A History Minute
(#10 in a series)
George Wolfe Shinn, our Rector from 1875 to 1906 was born into a poor family in Philadelphia. When George was 12 years old, his father died. Shinn's mother then married a man who, under the frequent influence of drink, would beat her and the children...causing Shinn to oppose the use of alcohol for the remainder of his life. Because Shinn had to work, he did not complete high school. Thus at age 19 at Virginia Theological Seminary, Shinn was assigned to the high-school-level Preparatory Program headed by Phillips Brooks...who had just graduated from seminary and who became Shinn's mentor and lifelong friend. When the Civil War began two years later, Shinn and the other Northeners left for Philadelphia, where George was later ordained. Given Shinn's early lack of education, combined with his thirst for knowledge, it is understandable that he emphasized building up the Sunday School in his every parish assignment...and Shinn made the teaching of Reading a mandatory part of the curriculum. While at Grace Church Rev. Shinn published over a dozen religious books, as well as a hymnal-handbook (co-authored by the Grace organist) for church schools and camps, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by the College of William & Mary. The white-bearded Shinn, dressed in a long-out-of-fashion black cape, was a familiar figure walking the streets of Newton...especially in poor neighborhoods like North Village (Nonantum). His appearance was described as "Christ-like". Although he accomplished much, we are fortunate that the Vestry said "No!" to Rev. Shinn's plan to add 200 more seats to Grace Church by moving the wall at the back of the sanctuary toward Eldredge Street!
The principal rebellion during Shinn's tenure occurred when the redoubtable Matilda Linder circulated a petition signed by 68 women of the parish who had tired of teaching the 131 "scholars" of the Sunday School in the pews of the sanctuary...among their several grievances. Grace had had its new gas-lit stone church sanctuary since 1873, yet that was the extent of the building: sanctuary only. Rev. Shinn had arrived in 1875, immediately organizing work-group after work-group. "We urgently call your attention", the 1883 petition declared "...to the pressing need of a building with rooms arranged conveniently for the prosecution of the work of the Parish...some of our needs are such that the gentlemen of the Parish have no occasion to feel - some are peculiar to the wants of the Sunday School...you may not realize the extent to which the burdens of the parish work fall upon women". At this point, the church could not yet be consecrated because the mortgage had not been paid off. What would the Bishop think, wondered the Vestry, if the church were to be enlarged prior to paying off the mortgage...thereby further postponing consecration? To make a long story short: Shinn sided with the women. Within weeks, money was raised to pay for the addition! One year after the petition, the Chapel (now the Small Hall and coat rack area) and Parish House (now the Church Office and driveway entrance area) were opened on Christmas Day, 1884, followed by the Choir Hall in 1893, and the Townsend Library (now the Chapel) in 1895. The most frequent complaint about Rector Shinn was that he too frequently asked for money; yet Shinn accomplished the projects and debts were paid. The church was consecrated, with Phillips Brooks preaching the sermon. Shinn also backed the first attempt to permit women to join the Grace Church Corporation...which would have entitled them to vote at Parish Meetings and be entitled to serve on the Vestry; the motion failed in the Annual Meeting of 1900. Tired and broken by family tragedy, Shinn left Grace Church in ill health at age 67 in 1906 to live out his final three years in the Summit, New Jersey home of his daughter...just enough time to found another hospital (his second) and a literary club (his third)
While Rev. Shinn served at Grace Church, the State voted to permit women to vote in School Committee elections (only); the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded; Booker T. Washington opened Tuskeegee Institute; "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was published; the world's first roller coaster opened at Coney Island; "Away in a Manger" was composed; John Ringling opened his circus; basketball was invented at Springfield College. And Norumbega Park was opened in Auburndale by Adams Claflin of the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway (yes, that's why Comm. Av. has green space and one extra lane for the trolleys)...a 15-cent trolley ride from Boston including park admission, carousel, penny arcade, zoo, theater, picnic area, restaurant, 500 canoes (later 5,000), with 120,000 persons on opening day; the Stanley twins drove their Steamer auto around Newton at speeds up to 28 mph. Electricity almost did not come to gas-lit Grace Church...learn about that multi-year struggle in the next History Minute.
Don Kennedy, Parish Historian