First Parish of Norwell


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Church Archives - Parish Records, Church Records and Minister's Records from 1642 to the present.



At The River of Time


R.M. Fewkes
May 22, 1988

When Henry David Thoreau was living close to nature at Walden Pond he would often begin his morning by reading from some oriental philosophical text. One such morning, after having read from the Hindu Bhagavadgeta, Thoreau recorded the following fantasy encounter:

    I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the
    servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu...,who still sits in
    his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas....I meet his servant come to
    draw water for his Master, and our buckets as it were grate together in
    the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of
    the Ganges.

And then later on he says, "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it, but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains."

And so this evening we gather at the river of time, fishing a hundred years downstream, aware as we do so, that the sacred waters of the Jordan mingle as it were with the now less than pure waters of the North River, and that when our little fishing expedition is over, eternity remains.

When I first learned about the proposed ecumenical centennial service, (actually it was my suggestion to Mrs. Miner of the Norwell Centennial Commission that we have one)--anyway--I went scurrying through the church archives to see what I could find from the year 1888. There wasn't much to be found, but what I did find was of interest and worthsharing on this occasion. I found one order of service, and one only, from the year 1888, March the 4th to be exact, during the ministry of the Rev. John Tunis. That order of service you have before you on the left hand inside front page of the bulletin exactly as it was printed. We have tried to follow that order as closely as reasonably possible with the addition of an introit and an anthem. I also found a framed photograph of John Tunis which you may find on display on the viewing case in the vestibule.

I couldn't find out very much about my predecessor other than a brief paragraph written by the late local historian, Mary Power, relative of Curt Power, in which she said he was called here from New York in 1886 to fill the office made vacant by the resignation of Wm. Fish who retired from active ministry but continued living in the Parsonage where I now reside. Where that left John Tunis I am not too sure. Mary Power says of John Tunis that he was "a new worker in the Unitarian ranks", being "both ordained and installed" as he took up his work here in South Scituate. You will also find a copy of his ordination service on the display case, dated May 20, 1887--a hundred and one years plus two days from today's date.

John Tunis came into the Unitarian ministry from the Episcopal Church. He felt that the simple service common in Unitarian churches of the time "would be enriched by a more liturgical one"--Bob Mackie from St. Andrews would like that--and he proceeded to do so apparently without any fuss from his parishioners. But he didn't remain here for very long. In the autumn of 1888 he was "granted the favor of supplying a substitute, that he might make a European tour." Now that's an interesting precedent. I think I'll speak to my Parish Committee about that possibility, only this time I'll suggest that they supply the substitute while I make the tour. In any event, the following spring John Tunis accepted a call to be colleague to a minister in Cambridge.

By the time John Tunis left his ministry in the newly named Town of Norwell--less than three years--I was just getting warmed up in mine--now 19 yrs. going on 20. Dave Norling and I have a contest going to see who can stay here in Norwell the longest. So far I've got him beat by a few months, but when I go to Europe he can catch up.

During his ministry John Tunis promoted the concept of what he called a Parish Church for All Souls, meaning a church for all those who had no other church affiliation, regardless of their background--high church, low church or no church. He believed that all citizens had a responsibility before God to affiliate with some religious organization or church for the building of the Kingdom of God on earth. Well, today he would have to contend with a few more churches for all those unclaimed souls. In 1888 there were no Congregational, Catholic or Baptist churches in town, nor was there a Hindu Vedenta Center in Cohasset for the likes of Henry David Thoreau--which means that now all our churches are parish churches not for all souls, but for some souls. And for those who are committed to no church at all, and seem to like it that way, most go nowhere, just as they did back then. That is the price we pay for religious freedom, the right to choose your religion or no religion at all. Not even John Tunis would have wanted to abrogate that right.

Fishing in the river of time, I thought it would be fun to peruse the Town Report of 1888, which luckily was available at the James Library, to see what nuggets of wisdom I might find there. I'm not sure how many nuggets I found, but I did find some interesting comparisons between the Norwell of 1888 and the Norwell of 1988. For example, in 1888 there were 346 horses, 301 cows, 87 neat cattle, 6 sheep, 60 swine, and 436 dwelling houses. Today we have quite a few more dwelling houses, I don't know the exact number, far fewer horses, cows and cattle, and a rather drastic decline in swine. There were, of course, no horseless carriages or automobiles in the Norwell of 1888.

