John Ellsworth Morgan entered my life when I was a child. In 1953 he was called to our family church, Union Congregational in Wollaston, Massachusetts as its pastor. Years later, I came to know him more intimately as my father-in-law. I commit these facts and thoughts to “digital paper” so my children, grandchildren and future generations can learn about, remember and appreciate this man.
Source material consists of archival information from the churches he served; public library databases; newspaper reports and articles; personal papers; sermons; correspondence; family photographs and my personal recollections.
Of Welsh ancestry, John was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on May 29, 1906, the son of James and Mary Elizabeth Howell Morgan. He had four siblings: Howell, Thelma, Ethel and William. Howell died at age six when John was three and Thelma just one. Ethel and William were born a few years later. This left John the eldest of the four children. He would remain the “older brother” the others would look to for help and guidance the rest of their lives.
His love of the church began early in life under the influence of his devoted and devout maternal grandmother. In his formative years, she encouraged him to become a minister.
After high school, upon completion of a business course at the Powell School of Business, he was employed by the Scranton Life Insurance Company.
He kept a lifelong relationship with his family church, Jones Memorial Church in Scranton and especially his boyhood pastor, Rev. Enoch Hughes.
On May 30, 1964 in eulogizing Mr. Hughes, it was very clear that this man had an extremely strong influence on young John – and continued to do so for the rest of their lives:
“When Mr. and Mrs. Hughes came to this country from Wales, their native land, it was to my home church in Scranton, Pennsylvania they came, and for seven years continued in a happy and fruitful ministry in that parish. I was then only a young boy in my early teens – and looking back on those early associations with Mr. Hughes, I am sure that my preparation for the ministry was begun then and there.”
Alice Jones Welker was born January 6, 1908 to John Jacob Welker, Sr and Alice Atkins Jones Welker in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 1929 she was working at the Miners’ National Bank in Scranton.
On the weekend of August 17-18, 1929 John met Alice for the first time at a church conference at the YMCA camp in Blakeslee, Pennsylvania. John was so taken with Alice that on Monday evening, August 19 he penned a letter to her. In it, he wrote:
“I hope you will not think it unkind of me or even imposing to inflict this letter upon you, especially if you dislike reading letters as I dislike writing them (with some exceptions!). There are some folks with whom we rather like to correspond – but writing is such a burden. Then there are others with whom we consider it a real privilege to form a friendship and then sustain it by means of letter-writing and in this case what seems like a task on certain occasions becomes a pleasure……
….If you feel disposed to answer this letter, and I hope you will, I shall feel deeply flattered. If not, I shall still feel flattered in having had the privilege of meeting you….”
She did respond and there were many letters between them after that first one! Thus began the long relationship between John and Alice.
SEMINARY and INTERNSHIPS (1929-1937)
Four weeks after meeting Alice, John began his studies at the Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine. Founded in 1814 in the Congregational tradition, it was the only accredited graduate school of religion in northern New England.
There’s approximately 600 miles between Scranton/Kingston/Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and Bangor, Maine. In those days, not many had automobiles and there were no interstate highways on which to zip along. Most folks relied on train and/or bus as their main means of long distance transportation. There was no running back home for quick weekend visits! To keep the relationship going for the nine years, there were frequent letters; infrequent phone calls; rare visits home and, more rarely, Alice would travel to Maine. This would have to suffice. After being apart for three years, I sense Alice was growing a bit anxious about it; weary of it. On January 5, 1932 John writes how they should view the separation in a positive light….
“…..As we have said before – many times – these long months of absence from each other doesn’t make us happy, but surely we’re not going to admit of self pity thinking all the while that of all people we are the most unfortunate. Certainly not!! These years must be made to count substantially toward the years ahead of us. May we not call them “days of preparation”? ….I sometimes shudder at the possibility of a weak, or maimed and un-effective ministry. For myself I crave a growing passion for the work and for you, with me, I crave the same thing. How helpless I’d be in the venture alone. ….I’m confident of a sympathetic and an understanding bearing in you. Surely you harbor the same toward me.”
