strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the
name of the Lord his God: and they shall
abide ... and this man shall be our peace."
-- Micah 5:4
A Cincinnati taxi-cab driver said to me, "Frank Nelson was sure a real man. If you had a million dollars, you got a fifteen minute funeral service; if you had twenty-five cents, you got a fifteen minute service. He was just as concerned over the family with two rooms as the one with twenty." This man had lived all his life in the Queen City, and had driven Mr. Nelson to innumerable services as far back as the days of horse-cabs, and though he was not aware of the restraint and brevity of the Prayer Book Service, he unwittingly put his finger on the very pulse of Mr. Nelson's ministry.
In all relationships with people, Frank Nelson possessed the true instinct of the pastor because he was moved by the zest and pity of human life as well as by an eager willingness to spend himself. He invariably had the right word for the occasion, and responded with a finely balanced emotion to each individual situation. His discerning sense of the human element in life's experiences was matchless. He spoke humorously when lightness and gaiety were in order, and seriously when the word of faith was needed. There is much to be learned from his approach. Called one day to a humble dwelling on Mt. Adams where a mother was hysterical because her boy had just undergone an emergency operation, Mr. Nelson tore a button from his coat before entering the room, and said in an off-hand manner, "Oh! this has just come off! Will you sew it on?"
In a surpassingly unselfish fashion he thought of himself as the head of the Christ Church family, and it mattered not at all to him whether people who needed him were on the church register or were connected only through a parish house organization. When told of someone's illness, though the patient had membership in another church yet belonged to the Men's Club for instance, he would say, "Oh! I must go to see him." The agent for an Industrial Insurance Company tells of calling in a home where the policy was about to lapse. The woman said, "I will see Mr. Nelson. Will you come back at five o'clock?" When he returned, she had the money.
In these tragic years of World War II we have learned that time is of the essence, and Frank Nelson exemplified this principle in an extraordinary manner. Through all his years of service he seemed to have a special sense of timeliness. He acted when one should act but does not always do so. He was what a minister should be yet is not always. He was there when needed, not when it suited his convenience. Immediacy again and again opened an opportunity that otherwise would have been lost and with it the possibilities for widening his circle of usefulness. An out-of-town friend telegraphed requesting Mr. Nelson to call on a certain man in a hospital, a stranger to Mr. Nelson, and he went at once. On another occasion a new member of the choir who had been in Cincinnati only a few weeks was suddenly taken ill. The doctors at the hospital were some time in deciding to operate, and called the girl's roommate. Although not knowing Mr. Nelson, she phoned him of her friend's serious condition, and he went immediately to her bedside. Though the operation was not until midnight, he stayed with her through the hours of waiting, joked to keep up her courage, and saw her through the ordeal and was there when she came out of the anesthetic. It turned out that the young lady was the daughter of a Methodist Bishop, and one can imagine her parents' gratitude when they learned over the phone that Mr. Nelson was with her. It was the sort of thing he loved to do, and people could not say enough of his help during such times of stress. There was a peculiar radiancy to his ministry which issued from this alacrity, the special glow that surrounds all lives that are nobly unselfish. He never spared himself, not even in his later years when illness had laid its relentless hand upon him who had always been robust and free of physical infirmities.
In a parish as diverse as that of Christ Church, there were unnumbered happenings of a tragic-comic nature, and they all bespoke his special place in the hearts of his people. Howard Bacon was once closeted in the parish house office on a certain winter's night with a man who became definitely and increasingly insane. Greatly alarmed, he succeeded in locating Mr. Nelson, who arrived in evening clothes; together they got the man into a car and drove him out to the distant suburb of College Hill. On the way they were stalled by a flat tire, and Mr. Nelson insisted on Mr. Bacon's staying in the car while he himself put on the spare. In the midst of all this, the poor man's mind apparently cleared briefly for he asked, "Do all great men come way out here to do things like this?" In another instance a choir soloist developed melancholia and refused to eat, and Mr. Nelson often fed her because she would eat for him. Nothing was too trivial to be encompassed by his great heart. Everyone, and sometimes it appeared as if everything, that was clothed with any need was his responsibility and called out his limitless sympathy. A friend jested that even the dog fights required his presence and the remark seemed to carry a kernel of truth! Once he prayed with a poor, broken-hearted woman who had lost her dearest possession, a pet canary bird, and again he sat down and talked as one sportsman to another with a friend who had lost a polo game. To this clergyman these were the peculiar privileges of his position, and never duties. Parents, with a true instinct for loving a man who was really good, wanted him to baptize their children, for in laying his hand upon the infant he was also laying his hand upon their hearts, and this act was the genuine blessing of a father-in-God, the shepherd calling his own by name.
