Father John Nelson, Memento Mori

March 23, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

“I didn’t plan on any of this. In fact, I had a lot of other plans. But then I heard the word of God, and after that . . . your other plans become your other plans.” – Father John Nelson

 

 

In the fall of 2014, I found myself in the village of Woodstock to photograph the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount, a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located near the summit of Meads Mountain Road high above the village of Woodstock. The church, originally known as the Episcopalian Chapel of Ease, was constructed circa the mid-1890s to serve seasonal visitors at the neighboring Mead’s Mountain House and the nearby Overlook Mountain House.

 

George Mead (1834-1905), who built Mead’s Mountain House, was born at Ridgefield, Connecticut, the son of Sherwood Mead. At the young age of 15, Mead went to Newburgh to learn the silversmith business as an apprentice. After six years of learning the trade, he went to New York, then New Haven, before settling at Kingston for eight years between circa 1856 to 1864. On the recommendation of his doctor, who told him that he only had a few years to live, Mead moved to the country, buying a farm from a man named Henry Fuller on the side of Overlook Mountain.

 

Fuller had established himself at what was then known as Wide Clove around 1855, and “cleared a few acres and built a small and rough dwelling.” (Evers, 276). He would “take care of climbers’ horses and occasionally give climbers sleeping space on his floor. He did not act as a guide, however. When climbers asked him to help them keep to the rough trail up Overlook, Fuller would point in the general direction of the trail’s beginning and say, ‘Follow the plainest path.’” (Evers, 276.)

 

After purchasing Fuller’s farm, Mead would establish his popular boarding house in 1865, which was originally called the “Overlook Mountain House” (not to be confused with the Overlook Mountain House that was later constructed further up the mountain) on account of its location. In its early days it was also sometimes called the “Red House” on account of its color, or the “The Halfway House” on account of its location on the road to Overlook Mountain.

 

South View, Mead's Mountain House. Louis E. Jones. Author's collection

South View, Meads Mountain House. No number, Beautiful Woodstock SheriesSouth View, Meads Mountain House. No number, Beautiful Woodstock SeriesLouis E. Jones. Author’s collection.

Louis E. Jones was a well-regarded photographer and painter closely associated with the Catskills and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

 

Upon opening the “Overlook Mountain House” on August 8, 1865, Mead advertised that the “house is new and commodious, fronting a view of more than seventy miles. Ample stable room for horses and vehicles. Persons wishing pure mountain air and mountain scenery in matchless grandeur, will find the location of this summer resort unsurpassed. Fine trout fishing and hunting in the immediate vicinity of the house. No pains will be spared to render the visits of guests both agreeable and pleasant.” (Rondout Freeman. September 6, 1865.) The first visitor names on the hotel register were Christopher Agar and H. B. Schoonmaker.

 

The location of Mead’s Mountain House in Wide Clove was considered one of the finest in Catskills. “It is located in one of the finest notches in the south end of the Catskills, two thousand feet above the Hudson River and fifteen hundred feet above the beautiful village of Woodstock. From the broad piazzas tine views of the mountains and valleys can be had in every direction and the whole range of the Shawangunk Mountains and the Esopus and Woodstock valleys in the south, while at the north the domes of the Catskills are seen as far as they eye can reach; the house is surrounded with all the attractions of the southern Catskills; is only two miles from Cooper and Echo lakes, two miles from Woodstock village and the immediate vicinity is replete with beautiful mountain walks, fine trout streams, etc.” (Kingston Daily Freeman. April 28, 1880.)

 

In those early days, visitors came to Rondout by day boats, then transferred to stages for the rest of the journey, sometimes not reaching the house till ten or eleven o’clock at night. Mead’s Mountain House grew in popularity over the next several decades, eventually reaching a capacity for 75 people by 1897. By that time, George Mead had noticed a change in his clientele. “In those [old] days . . . people were glad to get away from railroads and were content with mail three times a week; not they want a railroad station right in front of the house, mail every hour and a telegraph within reach of the bed. He deplores the “pace” at which the present generation lives, and loves to talk of the ‘old times.’” (Ferris, R. The Catskills: An Illustrated Handbook. P. 37.)

