A Bell Named Maurice

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Rev. Maurice Cowl

The Catholic Standard and Times reported on the elaborate October 22, 1916 ceremony for the “Christening” of our St. Francis de Sales Church tower bells named Adolph, Michael, Elizabeth, Anthony, Cecilia, Theresa, Edmond, John, Thomas, Maurice and Gervase, noting: “after each bell had been blessed it was rung by the Rev. Maurice F. Cowl…” Did Reverend Cowl register a special sense of Catholic belonging when his own named bell rang out?

The story of the bell named Maurice is a complicated Philadelphia tale, starting, surprisingly, with the  Episcopal Church – which has always had to balance tensions between those who favor a “High Church” (run by clergy with a focus on sense-oriented Catholic-style “smells and bells” incense and ritual), versus “Low Church” (with more lay administration and a more pared-down Calvinist Protestant austerity), with many gradations in between.

In the ornate late Victorian era, the more intricate “High Church” tendencies prevailed; as the century changed, the balance suddenly shifted in the opposite direction, leaving some Episcopalians behind – something like the changes in the Catholic Church, decades later, with the New Mass and Vatican II.

A rift occurred right here in Philadelphia, with “The Open Pulpit Controversy.” Simply put, compromises were made in order to move closer to other Protestant denominations, and Episcopal bishops agreed that a minister’s education and training would no longer be required in order to teach from the pulpit; any Christian man could be allowed to speak. Those with “High Church” leanings felt that inviting unqualified people to preach could open the Episcopal church to heresy. They were overruled. It was the “last straw” for some of those who wanted to keep a complex ceremony with a strong clerical structure. In 1908, a group of seven local Episcopal priests officially resigned and entered the Catholic seminary under Bishop Ryan. Reverend Maurice Cowl was among them. He was ordained as a Catholic priest on December 17, 1910.

Reverend Cowl assisted at our parish from 1910 to 1917. Our new church, with its symbol-rich medieval-guild-style stained glass, hand-carved statues, and hand-set mosaics, likely appealed to his sense of mystery and ritual, and he became “Master of Ceremonies” for various parish events. He may have had an authoritarian streak: the 1940 Parish Jubilee Book reports that “In December 1916, Reverend Maurice Cowl decided that the time was opportune to form an organization for the boys of the parish…It was decided to form a strictly military organization, to be called the “St. Francis de Sales Boys’ Battalion…” He kept busy: while Reverend Cowl assisted at de Sales, starting in January 1911, he was appointed Chaplain of St. Leonard’s Academy for girls at 38th and Chestnut (today St. Leonard’s Court at Penn), which would have given him some good walking exercise through the neighborhood!

Reverend Cowl went on to become the founding Pastor of Saint Laurence Church on Westchester Pike in Highland Park/Upper Darby, and the St. Francis de Sales Choir traveled to sing at the first Mass there on June 17. 1917. He retired, due to ill-health, in 1932, died at Misericordia Hospital in 1934, and is buried on the St. Laurence Church lawn, at the foot of a statue of the Sacred Heart. Several other de Sales priests have since gone on to serve at that church, including our eighth Pastor, Monsignor Francis Fitzmaurice.

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