It was instructive, to say the least, to note the difference between the relative value of a dollar between the Norwell of 1888 and the Norwell of 1988. For example, the total value of real estate in Norwell on May 1, 1888 was $673,187. Two or three major estates in the town today would be worth more than the entire town of 1888. The rate of taxation in 1888 was 11.50 per thousand, which wasn't bad considering your property was worth only a few thousand at most. The total assessment, including poll taxes, came to 10,981.71. The financial condition of the town in 1888 was listed as 12,878.62 (Liabilities) versus 7,888.31 (Assets). It sounds like they knew something about deficit spending even in those days.

What did they spend their money on in 1888? Many of the same things we spend our tax dollars on today. The town expended 4,994.14 on repairs of the highways which was a hefty sum back then. The snow removal budget came to a whopping 84.60 Ask Arnie Joseph how much snow he could remove today for that sum. He might do the town parking lot if he was lucky. The town also spent an additional 34.46 because of a major storm on Feb. 27, 1888, the "Blizzard of '88", which was much like our own Blizzard of '78. The town was also involved in litigation with the town of Scituate in 1888 which cost the tax payers 237.10. What was it about? I'm not sure, but I suspect it had something to do with the demarcation of town lines. A couple of interesting items under "Incidental Expenses" were 7.38 for advertising the change of name of the town and 110.50 expended by the Selectmen for 442 woodchucks. I demand to know what the Selectmen were doing with all those woodchucks.

"What was the school budget like in 1888?", you ask. Well, teachers' salaries, for a total of 10 teachers, came to $3,200. The sum expended on school books for 200 students was 348.58. In September the town had recently opened a new high school in what is now the Grange hall on Main St. It housed a total of 33 scholars (they called them "scholars" rather than "students") broken into two classes of 18 and 15. In its report to the town the School Committee charged the parents with responsibility for their children's education. They asked,

    Have you visited the school in your district this term or this year? Have
    you visited the High School? In each teacher's register there is kept a
    record of visitors during the year, we see but very few of your names
    written therein. If we could only persuade you to visit our schools, you
    would be better satisfied, your children would be pleased, and our
    teachers would be encouraged.

They asked for understanding about how much teachers have to bear. "Fathers and mothers," they queried, "do you not find it a difficult matter to govern even two children, and have everything go smoothly? Then how much sympathy ought we to have for the teachers, who have children to govern from a dozen different families." Right on, baby, right on! Then they pleaded with parents to please keep their children in school; "it is for only six hours out of twenty-four: certainly you can afford to give them one quarter of each day for such an important matter as education." All of it, good advice then, good advice now. Parents be attentive to your children's education.

1888 was a busy year for marriages and births. There were 18 marriages recorded, but only 4 of them were performed by Norwell clergy within the town. John Tunis married Henry T. Gunderway and Hattie L. Smith on April 29. Eight months later the couple celebrated the birth of a son, Henry Burrell Gunderway on Dec. 24. Did they have to get married, you ask? We'll never know. Some of the children born that year were Willie Norwell Gunderway on Jan. 5. Was his middle name in honor of Henry Norwell? It would seem so. Henry Whitman Pratt on Feb. 24. Bertram Waldo Litchfield on June 20. Herbert Tilden Hatch on Aug. 26. Benjamin Harrison Delano on Nov. 12. Harry Thayer Fogg on Nov. 16. Thomas Henry Barstow on Nov. 27. Those of you familiar with local history will recognize some of the family names still extant in Norwell.

It is somewhat ironic, I think, that one of the reasons the town sought to change its name in 1888 was to attract money for a railroad. If the town could be named after someone with money and connections, i.e., Henry Norwell, who offered the town $2,500 a year to repair its roads if the town matched the sum and named the town after him, then the town might be in a position to attract a railroad, making it more accessible and part of the industrial age. Henry Norwell was true to his word. The town repaired and improved its roads. I'm not sure the town ever got its railroad, I don't know my local history well enough, but rest assured, if anyone ever thought of running a railroad through the center of town in 1988 the citizens would be up in arms over the prospect of soot and disruption and traffic and negative impact on property values. How the times change. We value things differently according to time and circumstance.

