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Frank H Nelson Of Cincinnati by Warren C. Herrick

Reclaiming A Church To Meet A New Age

|By the grace of God, and the loyalty of the
members of Christ Church I was enabled to
carry on the work when Alexis Stein had to
give it up.|

-- Frank H. Nelson


The surging currents of city life had left old Christ Church in a back eddy, and certain leaders including the senior warden advocated selling the property or turning it over to the Diocese for a mission. The population, as in many another American city, was shifting from the downtown district, and many believed that the parish had seen its best days. In those late nineties, parishioners of wealth and prominence were moving to the suburbs; the older, conservative members still attended the morning service, but the young people either attached themselves to churches nearer their residences or were drifting away from church affiliations altogether.

Christ Church was established in 1817 when Cincinnati was a small river town of nine thousand inhabitants; looking at the present church building which seats over one thousand people and is flanked by an enormous and ever busy parish house, one finds it difficult to picture Bishop Philander Chase meeting in that year with a group of men in the home of Dr. Daniel Drake to lay the foundations of what was to become one of the largest parishes in the Middle West. The first services were held in a cotton factory, and the church slowly developed into a strong parish, small in numbers but served by several very able rectors, one of whom later became the Bishop of Virginia. As the first Episcopal Church to be founded in Cincinnati, it was the parent of a number of other parishes; but at the close of the nineteenth century it appeared that the |mother-church| was about finished. Churches of other communions located in the downtown district were going through the same transition. The slump in finances by reason of removals created something akin to panic in the fearful and timid vestrymen, but because of some loyal and far-sighted women Christ Church was not disbanded. They wanted it to mean to their children what it meant to them, and they gave assurance of support in substantial ways.

These ardent supporters had a definite vision and plan. In 1897 Dr. William S. Rainsford had come on from New York City and had packed old Pike's Opera House for a week in Lent, and thrilled his hearers with the recital of his efforts to anchor St. George's Church in the heart of that great metropolis, and make it free to serve the community. When Bishop Vincent of Southern Ohio wrote him about the difficulties of Christ Church, he replied with this momentous letter:

I am going to give you the greatest proof I can of my love and deep interest in Cincinnati. I have a plan for Christ Church. Here it is. Take two of my men -- let them work and live together; they could take a mighty strong hold, and do a really good work. I feel sure that in the future many a position of great difficulty can be much better occupied by two men, pulling together, than by one alone. There are two magnificent fellows -- dear, dear boys after my own heart -- who have been here with me for years; and I shall be lost without them, if you call them. Stein (Alexis) is the ablest preacher of his age (28) in our Church in these United States today. Nelson (Frank) is a strong, capable man, full of energy and charm and a first-class organizer. This is a big idea, my friend; but I believe God may be in it. It is like offering to cut off both my hands for you.

Thus the Reverend Alexis Stein became Rector of Christ Church in December, 1898, and within a few weeks of his arrival the people of Cincinnati awoke to the mighty fact that a prophet was in their midst; the doors of all churches were flung open to him, and everywhere he spoke, new interest and hope in the Church were born. Stein has been called a modern Savonarola, but, unlike the great reformer, he was burned within by the fire of his own consuming message. |He was a preacher of most unusual power with a message he burned to give; and a vision of truth that made him a leader of men. He loved God and showed Him to men; he loved men and led them to God.| Before Stein left New York, he had asked his friend, Frank Nelson, to join him in the new venture, but it was not until May 21, 1899 that he was free to come.

We came out to Cincinnati because Dr. Rainsford sent us; he told us that we ought to come -- not that we wanted to come. Stein and I both had always lived in the East. It was the America that we knew, and it seemed a desirable place to live, just as those of you who have been born here think that Cincinnati is the most desirable place to live, because it is your home. But he, with a larger vision of America, and a larger vision of the calling of God to a man in the ministry, sent us here to do what we could.

In February, 1900, the doctor ordered Alexis Stein out West, a victim of tuberculosis. He lived a short twelve years, but was never well enough to do more than a little incidental work. This tragedy was a deep, personal loss to his young associate, for all through their St. George's days they had been the closest of friends. They complemented one another and made an ideal team.

Invariably on Good Friday in the course of his address on the Sixth Word from The Cross, Frank Nelson spoke of Stein's influence upon him and upon Christ Church: |The work he began is witnessed to by you who are here. You wouldn't have been here forty years ago or the likes of you would not have been here, but he opened the door of life and the spirit to the people of this city, as to the members of this church. His work goes on. The thing that God wanted him to do he did, and it was finished.| He expressed himself in more intimate fashion to his friend Bishop Touret: |The heart of all its worth (Nelson's own forty years' ministry) has been that I was carrying on for Alexis. I've first been his assistant in my own mind always, and that has made it possible for me to dare to undertake it.| If Stein's work was finished, and a prophet needs no great length of time, then it was brought to fruition through the resolute efforts of this devoted servant who with great humility and genuine searchings of heart took up the reins so tragically relinquished.

