When my parents lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, Debi and I would drive to Atlanta and back just about every time I had a school vacation. Sometimes I’d drive down on my own. Either way, the trip settled into a set rhythm. Drive like a bat out of hell zigzagging down I-55, I-64, I-57 and I-24 past Paducah, Ky., where I’d pull off the interstate at the first Waffle House for a breakfast of hard scrambled eggs, grits and real sausage patties that tasted of pepper and sage.
To a Southern expatriate, that Waffle House was like the first outpost of civilization.
A few hours farther south, off I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga, was another outpost of another civilization. The campus of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., has been described — quite fittingly, I think — as an English university incongruously plopped down in the Cumberland Mountains of Middle Tennessee. I first knew it as a kid growing up in the old Episcopal diocese of Tennessee, when we’d visit from a nearby church camp, and I rediscovered it when we were on the road so much. It made a nice break from long-distance driving.
A focal point of the campus at Sewanee (one of two focal points, actually) was All Saints’ Chapel. Whenever we could, we’d time our trips so we could spend a couple of hours in the university bookstore (the other focal point), and sometimes while Debi was immersed in a stack of books I’d drift over to the chapel and look around.
I’d better explain my terms here. All Saints’ is called a chapel simply because it’s not a parish church. Episcopalians are very precise about things like that — or were, when I was growing up. The parish church in Sewanee is a lovely, English-looking old building several blocks off campus in an equally lovely residential neighborhood for (mostly) faculty and staff. Named for the first Episcopal bishop of Tennessee, the Right Rev. James Hervey Otey, it is considered the main Episcopal church in town. (I remember playing Bishop Otey once in a Christmas pageant back home in East Tennessee. I was steeped in these traditions as a kid.) All Saints’ Chapel, which is much larger, serves the university.
At any rate, All Saints’ looks more like a cathedral than what we’d usually think of as a chapel. Its rose window is inspired by one at Notre Dame in Paris, and the stained glass and vaulted ceilings are modeled after cathedrals and university chapels at Chartres and Oxford. “All Saints’ Chapel,” says an online encyclopedia of the Society of Architectural Historians, “is perhaps the best example of the late Gothic Revival architecture in Tennessee.” It’s a magnificent building.
One Easter weekend in the mid-1990s, I stopped by when an organist was practicing a setting of “Hail Thee Festival Day,” a hymn by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who edited an influential English hymnal in 1906 and composed several classics of the Anglican musical tradition. Sewanee has a world-class organ, and All Saints’ has marvelous acoustics. So I was entranced, and I stayed a few minutes listening. After a minute or two, I noticed a dog curled up sleeping in the chancel, between the ornate, carved wooden pews where the choir is seated.
I could see a door and steps leading up to the organ console, and I guessed the dog must have been the organist’s. I thought the juxtaposition of English-cathedral architecture, organ, Ralph Vaughan Williams and sleeping pup was perfect and lovely.
During one of my visits to All Saints’, I also noticed a memorial plaque to a long-ago faculty member just below one of the arches of the building’s vaulted ceiling.
It, too, was lovely.
The inscription read: “In Grateful Memory of John Brown Cannon, our beloved chaplain, 1913-1915”; it gave his dates, 1874-1915, and concluded, “Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant.”
I’d never heard of the guy before, but I was moved by the inscription.
According to the introduction to a collection of his sermons, Cannon served as university chaplain after five years at parishes in Clarksville and Memphis. He “instinctively … seemed to know how to deal with the students of the University,” hosting bible and mission study classes at his home in addition to preaching. “There is an essential and inherent youth in Christianity. … John Cannon had found it and it kept his spirit young and it gave him a point of contact with other youthful lives.”
Well done, good and faithful servant. There’s a palpable sense of history in All Saints’ Chapel, and the interior walls are studded with memorial plaques to bishops, professors, university presidents and other dignitaries, as well as flags of the Episcopal dioceses in the Southeast that support the university. But this tribute to an obscure university chaplain stood out.
Later on at home, I looked up John B. Cannon online. He didn’t merit a Wikipedia page — well, most of us don’t — but I did find a review of his collected sermons in Sewanee Review, a prestigious literary quarterly but at times a extremely local publication serving the university community. In it, “J.B.T.” spoke of Cannon as “a man who loved his message and all to whom the message might come,” and added, “a harmony exists between what he said and what he was.”
Well done, good and faithful servant. What better way to be remembered? Is there a harmony between what I say and what I am? I hope so. It’s certainly something to strive for.
Anyway, I thought of John Brown Cannon this year during the service for All Saints’ Day at my Lutheran parish in Illinois. In this year of pandemic, loss and grief, Debi and I watched the service in her home office on YouTube, as a lay reader lit candles for our members who passed away this year.
A candle for Jeane, who conspired with my mother to get me to join the choir, and thus (a bit later, but inevitably) the church. For Gene, who sang tenor and was always ready to share a razor-sharp intuition, honed over a lifetime of service as a social worker and counselor, in adult faith formation classes. For Coralee, who welcomed my mother into the congregation after Dad died and she moved from Atlanta to Springfield.
And I thought of others. My mother and father, good and faithful servants. And of my spiritual director, a wonderfully patient Dominican sister who passed away in October, and without whom I would never have dreamt of putting my spiritual thoughts and inclinations in words.
Good and faithful servants, all. I only hope I can be of service, too.
[Nov. 2, 2020]
“Dr. Kirby-Smith’s Residence,” Online Exhibitions and Digital History, University of the South http://omeka.sewanee.edu/exhibits/show/exhibit_sewaneehistorichouses/item/424.
The Sermons of John B. Cannon, Delivered While Chaplain of the University of the South, Together With Some Addresses He Made on Special Occasions. Sewanee: University Press, 1917. x-xiii Google Books.
Claudette Stager. “All Saints’ Chapel,” SAH Archipedia, the Society of Architectural Historians https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/TN-01-051-0003.
J.B.T. Review of The Sermons of John B. Cannon, Sewanee Review 25 (Jan. 1917): 256. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27533022?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents.
“University of the South-All Saints’ Chapel.” Chattanooga Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. https://www.agochattanooga.org/regional-organs-database/sewanee-tn/university-of-the-south-all-saints-chapel/.