 

Mead’s Mountain House, in addition to being a destination itself, was often used as a way stop for refreshments for travelers making their way to the summit of Overlook Mountain and as a base for fishing at Shue’s Pond (what would become known as Echo Lake). The Mountain House entertained many prominent people over the years, including General Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, as well as Jervis McEntee, Sanford R. Gifford and Frederick Church, all notable painters of the Hudson River School.

 

Three generations of the Mead family would manage Mead’s Mountain House. Upon George Mead’s death in 1905, his son William and daughter-in-law Annie continued to operate the boarding house. When William passed away in 1913, Annie worked with her daughter Genevieve and son-in law Joseph Hutty to manage the place. The Mead family sold the boarding house to 1948 to Captain Sava J. Milo (1905-1982) and his wife Danka (1913-2002), who operated the place until 1978. It was then purchased by the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery, who demolished the historic structure in 2011.

 

The Mead family were devout Episcopalians, and in response to the growing popularity of their boarding house, they built the Chapel of Ease circa 1894 so that their customers, and those of the Overlook Mountain House, did not have to travel all the way down the mountain to the village of Woodstock to attend religious services. Episcopal services were held every Sunday, with rotating ministers from the village of Woodstock or a minister who was staying at the adjacent boarding house. George Mead’s granddaughter Genevieve was married to Joseph Hutty at the chapel.

 

The church is beautifully situated at an elevation of 1,700 feet above sea level, between Mount Guardian to the west and the southwestern shoulder of Overlook Mountain to the east. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 “for its association with the seasonal tourist industry in Woodstock and the larger Catskill Mountain region during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.”

 

Chauncey Snyder, who lived in a nearby farmhouse, donated one acre of land to the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Albany to build the church. Despite this act of goodwill, several years later in 1902 Snyder would be evicted from his farm, with “tears running down his old bronzed cheeks,” by Bolton Brown as he acquired lands for the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony. (Bolton Brown. Early Days at Woodstock.) An article published in 1952 in the Kingston Daily Freeman attributed the construction of the church to William Mead (1862-1913), son of George Mead.

 

The chapel was “modestly built, constructed with a wood balloon frame above a well-laid fieldstone foundation with detailing reminiscent of the rustic aesthetic . . . the form of the chapel and the honesty of its construction and lines relate it to the parish-type model.” Furthermore, “the chapel was modestly scaled, built, and detailed, reflecting its original use as a seasonal place of worship. The choice of shingle sheathing and rustic detailing, particularly as seen on the original entrance canopy and rustic walkway, mark it as a seasonal building and effectively relate it to its immediate mountain surroundings. These elements likewise lend the building a considerable charm and romantic appeal.”

 

The chapel design was based on architectural designs of Richard Upjohn (1802-1878), who authored Upjohn’s Rural Architecture in 1852. The designs included in the book were aimed at small Episcopal congregations of modest means, and included “plans and elevations for a conveniently scaled and priced wood church and chapel.” Although the Christ-on-the-Mount Church was constructed 39 years after the book’s publication, some of Upjohn’s design elements found in the church include “its steeply pitched roof simple and unpretentious lines, self-contained form and open truss ceiling;” with “the form of the chapel and the honesty of its construction and lines [relating] it to the parish-type model.”

 

Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount
The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located high above the village of Woodstock.Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-MountWoodstock, Ulster County

The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located near the summit of Meads Mountain Road high above the village of Woodstock. The church, originally known as the Episcopalian Chapel of Ease, was constructed in 1891 to serve seasonal visitors at the neighboring Mead’s Mountain House and the nearby Overlook Mountain House.

Since 1948, with the arrival of Father William Francis (1885-1979), the church has been affiliated with the Orthodox Church of the Western Rite. During the 1960s Father Francis would gain a small degree of fame as the “hippie priest” for his kindness, understanding and service to the young people of the era. According to various sources, Father Francis also spent time with Bob Dylan (a local resident of Woodstock) in the mid 1960s, with the humble priest serving as the inspiration behind Dylan’s song Father of Night. Today the church is led by the equally charismatic Father John Nelson, who first attended Easter Sunday service with Father Francis in 1970, and now serves as a local community leader and founder of the Woodstock Council for World Peace.

The Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an “architecturally significant . . . relatively intact example of seasonal ecclesiastical architecture” and “for its association with the seasonal tourist industry in Woodstock and the larger Catskill Mountain region during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (1) The church interior is adorned with “ornate lattice and woodcarvings” (2) created by Father Francis and artwork depicting a wide range of scriptural and religious figures.

References:
(1) Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount. National Park Service, nomination form for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Washington D.C. 2004.
(2) Ibid.

 

Most sources, including the National Register of Historic Places, put the construction of the church as 1891. However, two different sources place the construction as circa 1893 or 1894. In November 1893, the Stamford Mirror wrote that “Christ Chapel, in the town of Woodstock, is to be the most elevated church in Ulster County. It is 2,000 feet above tide water, being near Mead’s Mountain House.” The use of the term “to be” implies, as of November 1893, that the church had not been constructed yet, and that its construction was therefore likely in 1894. A second source, The Churchman issue of August 4, 1894, notes that the cornerstone for the church was laid “two summers ago.” This places the beginning of construction as circa the summer of 1893.

 

This same article from The Churchman seemingly described the opening of the church in the summer of 1894. “Woodstock, At Christ Church, in the Catskill Mountains, services were held on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, July 15, and 5 children were baptized. The Rev. George W. Douglas, D. D., who was spending Sunday at Mead’s Mountain House, while on his way to the Adirondacks, conducted the services. The little church has been built mainly through the efforts of Mrs. Augusta Crabbe, of Rochester, N.Y., and the Misses Bolton, of Pelham, N.Y., who spent some time in this place three summers ago. Mr. Snyder presented an acre of ground, and since then $600 have been collected, and a simple shingled building, with rustic finish have been completed. Two summers ago, the Rev. Mr. Wattson, of Kingston, and the Rev. Charles Adams, of Rondout, directed by Archdeacon Thomas, laid the cornerstone. Among the gifts presented to the church, $50 was received from the Church Building Association, also Prayer Books and Hymnals, and an altar Prayer Book and a Bible from Miss Stewart Brown, of New York. A friend from Rochester presented a lectern and chancel chair, and Christ Church, Rochester, sent altar vases. About eighty guests are at Mead’s Mountain House from May to October, and, with the farmers and their children, they all make quite a Sunday-school and goodly congregation. Miss Elizabeth Crabbe, by her faithful visiting among the neighbors, built up a Sunday-school before the church was finished, and thus her summer holidays have laid a precious cornerstone of faith and love.”

 

No matter the specific date of construction, over the next 130 years after its founding, the church has been associated with some of the village’s most prominent residents. In 1902, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead purchased 1,200 acres of land in the village of Woodstock, including the property on which the chapel was located, in order to found the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony, now the oldest-operating arts colony in the country. In the mid-1930s, Jane Whitehead, then Ralph’s widow, invited Father William Henry Francis, Archbishop of the Old Catholic Church in America, to Woodstock to help mentor her son Peter Whitehead (1901-1975).

 

William Henry Francis was born at Nottingham, England, and immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy. The family settled at Waukegan, Illinois, on Lake Michigan, where his father established a mechanized lace-making factory. From an early age Francis had decided that he wanted to become a monk and in 1908 he joined a monastic community in Waukegan founded by Dom Augustine de Angelis Harding. Francis was ordained as a priest in 1910 by Joseph Rene Vilatte, was appointed prior of St. Dunstan’s Abbey at Waukegan in 1913, was consecrated as a bishop in the Old Catholic Church in America by Prince de Landas Berghes in 1916 and was ultimately elected Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Old Catholic Church in America in 1917. He would later in life also be known as William Henry Francis Brothers, after adding the name Brothers, his mother’s maiden name.

