An important part of family life is the shared heritage, the common tradition, the collection of stories which form its history. It’s hard for me to let one of my children’s birthdays go by without telling the story of what we were doing on that day and what it was like when they were born. Sometimes I get a kind of good-natured rolling of the eyes because “here goes Dad with his stories again,” but I think there is something in us that needs to hear those stories which make up our past history It helps us to know who and what we are today.
I do the same thing from time to time at the parish. I tell the story about how Our Lady of the Atonement claimed us as her own children. Stories like that are an important part of every parish family, I think. To know how we as a community of the faithful came to be, is something which bears telling. It describes the living actions of the Living God Who claims us and calls us to holiness. It helps us to love the God Who has set our feet upon the path which leads to Him.
Our own story began with a young Episcopal clergyman named Lewis Wattson who was born in 1863 and lived until 1940. Little did I know when I first heard of him many years ago that his willingness to seek and follow God’s Will for his life would have such a deep affect on my own life, for the life of my family, and the for lives of all who are part of our parish.
Lewis Wattson (who would come to be known as Fr. Paul of Graymoor) considered the separation of the Anglicans from the Catholic Church under the reign of King Henry VIII to be a matter of great sadness and tragedy. He wanted to do all he could to bring about the reunion of Christendom under the headship of the Successor of Peter, and he actively sought God’s guidance as to what he should do within his own ministry to accomplish this.
On July 9, 1893, after the morning service in the Episcopal Church where he was the rector, he knelt down before the altar in the empty church and opened the Scriptures three times. The first time the pages opened to the Gospel of St. John at the words spoken by Jesus when He taught that the Holy Spirit must spring up in those who believe like a well of Living Water. The second time the pages opened in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, where he wrote, “We joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the Atonement.” The third time the pages opened at St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, where the institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is recounted.
The young cleric made a notation of these passages. He took them as being God’s guidance to him for the foundation of the work which was to be his. He felt that God was calling him to found a religious community. First of all, it would have the Holy Spirit as its inspiration and guide, with the Living Water as its sustenance. Second, the doctrine he was to preach was to be the “atonement,” the reconciliation of man with God accomplished by Jesus Christ upon the Cross. Third, the central means of grace by which Christ’s atoning work on the cross was accomplished is made a reality through the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Mass. At the same time, God gave him the feeling that this would not be accomplished immediately, but that some years would need to pass before it would become a reality.
Fr. Paul finished his time at St. John’s and was called to a new mission in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was attached to the Episcopal parish of St. Barnabas. He was successful in his work there, and then God made it clear that the time had come. He was to return to the east and take up the foundation of this new work which was to be based upon those passages of Scripture which had been revealed to him. He was to found a new Franciscan community within the Episcopal Church, and he was to do it with a holy woman named Lurana White.
It was on July 4, 1898 that Fr. Paul wrote (still as an Episcopalian clergyman), “I believe in the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff as the Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Jesus Christ.” So his path was set. He and Mother Lurana founded their Community within the Episcopal Church, and based it upon the truth they had come to know, until finally they and their fellow Atonement Franciscans were received into the Catholic Church on October 30, 1909. He had travelled from St. John’s Church to St. Barnabas’ Church and then finally to a remote hilltop in New York State where he and his community made their final home and brought with them the unique title by which they knew the Blessed Virgin, that title which had God had entwined with the saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, the title which recalled Mary standing beneath that Cross, the title of Our Lady of the Atonement.
I knew nothing of this story when my family and I returned to the United States in 1978 after living in England for five years. It was there that I had completed my theological studies and I had been ordained and had served as an Anglican clergyman. Upon our return my path was mysteriously united with the path of Fr. Paul in ways I was not even aware.
The Episcopal parish to which I had been called was another St. Barnabas Church. It was there that I found a book which had been left by one of my predecessors, a book entitled “Our Lady and Reunion” which was one of the very few books in existence which was exclusively about Our Lady of the Atonement. I had never heard this title of Mary before, and I was tempted to discard the book because I thought it was nothing which would interest me. But for some reason I just couldn’t throw it away. So it remained on my book shelf, where I would look at it from time to time. The picture of Our Lady of the Atonement in that little book developed a stronger and stronger hold on me, and like Fr. Paul, while I was at St. Barnabas I began to realize that my spiritual journey was leading my family and myself to the Catholic Church. But how? My vocation was to the priesthood, but that wasn’t possible at the time. As a married man I was excluded from Catholic ordination. Then one day in 1980 the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, announced that he was establishing a Pastoral Provision for individuals just as myself, married Episcopal clergy with a vocation to Catholic priesthood. So the door was opened. And another move was in store. Just as Fr. Paul moved from his St. John’s Church to St. Barnabas Church as part of his discernment for the doing of God’s Will, so I was called to move from St. Barnabas Church to another Episcopal church called St. John’s where I could more easily discern what God had in store. He made His Will clear quite quickly. My family and I were to move to Texas where God would reveal what it was He wanted me to do. So it was that we arrived in January of 1982 and set about building upon the foundation which would result in the establishment of a parish which had already been formed in the eternal mind of Almighty God.
The little book about Our Lady of the Atonement was one of the first volumes I unpacked and placed on the bookshelves of that first small house on the northeast side of San Antonio which we called the Rectory, where I shared my office with the washer and dryer and an old manual typewriter. I made a promise to God that if He would allow my ordination as a Catholic priest to take place, and if He inspired the archbishop to establish a parish for those faithful people here in San Antonio who were also seeking entrance into the Catholic Church, then we would seek permission to erect the parish under the title of Our Lady of the Atonement. God made good on His side of the bargain. On August 15, 1983 I was ordained as a Catholic priest, and our parish was canonically erected under the patronage of Our Lady of the Atonement.
That was nearly twenty-four years ago. At that time ours was a tiny and optimistic group of eighteen people worshipping in a rented church with an unknown future. Today we are part of a strong and growing parish with an excellent school, a community of Catholics from a great variety of backgrounds with a reputation which is known far beyond our archdiocesan boundaries. Is it something we did ourselves? No, obviously not. God did it, just as God worked in the lives of Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana to accomplish His divine Will. And we, as they, have lived and continue to live in the power of those Scriptures revealed to Fr. Paul so long ago, teaching us that we have no power, no “Living Water” save that of the Holy Spirit; that we have one truth to proclaim, and that is the truth of the atonement of man with God through the work of Jesus upon the Cross; and that the fruit of this work is made a reality through the Holy Sacrifice which is offered upon the Altar. And overarching it all is the heavenly assistance which we know is ours; namely, the intercession of our Blessed Mother, known to us under her mysteriously beautiful title of Our Lady of the Atonement.