On Sundays I sometimes pass the Church of the Ascension on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and I generally pause to admire its Gothic Revival brownstone exterior fronted by a small courtyard with boxwood bushes. But it was not until late one Sunday afternoon in May that I went inside—drawn by a sign announcing an Evensong service that was about to begin. The casually dressed young man at the door who told me to sit up front in the oak choir stalls was, it turned out, a Protestant seminarian, who would lead the service. Besides himself, there were only a handful present.
During the brief service of psalms and hymns, what kept attracting my attention was the large mural over the altar. Not surprisingly, given the church’s name, it showed Jesus’ ascension into heaven, with the disciples grouped on the ground below. The mural is among the best known works of the painter John LaFarge, whose studio had been around the corner at 51 West 10th Street. But very much on my mind was the fact that John LaFarge the artist was the father of his namesake, John LaFarge the Jesuit (1880-1963), whom I have long esteemed because of his work among African Americans in the first half of the 20th century.
Born into a distinguished Newport family—Henry Adams, Henry James and Edith Wharton were family friends—the younger John LaFarge decided at an early age to become a priest. His father was a lukewarm Catholic, but his convert mother was devout and encouraged him in his aspirations. These assumed concrete form after Harvard, when he set out to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Providence. But as he tells us in his autobiography, The Manner Is Ordinary (1954), she warned him: “Don’t let them make you a Jesuit.” His reply: “Mother, nothing can ever make me a Jesuit”—a stunning example of the old maxim “Man proposes, God disposes.” He entered the Society of Jesus in 1905.
After teaching in Jesuit schools, he was sent to work in Jesuit parishes in southern Maryland. There—as a man who had known nothing of poverty or its devastating effects on African Americans in particular—he encountered the South’s blatant racial discrimination at first hand and soon came in conflict with what he describes as “an age-old tradition by which Negroes were not to be considered as persons in their own right but only as persons subject to another’s right, as servants.”
For years he struggled against this local mind-set, and while doing so, created educational and other opportunities for African Americans, especially children, whose schools, he says, were “a mere farce.” He was able to persuade a group of sisters to come as competent teachers. Hands-on work of this kind, together with the necessary fundraising, “forced me,” he tells us, “to come out of my shell.” In the process, he grew to love the people he was serving, so that on receiving word in 1926 that he was to be transferred back north, he described his leave-taking as “heavyhearted.”
And where did Father LaFarge go? Right here to America, where he remained for decades as associate editor and, for one year, as editor in chief. But his work at the magazine went far beyond editorial responsibilities. Both by writing and speaking—and through his work with the Catholic Interracial Councils he helped to create—he took needed steps toward raising the awareness of Americans about the problems of race and poverty. He knew of the work of Dorothy Day in the 1930’s, and she speaks of him in Loaves and Fishes as one of the speakers at the Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side. He even devoted one of his regular columns in America, “With Scrip and Staff,” to the movement’s co-founder, Peter Maurin, whom he likens to a prophet of Israel.
Not least remarkable, he spanned several eras: raised in the Victorian age, he lived on to the beginnings of the civil rights movement, for which, in a sense, he helped to pave the way. The title of his autobiography notwithstanding, John LaFarge’s manner was anything but ordinary.