Frank H. Nelson was elected Rector of Christ Church on May 5, 1900. In the light of subsequent events his letter of acceptance is of interest:

May 16, 1900


In a letter from your Secretary, I have been informed of your action of last Saturday, in electing me to succeed the Rev. Alexis Stein, as Rector of Christ Church. That I appreciate very deeply the honor that you have conferred upon me, I do not need to say. I have considered the subject very carefully, and painful to us all though the circumstances are that have led to this, I feel strangely that it is God's work we have undertaken, and that He has led us in it all. I therefore accept the call you have given me, and I believe that working together we can, with God's help, do a real work for Him in this city. For the success of the work I regard two things as essential: the first that the Church shall remain absolutely free, and the second that the lines of work represented by the Parish House shall be continued. I ask your cooperation and support in them both. I am writing the Rev. J. H. Melish to ask him to be my associate. I hope to have him begin his work with us in June. I feel deeply the burden of responsibility, and the great opportunity that your call involves. I can but say that I shall do all in my power to be faithful to both.

Frank Nelson distrusted his own ability. Stein's preaching had packed the church, and the numbers drastically declined when his eloquent voice was stilled. The Bishop, conscious of the difficult problem confronting a downtown church, advised Rev. Mr. Melish not to become associated, saying |Stein could have solved it, but Frank Nelson never will.| The Bishop, however, had not sufficient evidence to gauge the young rector's talents, nor could he foresee the capacity of the parish to respond to the man's magnetic appeal.

There was at this time not only a break in the center of population in the city, but also a shifting of the center of gravity in religion. There was dawning a unity of the spirit which led men to break away from the orthodox emphasis on creeds, and which strove to express itself in many forms; such as parish houses, Christian associations, reforms, and educational and missionary movements. Mr. Nelson's mind, being busy with the stars, was concerned with the moral and spiritual movement which outlasts the stars. He said, |To some of us it seems that Jesus was not so much interested in establishing an institution as in revealing a new quality of life.| Likewise, Frank Nelson was not so much interested in being the rector of a large, prosperous parish as in making the church an agency for leavening the city's life with the spirit of Jesus Christ. He caught the imagination of his people when he pointed to the possibility of a church becoming the community center for multitudes in the downtown district. In the near neighborhood of Christ Church were new offices, factories, and boarding houses, and at the distance of one block began the tenement houses where lived the poor and underprivileged. He said:

We owe to them the gift of Christian friendship, of spiritual influence irrespective of religious affiliations. The church should provide not only a place to pray, but to play; a place not only for worship, but for friendship. There are no places for leisure except the streets, saloons, burlesque houses, pool-rooms, public dance halls, or other commercial places of entertainment. The Church is not here for its own sake. It is here to bear witness, and to spread a spirit. It should be the center from which radiate the forces of righteousness and the spirit of brotherhood and every human activity and interest in the community. Therefore, it must speak not to the individual only, but to the business, social, and political problems, dealing with them not from the viewpoint of the economist or political theorist, but from that of the preacher of righteousness. If Christ Church can be a force for righteousness in the city, it matters but little whether it gain in numbers.

|Distinction,| it has been said, |is the emphasis put upon qualities by circumstances.| There were two circumstances which enabled this young rector to create in Christ Church, Cincinnati a far-famed chapter in the history of American churches and cities. One was his conception of the place and function of the modern church in the new age, as just outlined. It has been the reproach of the Protestant Churches that they have too largely attracted only the well-to-do and middle classes. Frank Nelson made Christ Church a place where rich and poor met on equal footing. Drawn by his personality, both responded to his vision. There was something about working in his parish that gave people a peculiar zest and joy in living. There was, for instance, a Jewish lad in the Sunday School, (Mr. Nelson never liked the term Church School) who after his marriage came every Christmas to Christ Church with his wife and two children. He proudly introduced them to Mr. Nelson, saying, |Though I am a Jew, this is my church!|

