Our Lady of the Atonement’s new rector installed amidst bittersweet ceremony
Beloved pastor-emeritus watches from the sidelines
By Mary Ann Mueller in San Antonio
VOL Special Correspondent
August 21, 2017
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — That day had to come … eventually. The day that Our Lady of the Atonement, the thriving Anglican Use Catholic parish and a jewel in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter’s crown, would officially change leadership. That the keys to the church and the Tabernacle would be turned over to a priest other than Fr. Christopher Phillips, the founding priest of the mother church of the Anglican Use and the Pastoral Provision patrimony in the United States.
That day came last week on the Feast of the Assumption — August 15.
For more than three decades, August 15 has had a very special significance for Fr. Phillips and Our Lady of the Atonement. For it was on August 15, 1983, that Christopher Phillips, a former Episcopal priest, led 18 Episcopalian souls into the Catholic Church and was himself ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. On that day, in addition to Fr. Phillips’ Catholic sacerdotal ordination and the reception of the former Episcopalians into the Catholic Church, what would become Our Lady of the Atonement parish was canonically erected. That seed was firmly planted in the warm sandy soil of Bexar County, Texas, not far from the famed Alamo, where the Siege and Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal event in Texas’ fight for independence. The small seed was waiting to germinate, then grow and eventually flower.
Even though the idea, vision and dream of a flourishing Our Lady of the Atonement Parish was established on that August day in 1983 by a Decree of Erection under the direction of Pope John Paul II and signed by Catholic Archbishop Patrick Flores (IV San Antonio), the church’s actual beginnings were rather humble.
Fr. Phillips and his growing family had a small rectory on the northeast side of town. The house also served as OLA’s church office and initially, liturgical celebrations were held at San Francesco diPaola Catholic Church in near downtown San Antonio. To provide sustenance for his family, Fr. Phillips wore many birettas. He served as chaplain for the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, and as an auxiliary military chaplain at Wilford Hall Hospital, as well as a supply priest assisting at various San Antonio Catholic parishes by celebrating Masses and hearing Confessions. But the former Episcopal priest never took his eyes off the vision that the Lord gave him about a flourishing Anglican Use parish in Archdiocese of San Antonio. Little by little, that dream came into being. Eventually the Anglican Use liturgical celebrations were moved to Mount Sacred Heart Convent chapel as the growing congregation sought a place of its own.
The break came in 1985 when vacant property was located on Red Robin Road. A six-and-a-half acre plot of land was already owned by the archdiocese which allowed the fledging pastoral provision congregation to purchase it and set down delicate root hairs allowing then them to take hold and grow. Our Lady of Atonement had found a permanent home in northwest San Antonio just off of the Loop 1604 and near the University of Texas-San Antonio campus. The first item of business was to build the church. Ground was broken in 1986 and on August 15, 1987, OLA was dedicated, the high altar was consecrated and the beautifully ornate triptych was unfurled for the first time.
The church, which is under the title and patronage of Our Lady of the Atonement, was firmly established.
Our Lady of the Atonement Anglican origins
Our Lady of the Atonement (Domina Nostra Adunationis) is inherently an Anglican Marian title honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. It crept into the Roman Catholic Church through the Society of the Atonement, an Anglican Franciscan order dedicated to seeking the “at-one-ment” — unity — of all Christians as the Anglican Franciscans understood the meaning of Romans 5:11: “And not only so, but we also find joy in God through Our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” (KJV)
The Atonement was accomplished through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and Holy Mary is His virgin mother. The title — Our Lady of the Atonement — honors that sacred motherhood.
The Society of the Atonement was co-founded in the late 19th century by Paul Wattson and Lurana White. Fr. Louis Wattson — as he was then known — was an Anglo-Catholic priest yearning to start an Episcopal religious order dedicated to working towards the unity of all Christians based on his “at-one-ment” understanding of Romans 5:11. At the time, Miss White was a novice in the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, which was an Episcopal religious community for women. But she was searching for an American religious order with a Franciscan spirituality and at that time The Episcopal Church had no Franciscan religious expression. Therefore, Miss White and Fr. Wattson joined forces and the Society of the Atonement was born in Garrison, New York, as the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. The foundation date is given as Dec. 15, 1898.
During that time, the Oxford Movement was in full flower and many Anglicans on both sides of the Atlantic ended up finding the fullness of their faith in the Church of Rome, including: John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henry Edward Manning, Robert Hugh Benson, William George Ward, Benjamin Williams Whitcher and others. At least two of the 19th century converts became Catholic cardinals — Newman and Manning. Women also swam the Tiber, including Sr. Margaret Anna Cusack, an Anglican nun; and Augusta Theodosia Drane, who became a Dominican prioress.
The strong pull of the Oxford Movement had a powerful draw upon the founders of the Society of the Atonement. Eventually, they headed to Rome, bringing members of their joint Episcopal religious order with them. The corporate reception of the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement into the Roman Church occurred on Oct. 30, 1909 and that was the first time a cooperate reunion of Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church occurred since the time of the 16th century English Reformation. Fr. Wattson and Mother Lurana, along with one Atonement friar, two professed Atonement sisters, two novices and 10 lay associates were all converted — 17 in all.