During his eight years in Maine, John had a two-year student-intern assistantship at All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor, under the wise and friendly guidance of the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Moore. He also served a two-year student pastorate at the First Christian Church in Corinna, Maine.
An article in the Scranton Times in 1933 announced his successful completion of the four-year course of study at the Bangor Theological Seminary. It further states that in the fall “Mr. Morgan expects to enter the University of Maine where he will continue his study for the ministry“.
John would be saddened to know that In 2005 the trustees voted to shutter the Bangor Theological Seminary’s 10-acre downtown campus to move to nearby Husson College; then in 2013, citing the nationwide downturn in seminary enrollment, Bangor Theological Seminary closed its doors. This ended a 200-year history of serving churches in northern New England and beyond.
Years later, the Morgan family – John, Alice, Joanna and Rebecca – frequently spent their summer vacations in the coastal towns of Maine. Much to their chagrin, the girls knew that some part of their time in Maine would be spent scavenging in the many antique shops found in that part of the country. Over the years, John and Alice accumulated many choice pieces and John often gave talks to various groups about portions of their collection.
FIRST CHURCH and ORDINATION (1937-1945)
After waiting several months for a permanent position, he received the call to become the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Boylston, Massachusetts. In a letter to Alice postmarked February 20, 1937 he wrote:
“….The action of the Boylston people was taken at the parish meeting last Wednesday evening [February 17]. Mr. B. called me…around 10:30 telling me the news, emphasizing that the decision was unanimous and that they were eager for me to know about it. ….you and I must do some talking with each other. So, please have your notebook ready with suggestions and ideas and resolutions, etc., etc. …I’m awfully pleased about the prospects for us, honey, and I believe you are too.”
John’s intention was to be in place in Boylston for Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937. I could find no evidence that he met that deadline, but can only assume that he did. Note how he urges Alice have her “notebook ready”. This was the start of long partnership – she, right alongside him for this adventure! And that’s how it was for the rest of their lives.
John’s Ordination To The Christian Ministry and Installation In The Office of Minister took place May 27, 1937 at 7:30 p.m at the Boylston Church. John’s mentors, Rev. Hughes and Rev. Dr. Moore, were there to support him and to take part in this joyous ceremony. I’m sure Alice must have been in the front pew! An article in the Scranton Times on that day noted:
“With members of his family and other relatives and friends present, Rev. John E. Morgan, formerly of North Scranton, son of Mr. and Mrs. James Morgan….was ordained in the Christian ministry and installed as pastor… …This delightful colonial church, situated on the village green of a typical New England town, formed a fine background for the impressive ceremony.”
After a nine-year courtship, John and Alice were married in the Kingston, Pennsylvania Presbyterian Church at 3:30 p.m. on October 12, 1938. Again, assisting in this service, was Rev. Enoch Hughes. The Scranton Times reported that, “after a wedding motor trip to Williamsburg and through Virginia, the couple will settle into the Boylston parsonage on Scar Hill Road.“
On August 4, 1942 the proud parents welcomed their first child, Joanna Marie.
The archives of the Boylston church contain the following:
“The new minister found a relatively new church building and an accompanying mortgage which had to be paid. He was greatly admired as a preacher, delivering his sermons in a clear voice and with excellent diction. He was fearless in defending and speaking out when principles were threatened or brought into question.
Mr. Morgan’s pastorate covered the most turbulent historical period – World War II. As the world shuttered under the heel of Fascism and millions of people perished in the greatest conflict of all time, Boylston’s shepherd stood as the symbol of the church’s spiritual strength. He helped to guide his flock through the trials of war: the death of three Boylston men, the wounding of countless others, and the agony of those who became prisoners of war. He led his congregation in prayer for all those serving their country, gave solace to the families of the slain and hope to all whose sons and daughters were serving in Europe and the Pacific. The man was most definitely up to the challenge!
John Morgan possessed a kind and earnest character. He was hardworking, good natured, always concerned with the welfare of his flock which he kept uppermost in his thoughts and actions. He was justifiably proud of the lovely sanctuary and the resonant Flagg Memorial organ and when he left Boylston, the burdensome mortgage had been paid off – an accomplishment which gave him great satisfaction.