 

The Old Catholic Church in America, sometimes called the Western Orthodox Catholic Church, “believes in the ancient faith, as held by the undivided Catholic Church prior to the great schism of 1054 A. D.” The doctrine is essentially Catholic, but “the authority of the pope is rejected, as is also clerical celibacy. Communion is offered to the laity in both kinds and the liturgy is mainly in the vernacular. The great creeds are accepted, but the ‘filioque’ clause of the Nicene Creed is rejected. Apostolic succession as constituting the only valid ministry is insisted upon, but the typical Roman Catholic intolerance of other religious bodies is largely absent. In most other points of doctrine and practice there is agreement with the Roman position.” (Elmer T. Clark. The Small Sects in America. p. 205.) The church does not advocate compulsory confession and participation of the congregation in worship is emphasized.

 

With his new position of Archbishop of the Old Catholic Church in America, Father Francis moved around 1917 to Chicago, where he worked with the poor and disadvantaged, who were often “the uncared for, exploited immigrants working in the steel mills of the Middle-West. There in the midst of the despised “foreigners” his sympathetic understanding of their problems and his practical attempts to solve them made his mission bountiful in good works.” (Catskill Mountain Star. 1941.) In the early 1920s, Francis moved to New York City, and worked from St. Dunstan’s House on Stuyvesant Square, where he continued with his branch of the Old Catholic Church. From 1926 to 1936 Francis grew the Old Catholic Church in America from 9 to 24 parishes and from 1,888 members to 5,470 members.

 

In the early 1930s Father Francis moved to Cos Cob, Connecticut, located half-way between Greenwich and Stamford, in the hopes of establishing Saint Dunstan’s Abbey as “one of the truly great cloisters of the twentieth century.” However, the community was not successful, and Father Francis was ultimately forced to give up the 100-acre property. Around 1934 he moved to a small farmhouse at Bedford Village in New York, in the hopes that this new version of Saint Dunstan’s Abbey would become “The Mother Community of the Old Catholic Benedictines in North America.” Despite the lofty name and ambitions, this community “seldom mustered more than half a dozen monks, few of whom ever reached profession.” Francis remained at Bedford for only a couple of years.

 

With the invitation of Jane Whitehead, Father Francis moved to Woodstock in the mid-1930s, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Father Francis was often quoted as saying “I came here to convert Woodstock, but Woodstock has converted me.”

 

When Father Francis first arrived in the late 1930s at the Chapel of Ease, later renamed to the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount, it had been abandoned for 13 years, or since around 1926. As per Alf Evers, “The Overlook Mountain House, which was destroyed by fire in 1924 [should be 1923], never reached a point at which it could house fashionable church-going guests. Mead’s became somewhat less popular among churchgoers and the chapel languished. By 1931 the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Diocese of New York took it over, but did little to check the growing deterioration of the charming rustic building and its grounds or the dwindling of its congregation.

 

The Old Catholic Movement was usually on good terms with the Anglican Church and the American Protestant Episcopal Church. Yet problems developed when the chapel became the center of the Old Catholic Church in America. William Manning, bishop of New York and some said a man with a medieval mind, objected to the presence of the Old Catholics on his church’s property. Jane Whitehead bought the chapel from the board of the diocese and allowed Father Francis to remain in possession throughout the rest of his life.” (Evers, Woodstock: History of an American Town, pp. 582-583.)

 

Father Francis arrived in the summer of 1939 at the church, “which up until a few months ago seemed to be claimed only by the wilderness about it. (Kingston Daily Freeman. December 7, 1939.) Father Francis, with the help of three assistants, quickly went to work, clearing away the brush and making necessary repairs to the interior. The group, including Father Francis, Father Victor Boniface, Father Edwin and Brother Frank, lived in a house about a quarter mile down the road from the church. That house was owned by Mrs. C. Hinton, and “was known originally as the Snyder house, part of which still stands and which was one of the first two homes built in Woodstock.” (Kingston Daily Freeman. December 7, 1939.) The original intention of the group was to use the church as “nothing more than a monastic chapel,” but they quickly attracted an ever-growing attendance at Sunday services. The first service attracted 13 people, then 26 people a week later, and services soon had enough congregants that they were standing in the back of the church and even outside.