In 1888 the Selectmen were Charles A. Litchfield, Henry A. Turner and Charles C. Young. They had three roles or responsibilities as Selectmen, Assessors, and Overseers of the Poor. In their latter capacity they made decisions about expenditures of special funds for the aid of the poor and needy. In 1888 there was an almshouse where those who were homeless could stay and be supplied with shelter, food and clothing. There were twelve inmates that year, the net cost being 1,396.85. The town expended an additional $1,507 for supplies to the almshouse. And on top of that they paid $1,416 for full and partial support to out-door poor, meaning those who did not have to live in the almshouse. What kind of things did the Selectmen authorize for support of the poor and needy? As I looked over the report I noted a number of entries repeated in various cases: medical attendance, board and clothing, clothing and supplies, house rent, for burial, and most often, for aid (unspecified).

One of the reasons there were no people living in the streets of our towns and cities a hundred years ago was because local government bore its share of responsibility to tend the needs of the poor in its midst. The only reason we don't see them in Norwell today is because ours is now a predominantly affluent community--not true to the same extent in 1888--and we no longer have an almshouse in town. Today we send them to Brockton, Halifax, Quincy or Boston which have shelters for the homeless which in the winter are jammed to capacity and some end up sleeping out of doors.

It was because the town in 1888, through its elected representatives, oversaw the needs of the poor and homeless who lived among them, that the clergy decided to take up a special collection at this service for the poor and homeless in the South Shore area. We felt that the South Shore Habitat for Humanity was a worthwhile working agency to receive our contributions for this purpose. We appreciate your generosity in extending a helping hand to those less fortunate than yourselves as did our forefathers and foremothers in South Scituate and Norwell a hundred years ago.

I was recently invited by the Selectmen to be appointed to the newly formed Affordable Housing Committee in town. I am pleased to be a member of this important town committee and hope I can play a constructive role in bringing affordable housing into the town in a planned effective manner that will take into consideration the impact on water resources and the environment. If we don't do it ourselves the developers will do it for us as is being done on South St. much to the dismay of most citizens and town officials. The plain truth of the matter is we should have had an Affordable Housing Committee working and in place a number of years ago. If we had the South St. project never would have been developed in the way that it was. Snob zoning is against the law. We've had to learn the hard way that if you don't work with the law to bring in affordable housing then the developers and the law will work against you to bring it in anyway whether the town likes it or not. The Selectmen of 1888 did not have to contend with such a law, but if they had, there was a pretty good mix of rich and poor and moderate income housing in the town of that day. Not so today. That is one of the wrongs we are called upon to right in 1988.

In an address to graduates of Harvard Divinity School in 1886, Henry Wilder Foote noted that "the present time is built upon the former time, (or) rather grows out of it as a part of the organic life of the ages. We cannot", he said, "really live in the present unless we live from the past." And then he said, "To boast of one's ancestry as a substitute for one's personal worth is the poorest possible thing, but to bless one's ancestry as a stimulus to personal worthiness is a best possible thing." Here today, a hundred years upstream from the founders of the Town of Norwell, we bless them for the gift of life, of custom, of culture and religion which they have bequeathed to us, and we pray that we may be worthy transmitters of the best we have received to future generations up the river of time.

One generation passes the mantle of leadership on to another. Elijah passes the prophetic office on to Elisha, John the Baptist recognizes its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus in turn gives the charge to build the kingdom of God on earth to the church founded in his name. The prophetic imperative of love and justice is no longer the responsibility of specially anointed individuals. It has become the collective responsibility of a religious tradition and a culture, and in the intermix of other cultures and religions on this rounded globe, it has become the responsibility of an entire planet. We are no longer a quaint little village upstream. We are part and parcel of the global village, planet earth, milkyway galaxy. The sacred waters of the Ganges and the Jordan really do blend together in the North River and in every other river east and west, north and south. And we will either build a kingdom of love and justice, righteousness and peace, a world beyond war for the entire planet, or we will bid fond adieu to God's billion year life experiment on the fair green hills of earth. Our charge is that given us by the poet Archibald MacLeish in his poem, "Geography of This Time."

    What is required of us is the recognition of the frontiers between the
    centuries. And to take heart: to cross over. We are very far. We are past
    the place where the light lifts and farther on than the relinquishment of
    leaves--farther even than the persistence in the east of the green color.
    Beyond are the confused tracks, the guns, the watchers. What is required
    of us, Companions, is the recognition of the frontiers across this
    history, and to take heart: to cross over--to persist and to cross over
    and survive, but to survive to cross over.

Well, our little fishing expedition on the river of time is now over. We have traversed the waters downstream a hundred years and returned, hopefully a little wiser and more appreciative of the gift of life for our journey. As its thin current slides away and we touch the sandy bottom of our own time, may we find comfort in the knowledge that wherever we are on that river of time, eternity abides.