On the occasion of the Boylston church’s 200th anniversary in 1943, Rev. Morgan published an Historical Review, in which he chronicled the two centuries of that institution’s past accomplishments. The theme of the sermons which formed the basis for this book was “The Vanished Past and the Expected Future”. It is an admirable account of the time between the church’s foundation in 1743 and 1943. The author was faithful to the historical records then available to him and his presentation showed the extent of his deep attachment to his first parish. It is now counted among the major research sources for the history of the Boylston church.”
UNION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH. East Walpole, Massachusetts (1945-1953)
After serving eight years at his first church, John was approached by the Union Congregational Church of East Walpole to become a candidate to replace their retiring pastor. In the spring of 1945 Alice was in Pennsylvania visiting family. As evidence of that continuing partnership between the two them, on May 24, John wrote:
“….M.L., East Walpole, telephoned this a.m. He says another contingent of their committee would like to come to the service this next Sunday and he was calling to find out if it was OK. Of course, I said yes. ….There were no indications as to how things stand in the committee deliberations – and, of course, I made no inquiries. ….I wish you were here – because I know committees are interested in meeting the parson’s wife—and this parson is always interested in your reactions and appraisal of the committee.”
The committee must have liked what they saw and heard, as the Scranton Times reported that John presented his resignation to the Boylston church on July 15, 1945, effective September 15.
When their second child was born on May 9, 1948, John and Alice named her Rebecca Blakeslee to commemorate that long ago weekend in the summer of 1929.
UNION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH. Wollaston, Massachusetts (1953-1964)
The archives of the Thomas Crane Public Library of Quincy, Massachusetts contain the following notes…
“The Union Congregational Church of Wollaston Park was organized in 1897 and its first church building was on Rawson Road as near the dividing line between Wollaston and Norfolk Downs as available in order to serve the two communities. A new church was deemed necessary by 1911 and it was decided to move the location to Rawson Road at Hamilton and Beach Streets. Although the Quincy Patriot Ledger of January 7, 1937, states the new church was designed and built by Pastor William B. Ayers, he was at least guided by Boston architect James H. Ritchie.”
It was a summer day when word spread through the church community that Rev. Ayers, the church’s pastor for over four decades, had passed away. Hard news to take for many people; but, for a lad of just eleven, I remember being more curious as to who could possibly replace him.
John received the call to become that replacement. He had been a mere 3-year-old when Rev. Ayers had become pastor of the church! It could not have been an easy assignment for him to fill the void left by the only pastor the parishioners had ever known! I only learned much later about some of the early resistance he encountered.
My sister’s wedding on March 27, 1954 was the first at which John officiated in his new church.
During my teen years, I had a good circle of friends and participated in many activities – most associated with the church. It was there, Joanna and I met: friends through our teen years; more than that, later!
During his tenure at the Wollaston church, John found and mentored a young Harvard Divinity scholar: Dwight B. MacCormack. Much like John’s mentors, Enoch Hughes and Charles Moore had done for John years ago, he took Dwight under his wing. Dwight became the youth pastor – not much older than us youngsters, we easily formed a bond. He also very much enjoyed Alice’s cooking, especially her Sunday dinners! Dwight was ordained at the Wollaston church in 1960.
Dwight went on to become Dean of Students at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts. In 1973, he and a business partner opened Seacrest Manor in Rockport, Massachusetts. For thirty years, they dedicated themselves to providing an atmosphere that was “decidedly small, intentionally quiet.” John and Alice were guests at Seacrest Manor several times.
In 2004, Dwight retired to his treasured “Peaceful Pines” in Raymond, Maine and passed away there April 14, 2012.
On January 10, 2006, in a note to Joanna, he wrote:
“I thought you would like to have this photo [below] which I have had enlarged. It was taken at the Inn years ago – too long ago! ….Your parents were very special to me – tolerated much while I was a student and I know that my choice of a future career was a great disappointment for them. ….I have a minor heart problem but a great doctor. Bailey continues to be that “heartbeat at my feet” – always need a dog in my life.”