 

Since the arrival of Father Francis, the church has been affiliated with the Orthodox Church of the Western Rite. During the 1960s and 1970s Father Francis would gain a small degree of fame as the “hippie priest” for his kindness, understanding and service to the young people of the era. According to various sources, Father Francis spent time with Bob Dylan, a local resident of Woodstock in the mid-1960s, with the humble priest serving as the inspiration for Dylan’s song Father of Night. Folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was a frequent visitor at the chapel. Father Francis married famed sculptor Harvey Fite, creator of Opus 40, to Barbara Richards in 1944.

 

Father Francis lived a simple life during his time at Woodstock, once noting that “this may seem absurd but we are trying to be like the primitive Christians.” There was a small wood addition, now removed, that was added to the back of the Christ-on-the-Mount church to serve as a humble residence for Father Francis. In a 1941 profile, it was written that Father Francis did not receive a salary, but largely depended on donations of food from his flock. He did not own any property, and at the time was living in an abandoned corn crib which was given to him for free by the owner. There was no passing of a collection plate at church services, but a simple offertory box on the rear wall where donations could be made as one felt inclined. Donations at that time did not exceed $10 per week.

 

As it was then inconvenient in winter and impossible to hold year-round services at the Christ-on-the-Mount Church high up on the mountain, around 1940, Father Francis moved his church to the village of Woodstock along the Saugerties-Woodstock Road (what is now Route 212), where he converted a barn into what he would call St. Dunstan’s Church. The barn was originally constructed in the 1890s through a communal “raising bee,” where the men of the community came together to erect the structure. Under Father Francis, St. Dunstan’s Church quickly gained a small amount of popularity with both locals and tourists for its beautiful altar, wood carvings and decorative pieces, much of it handcrafted by Father Francis and his associates. When St. Dunstan’s Church was destroyed by fire in December 1945, Father Francis lost much of his worldly possessions, including the church organ, vestments, books, carvings and pictures, as well as all of his personal and household effects. Soon thereafter, Father Francis retreated to the Christ-on-the-Mount Church, where he would live and preach for the remainder of his life. Father Francis passed away on July 21, 1979.

 

On the morning of October 10, 2014, 35 years after the passing of Father Francis, I went to the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount only expecting to take some exterior shots of the building. Although churches have historically kept their doors open around the clock in order to serve the community at any time of day or night, the world has changed, and likely due to theft, vandalism, etc., most churches are now locked while not in active use. After getting my exterior shots, I walked to the front door in the secret hope that it would be open. And surprise, it was.

 

“As you step through the door,” one newspaper article noted in the 1950s, “you find you have gone back to the 15th century, for it is truly a reproduction of early times.” (Saugerties Daily Post. September 30, 1954.) The interior design of the church, including the ornate lattice and woodcarvings found at and near the altar, were constructed by Father Francis. A decorative, medieval-like rood screen with carved Gothic and floral motifs separates the worship space from the liturgical center, and was once described as being “a work of art which would be a credit to the masters of the Renaissance.” (Kingston Daily Freeman. December 7, 1939) The rood screen and the surrounding walls are decorated with paintings of historic religious figures. The floor is laid with medium-width pine plank, seemingly original, running in an east-west direction.

 

Interior, Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount
The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located high above the village of Woodstock.Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-MountWoodstock, Ulster County

The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located near the summit of Meads Mountain Road high above the village of Woodstock. The church, originally known as the Episcopalian Chapel of Ease, was constructed in 1891 to serve seasonal visitors at the neighboring Mead’s Mountain House and the nearby Overlook Mountain House.

Since 1948, with the arrival of Father William Francis (1885-1979), the church has been affiliated with the Orthodox Church of the Western Rite. During the 1960s Father Francis would gain a small degree of fame as the “hippie priest” for his kindness, understanding and service to the young people of the era. According to various sources, Father Francis also spent time with Bob Dylan (a local resident of Woodstock) in the mid 1960s, with the humble priest serving as the inspiration behind Dylan’s song Father of Night. Today the church is led by the equally charismatic Father John Nelson, who first attended Easter Sunday service with Father Francis in 1970, and now serves as a local community leader and founder of the Woodstock Council for World Peace.

The Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an “architecturally significant . . . relatively intact example of seasonal ecclesiastical architecture” and “for its association with the seasonal tourist industry in Woodstock and the larger Catskill Mountain region during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (1) The church interior is adorned with “ornate lattice and woodcarvings” (2) created by Father Francis and artwork depicting a wide range of scriptural and religious figures.