On the other hand, Mr. Nelson's special gifts as a rector were developed and brought into full flower in Christ Church because of the many remarkable people who formed the backbone of his parish. In point of numbers and in ability, they were an unusual group, a group characterized by breadth of vision, and by a faith sufficient for them to carry through the bold projects outlined by their leader. Many were blessed with abundant means, and, above all, were filled with a consummate loyalty and affection for their church. In this happy partnership of pastor and parish, each inspired the other to great accomplishment. The older members who were in the parish at the beginning of Mr. Nelson's rectorship were vigorous, strong-minded people accustomed to having their own way. They hewed to the old lines, suspicious of change. With his deep sense of loyalty, Mr. Nelson felt bound to maintain the sort of practices and low-church ceremony which prevailed when he took over, but such was his adroitness, skill and tact in leading them that he won their complete confidence and trust, and they gave him an unreserved support as well as a free hand in many things. This unbounded support of his early work he never forgot; nor did he let his appreciation diminish with the success of later years. In the course of the observances that marked his forty years as rector, he said of them:

We found here, as the days went on, a group of people that I think have never been equaled. Not a very large group of people, but a group of people who gave us freedom -- freedom to speak the thing that was in our minds: to do the things that we believed the Church ought to do and to stand for in the heart of a great city.

A new parish house had been erected as Alexis Stein's rectorship closed, and Mr. Nelson's organizing abilities made it hum. With the assistance of the Rev. J. Howard Melish, the most competent of all his clerical assistants, a Men's Club was organized, and became a mecca for the young men of the city. For those of small means, it was the only sort of club available, and was thrown open to every race and creed. In 1901 the yearly attendance was 7,000, and by 1903 it had grown to 16,973. In line with the policy of a community center, the Club included members of all faiths, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. The Roman priest was always notified of Catholics joining the club and informed that no proselyting was intended, but rather that it was hoped these young men would become better members of their own church. Athletic grounds were secured together with a field-house, and Christ Church teams won an enviable reputation for high standards of sportsmanship. Their spirit may be judged by the story of a football player who waxed into colorful profanity in the heat of a game and was bawled out by a Roman Catholic teammate in terse words: |Don't you know who you represent?| During an interim when another parish house was being built, Christ Church basketball teams used the Holy Cross Monastery Hall for an entire year, with the full approval of the Roman authorities and the gratitude of Mr. Nelson. At that time, the captain of the Christ Church team, John M. Cronin, was a prefect of the St. Xavier Sodality and also the secretary of the Christ Church Men's Club. By 1911 it was necessary to limit the Club's membership to six hundred, and there was always a long waiting list. The social atmosphere, the entertainments, the athletic record, the camp established by the church on the Miami River made this club one of the most popular in the city. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Melish spent untold hours in the work and gained an intimate knowledge of the individual members and their views, particularly on labor questions. The men expressed themselves freely, and at the close of an evening's discussion Mr. Nelson would gather up the points of argument into a clear and effective summary easily understood and remembered. It was in this club that a small group once earnestly discussed how they might best help a member when he should be released from a prison term which he was serving. Nothing gratified the rector more than this sort of human comradeship because it is the very essence of the Christian fellowship which he was striving to implant.

As time went on, an increasing number of girls and young women entering the business world created a social problem which weighed heavily on the rector's mind and heart. Knowing the special conditions which these young women must meet in a large city, he applied grave thought and much energy to the study of their needs and to the opportunity which Christ Church had in meeting them. Finding nothing for them socially in the city except the Y.W.C.A., some distance away, he sent invitations to department stores for a meeting at the parish house. At this meeting he proposed to establish a branch of the Girls' Friendly Society which is found throughout the Episcopal Church and which exists for social and educational purposes. Mr. Nelson gave himself particularly to this organization. He gathered a set of workers in the parish, women of character and cultural background, who became the leaders and friends of the various groups. He was a frequent visitor at meetings and often conducted a question box. He encouraged the members to make it one of their prime objectives to work for the city's interest. The rapid growth of the Society enabled it to support a bed in the Children's Hospital, to finance the Vacation House on the Ohio River, and to promote other civic projects. The Christ Church organization became one of the largest and most active branches in the national society, and had a succession of remarkable directors, such as Deaconess Lloyd and Miss Alice Simrall. Mr. Nelson's faith and incomparable friendship as well as his careful planning made the Girls' Friendly a strong and useful force in Cincinnati and an influence in the national body.

In those days the public schools provided nothing in the way of training in the practical arts, and a large work along these lines was carried on among the boys and girls who lived in the districts adjacent to Christ Church. The Sewing School, for instance, grew in membership in three years from twenty-four to over two hundred under unfavorable conditions in the already cramped parish house. When the College Settlement on Third Street closed, the church took over its kindergarten equipment and its list of members, and every morning gathered in the children of pre-school age.

