all his life was not the truth. When he arose from his prayer, he felt refreshed and filled with determination to follow that truth, regardless of consequences.

Returning home, he began a serious inquiry into the Catholic Church, reading everything he could get his hands on, both pro and con. He came to the educated conclusion that the claims of Rome were, after all, true, and communion with the See of Peter was the only way by which men could share in Christian Unity. Peace and joy engulfed him and spontaneously he began to recite the Te Deum. Perhaps he would not have been so joyful had he realized then that for the next twelve years he would be the most controversial figure in the Episcopal Church. It was this conclusion that told him that his work in Omaha was finished. He would return to the East, adopt Franciscan spirituality seriously, and with his newfound companion in the love of Lady Poverty, Sister Lurana White, begin the true work of the Atonement. Accordingly, he resigned his position with the Associate Mission and set out for New York three years to the day after he had arrived in Nebraska.

Further information about the cause for the canonization of Fr. Paul of Graymoor can be found at this link.

The original St. Barnabas Church in Omaha (this building no longer exists)
and the Clergy House attached.

The altar in the original St. Barnabas Church.

The altar cross, which is still used in the present
St. Barnabas Church (built in 1915).


St. Barnabas Catholic Church today,
a parish of the Ordinariate.