References:
(1) Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount. National Park Service, nomination form for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Washington D.C. 2004.
(2) Ibid.

The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located high above the village of Woodstock.Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-MountWoodstock, Ulster County

The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located near the summit of Meads Mountain Road high above the village of Woodstock. The church, originally known as the Episcopalian Chapel of Ease, was constructed in 1891 to serve seasonal visitors at the neighboring Mead’s Mountain House and the nearby Overlook Mountain House.

Since 1948, with the arrival of Father William Francis (1885-1979), the church has been affiliated with the Orthodox Church of the Western Rite. During the 1960s Father Francis would gain a small degree of fame as the “hippie priest” for his kindness, understanding and service to the young people of the era. According to various sources, Father Francis also spent time with Bob Dylan (a local resident of Woodstock) in the mid 1960s, with the humble priest serving as the inspiration behind Dylan’s song Father of Night. Today the church is led by the equally charismatic Father John Nelson, who first attended Easter Sunday service with Father Francis in 1970, and now serves as a local community leader and founder of the Woodstock Council for World Peace.

The Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an “architecturally significant . . . relatively intact example of seasonal ecclesiastical architecture” and “for its association with the seasonal tourist industry in Woodstock and the larger Catskill Mountain region during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (1) The church interior is adorned with “ornate lattice and woodcarvings” (2) created by Father Francis and artwork depicting a wide range of scriptural and religious figures.

References:
(1) Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount. National Park Service, nomination form for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Washington D.C. 2004.
(2) Ibid.

The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located high above the village of Woodstock.Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-MountWoodstock, Ulster County

The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is a simple, but picturesque, one-room church located near the summit of Meads Mountain Road high above the village of Woodstock. The church, originally known as the Episcopalian Chapel of Ease, was constructed in 1891 to serve seasonal visitors at the neighboring Mead’s Mountain House and the nearby Overlook Mountain House.

Since 1948, with the arrival of Father William Francis (1885-1979), the church has been affiliated with the Orthodox Church of the Western Rite. During the 1960s Father Francis would gain a small degree of fame as the “hippie priest” for his kindness, understanding and service to the young people of the era. According to various sources, Father Francis also spent time with Bob Dylan (a local resident of Woodstock) in the mid 1960s, with the humble priest serving as the inspiration behind Dylan’s song Father of Night. Today the church is led by the equally charismatic Father John Nelson, who first attended Easter Sunday service with Father Francis in 1970, and now serves as a local community leader and founder of the Woodstock Council for World Peace.

The Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an “architecturally significant . . . relatively intact example of seasonal ecclesiastical architecture” and “for its association with the seasonal tourist industry in Woodstock and the larger Catskill Mountain region during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (1) The church interior is adorned with “ornate lattice and woodcarvings” (2) created by Father Francis and artwork depicting a wide range of scriptural and religious figures.

References:
(1) Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount. National Park Service, nomination form for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Washington D.C. 2004.
(2) Ibid.

 

With the surprise of the church being open, and my additional wonder at the interior being so religiously striking and beautiful, I quickly began to photograph, focusing on the woodwork, close-ups of the religious artifacts, etc. I was inside taking photographs for about 15 minutes when I was startled by someone behind me walking through the front door. It was Father John Nelson.

 

Father Nelson and I would wind up talking for several hours. He told me a little bit about the church, and himself and asked about my photography. After some time, he then told me he wanted to show me a religious relic that was very important to him, which was located in his basic, monk-like dwelling not too far from the church building.

 

Although I do not remember some of the particulars, Father Nelson told me about the history of the relic, and how he had traveled years before to northwest US in search of the abandoned dwelling of an esteemed pastor of his church denomination who had died years before. This pastor had lived the life of solitude in a secluded monk-like environment, but had still managed to be known to others in the church. With only the most basic of information, Father Nelson searched the woods for this home for several days, but to no avail. As he was about to give up, Father Nelson found the home, perhaps with some divine intervention, and much to his happiness.