It was from here that Joanna graduated from high school; attended Chandler School for Women in Boston [closed in 1979] then went to work for a law firm in Boston.
In December 1963, I returned home from a two-year assignment with the US Air Force in Spain. After church on my first Sunday back, I ran into Joanna and a few other long-time friends. Long story, short version: Joanna and I were immediately attracted to each other! My next assignment took me to Michigan – so, for the most part, it was as a long-distance courtship. I approached John in the spring of 1964 asking his permission to marry. He gave it, as Joanna and her mother eavesdropped from the kitchen! Our wedding would be held at John’s next church.
PILGRIM CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, Sherborn, Massachusetts (1964-1972)
As described today on the official website of the town of Sherborn:
“Sherborn is a small semi-rural community located about 18 miles southwest of Boston. Settled in 1652 and incorporated in 1674, the town is proud of its rural heritage. This heritage is still evident in active farms and orchards, winding tree-lined roads and preserved in Town Forest and other extensive public lands. ….Open space comprises more than 50% of the town’s area. Because all properties have individual wells and septic systems, minimum house lot sizes are one, two or three acres, depending upon location.”
Sherborn is an affluent town which ranked #1 in the state for median income per household in 2009. It was, and remains, a typical, upscale, bucolic New England small town. And that’s pretty much how Alice and John found it when he was called to become pastor of Sherborn’s Pilgrim Congregational Church in 1964.
On April 24, 1965 Joanna and I were married here. Her father walked her down the aisle, gave away the bride and then officiated at the ceremony! Our childhood youth pastor, Dwight, assisted. Upon returning from our honeymoon, we learned the Air Force would be sending me, without Joanna, from Michigan to the Philippines later that year! We made our way to Michigan to spend a few months together before I headed to the new assignment and Joanna returned to Sherborn. While separated, we learned we were to be parents! Robert and I first laid eyes on each other when he was six months old! I’ll be forever grateful to John and Alice for taking such good care of Joanna and Robert during my 15-month absence!
Rebecca (Beck) graduated from high school here and then attended Green Mountain College in Vermont. It was in Sherborn/Dover that she met her future husband.
In 1972, I sense John was looking for something with a bit slower pace when the call for his next and final pastorate came.
FEDERATED CHURCH, Charlton, Massachusetts (1972-1978)
Another quaint New England town – Charlton was much larger than Sherborn, but the Federated Church building and the congregation were smaller.
It was a slower pace, but John was kept busy tending his flock. In addition to his service at Federated, he was also the chaplain for the Masonic Home in Charlton.
On Sunday, May 22, 1977 a “Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving” was held to recognize the 40th anniversary of John’s ordination. The sermon that morning was titled “After Forty Years in the Ministry”. Although we have copies of a number of his sermons, I’ve not found that one. It would be very interesting to have his insight on what the years taught him! The service included the hymn “God of the Prophets”, which had been the Ordination Hymn in Boylson those many years ago. A reception was held that afternoon in the church parlor, to which parishioners from previous churches had also been invited.
The Southbridge Evening News published an article that day about John’s forty years in the ministry. In it, he’s quoted:
“….There never was a time when I didn’t know what I would be. I always wanted to work in the context of the church. And I hoped to someday be a minister. I would say preaching is my chief interest and main concern. I try to keep my sermons biblically oriented with an emphatic appeal to current needs and collective problems. The Bible is our guidebook.”
“….I think the Bible in the hands of a liberal-minded person can, after a while, be very disillusioning. A better approach is to read with the Bible in one hand and a reliable history book in the other, accompanied by common sense.”
Speaking about equality of the sexes, he said: “St. Paul said there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. From the standpoint of this church, women are accorded equal privileges at every level of our organizational life.”
John retired from the ministry in September 1978. In the photo below, which appeared in the Southbridge Evening News, John and Alice receive a plaque of appreciation from the Moderator of the Federated Church during a farewell reception.
