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Back to Rev. Shinn (1975-1906)

posted Mar 13, 2012, 2:25 PM by Todd Randolph
George Wolfe Shinn's arrival at Grace Church in January, 1875 was upstaged by the King of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) whose private railway car stopped briefly at the Newton Corner station, to the cheers of a crowd of more than a thousand persons and a local brass band. Rev. Shinn, Rector #5, was not overshadowed for long. At this time, the "high church" v. "low church" controversy was boiling in England, Canada, and throughout America. In Grace Church, the "low church" majority had made Rector #4 Jenckes uncomfortable enough to resign during his second year, yet Jenckes had had his supporters.

Although Rev. Shinn arrived in this time of turmoil, the Vestry had chosen the right person to calm and unite the congregation. Shinn got the mortgage paid off, and the church building enlarged. The premier preacher of that generation, Phillips Brooks, often preached at Grace, as he was Shinn's close friend and mentor. Not becoming "partisan" (not favoring either high or low church), helping the poor, and reaching out to youth and to the needs of the community continued to be Shinn's hallmarks.

In addition to his Newton-wide activities described in a previous History Minute, Shinn quickly organized Grace Church into work parties which he called "Chapters" or "Guilds". If parishioners were busy doing good works, they would have little time or need for petty squabbles, Shinn reasoned. Before long the Primary Department of the Sunday School had 131 "scholars". The Helping Hand Society did sewing projects, both for the poor of Grace Church and for missionary work. The Ladies Missionary Society had speakers, sewed, baked, and held fairs; later they became the Busy Bee Missionary Society (with male members)...their descendant is our "Tuesday Morning Group". The Chancel Committee (now our "Altar Guild") noted that "...if all would send in a few flowers we would be able to fill our vases, and not be obliged to buy flowers as we did last year". The Literary and Social Society discussed serious books. The Girls Friendly Society had teas and speakers, made handicrafts, and rounded up items for the church fairs...which occurred more than once a year. The "Mothers' Meeting" averaged an attendance of 20-30, summer and winter, with a strong turnout being 50 participants: 21 mothers (for tea, a speaker, and songs with Lizzie Shinn at the piano) plus 29 children (for games) at one meeting. Mothers came from Newton, Watertown, Cambridge, Brighton, and Waltham. Shinn begged the Vestry to permit a vested choir (a choir with robes was then seen as a symbol of "high churches"); the Vestry relented but only after a decade of "no's"...resulting in a Choir Guild of 40+ men and boys. Shinn drew special pleasure from having a strong Sunday School and children's choir...in spite of the Vestryman who thundered "Children in the Chancel? NEVER!"

Yet, in the midst of this activity there was tragedy within the Shinn family. The Shinns lived in the house diagonally opposite Grace Church at the four-way stop (116 Church St. at the corner of Eldredge St.). The six children of Elizabeth and George Shinn were born prior to their arrival in Newton; sadly, four members of the family died during Rev. Shinn's tenure as our Rector. Four-year old Elsie died during the family's second year at Grace Church. Seven years after their arrival, 26-year old Lizzie (a teacher of Classics at Lasell in Auburndale as well as a substitute organist at Grace Church) passed away. In the family's 16th year at Grace, 27 year-old George Mills Shinn died; son George, a graduate of MIT, was the architect of St. Paul's chapel in Newton Highlands, a member of the Grace choir and an amateur composer.

During Rev. Shinn's 29th year at Grace Church, his wife Elizabeth passed on. Shinn never recovered from her death, retiring in ill health less than two years later. Husband, wife, and these three children are buried in the churchyard at St. Mary's, Newton Lower Falls in a plot purchased by the Grace Vestry. The Shinns are thrice remembered: Rev. George by a plaque next to the right hymn board; wife Elizabeth by a stone memorial behind the organ keyboard; and daughter Lizzie by a stained glass window across from the front left pew.

Grace Church was founded in Victorian times, when the roles of women were narrowly defined. In the 31-year tenure of Rector Shinn, were the voices of women taken seriously?...find out in the next History Minute.