There came to me the following letter from a parishioner whose first child lived only a few hours:
The one thing I wanted to do was to receive the Holy Communion. My husband called the Parish House and left word. We expected his assistant or possibly the deaconess, and you can imagine how honored and comforted we felt when Mr. Nelson came himself. It was indeed comforting to know that such a busy person could take time for one of the most humble of his church. We shall never forget the talk we had with him in the hospital before receiving the Holy Communion. He asked all about our little boy, and told us always to speak of him by name and think of him alive with the Father. Mr. Nelson told us of a baby sister of his who died, and how he felt about her. He said he always visited that tiny grave when he went home. He really stands in our hearts.
The strength of the Lord dwelt in his heart else he never could have given himself so indefatigably to the demands of a great city parish. There were no barriers of access to him. Until 1919 he did not have a private secretary, preferring to answer personally all his mail in long hand, and the only times he allowed himself to be out of reach of the telephone were during Holy Week and possibly on Saturdays. Everyone who came to the office was able to see him without any formality. I remember showing him an article in a church paper on the misuse of the title "Reverend," and suggesting that it might be well to print it in the Sunday leaflet. He was amused and only said, "What does it matter what we are called as long as they call us." This intense desire to give of himself lay back of his disappointment when friends and parishioners failed to communicate with him because they hesitated to trouble so busy a man. Former Mayor Russell Wilson remarked that "Frank Nelson was the spiritual advisor to many men whom you would not think of as having spiritual advisors." The downright sincerity of the man and his "at-homeness" with human beings of all kinds made it natural for men to talk with him.
There was, however, more in his personality than mere sociability and a genial manner, because an indefinable power or strength went forth from him. It was in his ministry to the sick that people felt especially a certain grace in his faith. He carried about with him "the medicine of a merry heart," and patients wanted to see him. He was a door through which a person passed to a deeper consciousness of the mystery and greatness of life and the infinities which brood over it. Therefore, his ministry to the sick commended itself to an unusual degree. One of the leading surgeons of Cincinnati, Dr. J. Louis Ransohoff, declared it his firm conviction that Frank Nelson gave a patient a double chance. Few ministers are welcomed by the medical profession in as intimate a role as this pastor took upon himself. Well known in Cincinnati is the story of his entering a Roman Catholic Hospital to be greeted by the Mother Superior with a hearty "Good-morning, Father Nelson," and the Jewish surgeon, "Good-morning, Rabbi Nelson," while the parishioner-patient said, "Good-morning, Mr. Nelson." His presence calmed panic-stricken patients, and if he had sought to carry further along this line, there are those who felt that he could easily have established a clinic or healing class. Of no end are those who maintained that they could not have undergone an operation without his standing beside them. Because he cared he often came out haggard and worn. Such incidents are revealing examples of the acceptance on the part of a large portion of the entire city of the ministry of one who was utterly sincere, utterly genuine. Those who follow the same calling must with pride point to him as superbly a man of God.
Frank Nelson was held in the highest respect by the medical profession because physicians generally felt, in the words of Dr. Ransohoff, that "his life had a spiritual significance; there was no cant, only humility." Sometimes he walked to the operating room beside a fearful patient, and one man later said, "Something came through him to me. The fear was gone." He often went with parishioners to a doctor's office, and sent hundreds of others giving them an infinite amount of time and thought. Because of Frank Nelson the name "Christ Church" was an open sesame for all the little-known workers and assistants on the staff of the church. For these countless favors he frequently expressed publicly his gratitude saying, "We very often have need of the help of lawyers, doctors and nurses. And we never appeal in vain. Without thought of any return the doctors and lawyers of the city, the hospitals, and the Visiting Nurses' Association give us quick response of their very best."
Those who worked with him have unforgettable memories of the way in which he visited the poorest tenements, always with the same courtesy and unconsciousness of environment that he showed to wealthy parishioners. Whether East Hill or Mt. Adams they were his people, and each received the kind of attention, the friendship, the grave dignity and consideration that each most wanted. When it was a Communion Service for the sick in a poor section of the city, he had a deeply sympathetic approach. Usually he himself would clear a little table in the dingy room, and when he had placed the fair linen and the silver vessels where the sick person could watch him and had donned his vestments, the place was transformed. As he commenced the beautiful liturgy, read only as the Rector could read it, there was in the humble room a Presence for which he was the channel.