 

Although the dwelling was in relative ruins after years of abandonment, Father Nelson did find this historic religious artifact with the charcoal inscription “memento mori” arched over a skull and crossbones. The powerful Latin phrase “memento mori” can be translated to “remember death,” “remember that you have to die” or “remember that you are mortal.” Closely associated with Christianity, “memento mori” serves as a moral lesson, reminding believers to lead a meaningful and virtuous life as your time on earth is fleeting. As death is inevitable it was not something to fear, and by contemplating your own mortality it would lead you to reflect on your life and the emptiness of earthly possessions, pleasures and achievements; and lead you to focus on the afterlife and the eternal gift of God.

 

Father John Nelson, Memento Mori

Father John Nelson, pastor at the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount, is holding an historic religious artifact with the charcoal inscription “memento mori” arched over a skullFather John NelsonChurch of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount, Woodstock, Ulster County

Father John Nelson (seen here), pastor at the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount, is holding an historic religious artifact with the charcoal inscription “memento mori” arched over a skull and crossbones. The powerful Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ can be translated to “remember death”, “remember that you have to die” or “remember that you are mortal”. Closely associated with Christianity, “memento mori” serves as a moral lesson, reminding believers to lead a meaningful and virtuous life as your time on earth is fleeting. As death is inevitable it was not something to fear, and by contemplating your own mortality it would lead you to reflect on your life and the emptiness of earthly possessions, pleasures and achievements; and lead you to focus on the afterlife and the eternal gift of God.

 

Father John Nelson asked me to take a picture of him with the religious artifact, and also asked if I could send him some of the photographs of the church that I had taken. After getting home several days after taking the photographs, I processed the photos and sent him the best ones in an email. He responded to the email with much thanks. The photos were later used as part of a fundraising campaign for the church to help fund needed repairs.

 

In my photography of the Catskills, I do not take many photographs with people, and if there are people, they are usually small, often non-descript, and used only to offer a point of interest or offer a contrast in size to the surrounding landscape. That being said, this photograph of Father John Nelson continues to be one of my favorite photographs that I have ever taken in the Catskills. I fondly remember the brief time spent with the charismatic Father Nelson and the beauty of the small mountaintop church.

 

The combination of the portrait element of Father John Nelson, wearing a winter coat and hat in the chilly autumn weather, standing outside the most rustic of living quarters, while he holds an incredibly interesting religious artifact with a powerful and timeless meaning, and knowing the very personal story of how the religious artifact was obtained, provide multiple points of interest, which, when seamlessly united, seem to perfectly capture that moment in time.

 

After meeting Father Nelson that day I tried to learn a little bit more about him, who, as I found out, had led quite an interesting and varied life. John Nelson was born in 1950 in Maryland and was raised by his grandparents. He had found his way to the village of Woodstock by the late 1960s, and first attended Easter Sunday service with Father Francis in 1970. On his first visit to the mountain church, Nelson recalled, “I was immediately struck by the reverence being shown toward God, something that did not exist in typical American churches. It was something very old, and you could feel it.” (Woodstock Times. March 12, 2015.)

 

Intervening years found Nelson living in an intentional community in Stony Hollow, marrying several times, working as a woodworker and carpenter, studying the Celtic church in Ireland for several years, and ultimately studying in the early 1990s at the Western Rite Orthodox Monastery in New Jersey under the mentorship of Father Theodore, a Russian priest who had escaped the revolution. He would also lead a cover band called the Beagles, which was dedicated to the music of the Beatles and the Eagles.

 

By around 1995, Nelson would follow in the footsteps of Father Francis and personally lead the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount. While serving the church, “he built a beautiful baptistry by closing in the old pavilion, creating a sleeping area, and lived there as a monk, under simple, primitive conditions. He also worked on the church structure, rebuilding the rood screen and shoring up areas that were decaying.” (Woodstock Times. August 10, 2017.)

 

For the next 22 years until his passing, Nelson served as a prominent local community leader. He helped found the Woodstock Council for World Peace, led the Woodstock March for Peace and was instrumental in getting the church listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Father John Nelson died from liver cancer at Northern Dutchess Hospital on August 1, 2017. He is buried on the grounds of his beloved mountaintop church.

 


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