After 40+ years and five full-time church ministries, John and Alice retired to a condominium in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Having lived in parsonages at each of the churches, this was the first property they ever owned. In a letter to Joanna on April 12, 1978, Alice described, with some humor, their proposed new home:
“Last Sunday, after a hospital call in Worcester, we went out to an apt/condo complex in Shrewsbury – a large complex but spaced and placed so that it is deceiving as to the size. ….When I walked into the condominium, I immediately felt that I’d love to live in such an attractive place. ….The condo has two bedrooms & two full baths, your father says I can keep potatoes and onions in one tub the way [a family friend] does!”
Not until I recently studied a map, did I realize Boylston and Shrewsbury are adjacent towns. In retirement, I believe John and Alice wanted to remain close their first church!
Even though he was technically “retired”, John served the Trinity Church in Northborough, Massachusetts in a part-time capacity.
A few months before John’s retirement, our family headed to Italy for my final assignment in the Air Force. Alice and John came to visit us there in May, 1980. They had an absolutely wonderful time! We took them to the ruins of Pompeii and they were eager to walk at least part way up the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius! Joanna and her parents visited Rome where her dad, with his interest in biblical history, was particularly eager to see the Christian catacombs. We toured the island of Capri, including a trip to the blue grotto and a winding bus ride up to Anacapri. John was fascinated with Italian Lira, almost looking on it as “play money”. While on Capri, a gust of wind caught a wad of cash he was holding sending it swirling into the street – as we scrambled to retrieve it, we all had a good laugh! Of course, we delighted in taking them to several of our favorite restaurants. One day we visited our favorite ceramic studio. They couldn’t help themselves and bought several pieces. Thinking he’d probably spent more than he should, getting into the car John said, “Let’s get the hell outta here, Bob!” On another shopping adventure he was surprised to see Mother’s Day was also celebrated in Italy. Noticing signs in the store windows reading “Festa della Mamma!”, he repeated it frequently – laughing each time. He was pleased he had learned his first Italian phrase!
Through friends of ours, John had been invited to deliver the sermon at the Mother’s Day church services at the US Navy Chapel in Naples. He was very pleased to have that opportunity and managed to insert his recently learned phrase into his sermon: Festa della Mamma!
Nine days after taking part in the Mother’s Day church service, John was admitted to the US Naval Regional Medical Center in Naples, diagnosed with a spontaneous esophageal rupture. Despite the heroic efforts of his medical team, John died on Saturday, May 31, 1980.
A Service of Thanksgiving to honor his memory was held at Trinity Church on June 8, 1980. He was buried at the West Ridge Cemetery located near the Federated Church in Charlton, Massachusetts.
Over the next twenty years, Alice moved from her condominium to an independent living community in Westborough, Massachusetts and finally, as she fell under the cloud of Alzheimer’s, to an assisted living facility near us in Tampa. In a note to Alice’s friends in December 2000, Joanna wrote:
“I want to let the friends of my mother, Alice W. Morgan, know that she died peacefully early in the morning of October 26, 2000. ….She’d received loving care and was a favorite of all those who helped her, – the ready wit and her way with words always seemed to leave their mark!
“Our family gathered in Charlton, Massachusetts for a graveside service on November 4th, led by our family friend, Dwight B. MacCormack. Although she’s missed, we are satisfied that for Mom the burden of living is over and she is at rest – ‘tucked in’ beside her loving husband, my dad.
“From her journal, I’d leave you with [one] of Mom’s favorite selections:
‘I would not have you sorrowful and sad,
But joyfully recall
The glorious companionship we’ve had
And thank God for it all.’
(from ‘Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled’ James D. Morrison)”
When I started this post, it was to be about The Pastor/The Man. It certainly is about John; but it’s also more than that. It recalls the enduring and loving partnership of John and Alice – from first laying eyes on each other in Blakeslee, Pennsylvania that summer weekend in 1929; to experiencing the 9-year courtship and then standing side-by-side for over 40 years as they served from parish to parish. As Morrison put it: “The glorious companionship we’ve had” — and John and Alice certainly did have that!
The Morgan name lives on in two of their grandsons – brothers Dylan Morgan and Fletcher Morgan Callahan and their great-grandson, who prefers to be called by his full name, John Morgan Tillery. John and Alice would be pleased to know their lineage endures not only through these fine young men, but through all those who came, and are to come, after them!