In his reading of the Burial Office, there was a play of light and shade upon this man of God who, like Moses, "wist not that his face shone." The majestic notes of faith and assurance which reverberate in the words of this service were, on his lips and in his sympathetic and superb reading, like the overtones and rich harmonies of an organ. There was no formalism nor coldness, no hesitancy to plumb the stark reality of the occasion, but only the vibrant convictions of his own great faith in the goodness of God. Few can fail to recall the clarity and feeling with which he read St. Paul's immortal passage in 1st Corinthians, nor ever forget the prayer he invariably used in this service, "We seem to give him back to Thee, dear God."
Frank Nelson made Christ Church known throughout the city, and on occasions of trouble and stress, as just mentioned, people other than those in his flock turned to him naturally and wistfully. Their desires were not always consistent with the customs of the Episcopal Church. In one such instance a widow requested a eulogy, but Mr. Nelson told her that it was not the procedure of his church and, furthermore, he would not know what to say. Not abashed in the slightest, she replied, "Oh, that doesn't matter. Just give the address you made at the Mabley-Carew Department Store dinner!" However, he did read a poem, and in trying to express her sincere appreciation the widow somewhat astounded him by saying, "Why, that was enough to make Bob stand up in his coffin."
He knew what was in the human heart, and realized the craving for understanding in times of despair and sorrow. Somehow he managed to do and say the right thing. At one time the mother of a parishioner had died in a distant state, and when the family arrived in Cincinnati, he was at the railroad station at seven o'clock in the morning to meet them and accompanied the coffin from the baggage car to the hearse. So simple an act bespeaks the innate dignity and simplicity of the man. It was his custom at the cemetery to walk with the chief mourner, and by such little kindnesses and numberless other courtesies he endeared himself to each generation in his long ministry. A parishioner whose mother died late one Good Friday evening remembers that despite the heavy tax of the day Mr. Nelson came to her house shortly before ten o'clock, and, though no lights were on, rang the bell, calling, "I want to talk with you." By his coming, a sleepless night was shorn of its dread and vastness, and confidence and serenity took their place. At another time when a family received the fearful word from Washington that a son had been killed in the Argonne, Mr. Nelson though confined to his bed with illness went at once to call in the home. On the day of the funeral, before going to the church, he read the identical service in that suburban home for the invalid mother. As many people in Boston have said that until Phillips Brooks came to them in their sorrow they never knew what Isaiah meant in his words, "And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from rain," so Christ Church people found in Frank Nelson a stronghold in time of trouble.
There are many incidents that illustrate the ideals of this incomparable pastor. For instance, the Council of Churches had two social workers in the Juvenile Court, one of whom was a parishioner, young and beautiful. Mr. Nelson did not really want her to do such work, but her parents thought her trained and equipped for it. In his solicitude he went to the Executive Secretary and asked, "Do you have staff meetings? I want you to have her there in your office. Give her the knowledge that she is dealing with the abnormal, and that not all life is perversion." The welfare of each individual in his church was his personal concern.
He exercised this same solicitude for us young clergymen, some fourteen in number, who were his assistants and to whom he gave a tutelage and friendship that continued long after our apprenticeship was ended. He was an exacting teacher and beyond us, but like all others who labored in his parish, we felt a special joy and pride in working under him. It was a tremendous strain to keep up with him, and his own daily stint of work often put us to shame; in the fullness of his powers he made as many as thirty calls a week. One was never through, one could never do enough, and when tempted to let down, there was felt, even when not heard, that imperious voice, "Go on! Don't be easy on yourself." His own shepherding exemplified his belief that in the ministry honor for one's self is nothing, humanity everything. No task, even scrubbing floors, was too menial or too hard to be beneath the position of him who is God's servant. When the problems and the pressure of work in such a large institution weighed upon us, and their full scope inevitably was revealed at staff meetings, it was then as we were on our knees that his informal, absolutely real prayers lifted and strengthened us. Yes, on some rare occasions in his tower study we were on the Mount and gained fleeting glimpses of the City of God.
It was difficult at times for those of lesser faith not to be appalled by the awful waste and stupidity of human life such as any great city unbares. But the Rector used the many instances to illustrate the requirements of wide sympathy, and to teach us to reverence the qualities of personality even when we could not fathom the reasons for apparent foolishness. He would say things like this: "Never forget that the development of our free will is what God wants. Love may make mistakes, but they are not failures. There are times when one's own life is of very little importance compared with the need for sacrifice." The assistants, the deaconesses, and parish visitors had, in addition to a training in modern social methods, the supreme advantage of religious direction. His guidance issued from his own example and experience.