When some people said it was a mistake to make a parish house a community center, because in their minds it was being used only for social purposes, Mr. Nelson's scorn was beautiful to hear. He asserted, |The Church claims to be the Body of Christ, doesn't it? How did our Lord regard His body? He used it freely with no thought of preserving it, even to the final extent of hanging it upon a Cross. This is the only way, His Way, that the Church will have eternal life.|

Not many years passed before it became apparent that the parish house, though not an old building, was literally worn out and was entirely inadequate for such an extensive work. In 1907 Mr. Nelson announced the gift of a new parish house from Mrs. Thomas J. Emery, a devoted member of the church. So munificent a gift had rarely been equaled anywhere. The six-story building, complete in every detail, was not finished until 1909. In it are club rooms, a large auditorium, a gymnasium, locker rooms, and bowling alleys. At the corner next to the church rises a beautiful clock tower which before the day of skyscrapers could be seen from distant parts of the city, and which has been sketched by many artists. Under the impetus of this gift the parish took on increased vigor and extended the work into new fields. A Baby Clinic set up by the Visiting Nurses' Association provided one more opportunity for service; in 1910 the problem of crowded conditions in the nearby Guilford School was solved by the use of Christ Church parish house for Kindergarten and Domestic Science classes. It was a long list of services which gave Christ Church and Mr. Nelson a far reaching reputation for efficient and intelligent social service.

In the Parish House we meet each other, not as having the same point of view, the same opportunities, but as having a common humanity infinitely various in thought, in faith, in desire. Each may learn from each, and grow in breadth and depth, and the knowledge of God through his brother. It is in recognition of this that we have a free church and free parish house. No distinction of wealth may mar the worship in the one; no distinction of faith may hinder the service in the other.

The passing years brought fresh opportunities which were seized upon with tireless energy by this far-seeing rector. In August, 1917 came the opportunity to establish a Red Cross unit which through day and evening groups enlisted the woman power of the parish. At the close of the war, Mr. Nelson envisioned the continuance of this work on a scale far exceeding the conventional idea of church missionary work. Tactfully overcoming certain prejudices and narrow points of view, he again secured the enthusiastic support of the same group of women. This unit became one of the largest and most diligent organizations in the parish, continuing the indispensable Red Cross work, and enlisting larger numbers in the special program of the Woman's Auxiliary as it is conducted in Episcopal parishes throughout the country.

In 1913 and again in 1937, floods devastated the Ohio River valley. Mr. Nelson quickly organized his parish to do its share in caring for the refugees. Committees fed, clothed, and entertained one hundred and fifty people on the first occasion, and two hundred on the second. Experienced dieticians planned and supervised the meals, a trained nurse was kept on constant duty, and doctors gave medical service and examinations. But Christ Church did more than provide physical care; it knew the moral and spiritual needs of the homeless, and each day, through the cooperation of the government agencies (especially in 1937), city organizations, and individuals, it provided two hours of entertainment for them. Every night Mr. Nelson conducted family prayers, and won the undying gratitude of the refugees by his friendliness and personal interest in their present comfort and future needs. His reputation travelled from New England to California, and checks poured in from all over the country for this work. The atmosphere of helpfulness in Christ Church was his creation, and many volunteers in this emergency were not of the parish at all. One mother and daughter engaged in this relief work found the associations so delightful that the mother remarked to Howard Bacon, the superintendent of the parish house, |My daughter wants to join this place; it is the swellest club in the city!| Another instance revealing the sort of spirit which pervaded the parish house and filled the people of Christ Church was the serving of dinners to the American Legion during their convention because colored Legionnaires at that time were not allowed in Cincinnati hotels.

The fact that the people in the immediate vicinity were coming to Christ Church and using its privileges in such great measure, calling upon the clergy for their services, and joining in the work was immensely satisfying to Mr. Nelson, for this kind of thing was the fruitage of many years of earnest labor, and amply justified his conception of the function of the church and parish house as a community center. The rector always held that the work of the parish organizations should be a result of inspiration from worship and sermons, something first-hand and immediate, so that the impetus of the services would not be lost. In 1912, to mention only one year, there were more than two hundred volunteer workers. In addition, his people were serving in numerous organizations throughout the community, such as the Juvenile Protective Association, the Bureau of Municipal Research, the Hospital Services, the Consumers' League, the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, the Playgrounds, Fresh Air Society, and Tenement House Reform. Moreover, there was the inspiring fact that the parish house had become a civic center, and by channeling the idealism and energy of a group of young men, of whom Henry Bentley of City Charter Committee fame was one, the Church created comradeship and generated faith in Christian principles which led later to far-reaching usefulness throughout the city.