Deaconess Margaret Lloyd writes:
It seemed in those early years as though all our parish poor lived on the top floors of tenements, and I often thought that climbing the famous penitents' stairway in Rome would have been an easy climb compared with the ascent of Mt. Adams! It was climbed almost daily by some member of the staff, and very frequently by the Rector. It was not only the climb, but the drab, dreary houses of the period. For those were the days of heavy, soft coal smoke, of a yellow, unpurified water supply, and a lack of adequate housing or health laws. The consequences were that a large parish like ours always had typhoid or T. B. folk needing material help as well as sympathy and compassion. The annals of such a parish always contain numberless "human interest stories." There was a very large family which never was able to provide shoes or to have quite enough clothing for six children. We suspected that, despite all efforts, sufficient food was lacking, and especially at those times when the head of the family was on one of his happy-go-lucky sprees. Everyone on the staff felt a sense of relief when this bibulous father died for there was enough insurance money not only to bury him, but to leave funds to tide the family over the next few months, and until the mother and her two eldest children had found jobs. Imagine our feelings when, in less than two weeks after the funeral, the widow appeared at the parish house! She had come to ask Christ Church for a little help until she had work. "But what has become of your insurance money, surely you have not used it all up so soon?" "Oh! yes we have, deaconess! You see we always craved gold band rings for the children, and I always doted on having a pink enamel bed." It was really true! The bed that they had longed for stood in their shabby front room, pink enamel, gold curlicue trimmings and all! Its enormous expanse was covered with tawdry silk pillows and silk spread, and it stood out, the one glorious object in the whole tenement. Also the children with the utmost pride showed their gold band rings which according to the custom of those days each wore on the "wedding finger"; even the five year old displayed his golden trophy. Mr. Nelson did his best to modify the protests of his outraged staff. Finally we did see at least something of his point of view, that to the family these symbols of respectability meant what a Persian rug would have meant in a more sophisticated family. For these friends of ours had "arrived," socially speaking, via the pink enamel bed, and their admiring neighbors could never again refer to them as "poor white trash." It takes a long, long time to change ideas, but the Rector's respect for human personality (foolishness and stupidity notwithstanding) and his method of patience, tact, and a sense of humor did change many of us. And a controlled sense of humor has a marvelous effect at times. There was the instance when the Rector went to conduct a funeral service on Mt. Adams. It was a very hot day, the little rooms were crowded, and family and neighbors were close to the coffin. Mr. Nelson put on his vestments in the stuffy kitchen. He had begun the majestic words of the service when there strolled into the room the small boy of the family nonchalantly carrying a very large slice of watermelon! He found a spot on the floor at the foot of the coffin, and proceeded to eat the juicy treat. The Rector continued with the service, and the mourners gave him absorbed attention until the last prayer. No incongruity could possibly change the beauty and dignity of that service as conducted by our Rector.
Frank Nelson was shepherd to all. To be sure, there were complaints that he did not call in every home, and to some who did not have the opportunity to experience at first-hand his sympathy and concern, he seemed aloof. But when a need arose he met it; and as years were added to years he won the confidence of all types of people. To the rich he said, "Your money is the smallest gift you can offer. Yes, Christ Church needs money, but it needs you yourself far more." He said to the poor, "You are splendid in the way you are helping us. The parish could not get along without such workers as you. Keep it up!" In the warm climate of his enthusiasm and appreciation, young and old, rich and poor discovered within themselves an undreamed-of capacity to respond to his faith and to his demands for service. In turn he was generous in gratitude. At the time of his twenty-fifth anniversary he wrote the following acknowledgment to a parishioner who had written to him of all that Christ Church and his ministry meant:
Thank you indeed, and thank you still more for these seventeen years of most extraordinary service, and personal loyalty and friendship. I can never tell you how much I have appreciated them, and do appreciate them. I know I have made life harder for you -- both in the work I have put on you -- and by the way I have often left you to carry the burden unaided. But I know too that the Spirit has carried you on and filled you with new visions and powers of life. And that makes all the rest worth while. I am so glad that you are coming up to us at Cranberry. I know you will love its loveliness, and in its quiet and the sweep of sea and sky, you will find refreshment and renewed strength. And then we can talk not of plans and work, but what lies beneath them, faith and God and the abundant life.
As his forty years' ministry came to a close, there was throughout the entire city a growing crescendo of acclaim, which found fervent expression in words like these: "He was our best friend for years." Deeper than the affection which drew forth such recognition was his profound faith in the Father-God of all mankind. It was Frank Nelson's limitless trust in his Heavenly Father that gave him his strength and influence. Many an evening on his way home he went into his church or chapel to pray, and lay before God the problems and griefs of his people which he carried in his great heart.
"Therefore to thee it was given
 Rugby Chapel by Matthew Arnold. Macmillan Co. Used by permission.