No account of Mr. Nelson's work could possibly be complete without recording the place in it of his chief assistant, Howard N. Bacon, who has been superintendent of the parish house for thirty-eight years. Howard Bacon came to Cincinnati at the age of twenty-two with the purpose of pursuing a business career. Through Dr. McKinnon of Kansas City, Mr. Nelson learned of Bacon's marked abilities in church and social service lines. They had dinner together, and Mr. Nelson outlined the plans for the new parish house. Though a relative had advised Bacon |to cut-out the soul-saving business,| the avenues of service under Frank Nelson's leadership impelled him to abandon his planned career. No agreement was made about salary until much later when Mr. Nelson said, |We cannot give you much. Will you come for a hundred dollars a month and live in the parish house?| At the annual meeting of the church on Easter Monday, 1908, the rector made the announcement: |I am very glad to be able to tell you that Mr. Howard N. Bacon has joined the staff, giving up a very promising business future to devote his life to work among boys and young men. He will have charge of the camp, and manage the parish house as well as working in the Sunday School.| It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that no appointment to the staff of Christ Church was ever more momentous and fruitful. He served Mr. Nelson thirty-one years, though many other attractive positions were offered him. Upon him Mr. Nelson leaned as on no other. Through the years he has performed the larger part of a clergyman's office, and though not ordained is often called |Reverend.| He took over the multitudinous details of a highly organized parish as did or could no other assistant or paid parish worker; consequently, Mr. Nelson was able to devote his time to many civic enterprises, and to play a vital role in the national life of the Episcopal Church. To have rendered such a service means that he is completely self-effacing and richly merited Mr. Nelson's tribute: |I would not know how to get on without him.|

The phenomenal development of the parish house as a community center kept pace with the striking growth of the church. During Mr. Nelson's rectorship the communicant list of the parish expanded from 599 in 1900 to 2089 in 1939; the number of contributors to the budget from 200 to 1002; the parish and missionary budgets from [USD]15,103.00 in 1900 to [USD]77,493.00 in 1927, to cite a high year; the Endowment Fund from [USD]11,770.00 in 1900 to [USD]531,384.00 in 1939. In a way it seemed as if Mr. Nelson had only to walk down Fourth Street and the money met him! In any case, in the prosperous years it flowed in steadily from a people given to generosity. One morning he met a parishioner who had been abroad during the past year, and the man asked Mr. Nelson to accompany him to his bank. Taking the rector to his safety deposit box, he handed over a thousand dollar bond saying, |I haven't done anything for Christ Church in a long time.| One Sunday morning in the course of the notices (with him, announcements were really an art) Mr. Nelson spoke of his friend, Dr. Paul Wakefield, who had been left stranded in China during the Communist uprising of 1927, and from whom he had just received a letter. The special offering that morning, together with contributions sent in over the week, amounted to five hundred dollars.

In the course of the great forty years of Mr. Nelson's ministry, a long series of extraordinary gifts was made, including the parish house already mentioned, memorial windows, an altar, an organ, and numberless others, all indicative of the liberality of the people. These gifts were grandly climaxed by the erection of a chapel to commemorate the Centennial of Christ Church. It was designed to express the beauty, mystery, and nobility of the Christian faith, and to provide for the many services for which the large church was unsuited. The Chapel was largely a thank-offering on the part of parishioners and many others who had found in Christ Church a spiritual home for which they were profoundly grateful. Another remarkable aspect of this gift was its conception in the uncertain days of 1917.

As the years brought the ever-changing conditions of city life, and as civic institutions, social agencies, and the public schools afforded gymnasiums, swimming pools, playgrounds, and social centers such as were scarcely known in the first decades of Mr. Nelson's ministry, he continued to believe in the religious motive which Christ Church gave to all these recreational and social activities. To the end of his days he held that religious faith gives to social work an enthusiasm, a personal fervor, and a genuineness without which the one thing needful is lacking. He led his people to see in the drinking fountain outside the parish house a symbol of the Church's undying service to the world of men. The fact that passers-by, whether on foot or in pleasure car or truck, stopped to quaff of its ice-cold water was to him an expression of man's eternal need for the water of life, a need which, please God, would always be met by a church whose gospel resides in the nether springs of God's loving purpose for the children of men.


Frank H. Nelson.

Frank H. Nelson, Centennial Address, May 17, 1917.

Frank H. Nelson, Year Books, 1902 and 1903.

Mr. Nelson's report, Year Book, 1908.

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