“The Society of the Atonement, heretofore, has been a company of Anglicans living under the rule of St. Francis, and its founder, Father Paul, has become well known as advocating the corporate reunion of the Anglican Church with the Holy See,” the New York Times reported on October 31, 1909. “The reception of the Society of the Atonement as a body, preserving its name and corporate existence, is an exceptional privilege granted from Rome, as the result of a petition made some time ago to Pope Pius X…”
One century later, in 2009, the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, an Episcopal religious order of nuns in Cantonsville, Maryland, were received into the Catholic Church. Then “across the pond” in 2013, the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, a religious order of women in the Church of England, was received into the Catholic Church. Now rebranded as the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin, the British community is a part of the English Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
“The call to Christian unity must always be the primary motivating factor in the decision of Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church,” one English Sister noted about seeking ‘at-one-ment’ with the Catholics. “Anything which impedes that process cannot be of God, and so must be set aside to achieve this aim, which is the will of Christ.”
Today the Catholic version of the Society of the Atonement is called the Franciscan Sisters and Friars of the Atonement or simply the Graymoors. They are still dedicated to bringing unity to the whole Body of Christ through the “at-one-ment.” Fr. Paul of Graymoor (Fr. Wattson) is on the road to Catholic sainthood, as is John Henry Cardinal Newman.
In 1983, Fr. Christopher Phillips, too, led his small band of 18 Episcopalians into the Catholic Church and, embracing the Graymoors’ ecumenism of the “at-one-ment”, named the-hoped-for Pastoral Provision Anglican Use parish, Our Lady of the Atonement, thus making it one of only two Catholic churches in the world under that name. The other is Baguio’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Atonement in the Philippines. It received its unique Anglican-style name in 1936, as a result of Anglican spirituality being introduced to the Cordillera mountains of the Philippines by Episcopal missionaries from the United States, who obviously were influenced by the Society of the Atonement.
For 10 years, the Our Lady of Atonement parish grew in Texas. The Gospel was preached and the Sacraments were celebrated with a decidedly Anglican accent in Elizabethan English. Fr. Phillips’ rich baritone voice and crisp New England diction helped to make the Anglican Use liturgies memorable. Parish life was firmly established and flourished. Young couples got married and babies were baptized. Children were taught the faith and confirmed and their grandparents were buried. But it became acutely obvious that something was missing — a parish day school.
On August 15, 1993 — on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the parish — the decision was made to establish a Catholic parochial school under the title of Atonement Academy. This was the fulfillment of Fr. Phillips’ academic dream to establish an accompanying Catholic parish school. The classical Catholic education of children became the parish’s unique mission. One year later, on August 15, 1994, Atonement Academy opened its doors to its young first scholars — 66 Kindergarten through third grade students.
Again, on August 15, 2017, another academic year has started. This year a massive newly-completed 117,000 three-story school building — the size of a small medieval castle — opened its doors to nearly 600 Pre-K through high school students. Fr. Phillips wanted to build an educational edifice large enough to “grow into.” Before that, other Academy additions were “outgrown” almost before the doors were opened and the note was paid off, as Atonement Academy’s student body exploded nearly 10-fold in less than 25 years.
Not only was Atonement Academy beginning a new academic year on August 15, but the entire parish was in the throes of transition as a new rector came in to take over the leadership reins and Bishop Steven Lopes (I Ordinariate) did the honors of installing him that evening.
Fr. Phillips had fulfilled his mission. He successfully established an Anglican Use Pastoral Provision parish in south Texas. Then he was able to shepherd his congregation, church and school safely into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, but not without some last minute difficulty.
The San Antonio priest championed the Anglican ordinariates and looked forward with great anticipation to the establishment of the American ordinariate after Pope Benedict XVI announced to the world in 2009 that through the apostolic constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, a unique jurisdiction would be set up to allow former Anglicans — including Episcopalians — who become Catholic, to retain some of their unique patrimony: liturgy … music … architecture … parish life … ethos … ethnicity …
Anglicanorum Coetibus, which was announced 100 years after Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana joined the Catholic Church, can almost be seen as a fruit of their long desire and heartfelt prayers for “at-one-ment” within the Body of Christ. They unknowingly led the way for others to follow.
As the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was being erected in 2012, Fr. Phillips quietly bided his time as the infant jurisdiction got its feet firmly planted in Houston, Texas. Meanwhile, the San Antonio priest continued to grow Our Lady of the Atonement. Five years later, he realized the time was ripe to fold into the Ordinariate.
But that was simpler said than done. The Archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo García-Siller, M.Sp.S. (VI San Antonio), stood in his way. Our Lady of the Atonement had grown into a large, dynamic, flourishing Catholic parish with a very successful and growing parochial school. San Antonio’s archbishop did not want to see Our Lady of the Atonement slip through his fingers into the Ordinariate, taking the people in the pews, property, buildings and money with it.
So on the afternoon of January 19, 2017, just ten days after his predecessor and Fr. Phillips’ protector, Archbishop Patrick Flores, died, Archbishop García-Siller unexpectedly swooped in and removed OLA’s priest as pastor, banishing him from the church, and replacing him with a Polish priest. (The Lord had called Archbishop Flores unto Himself on January 9.) So for 60 days, Fr. Phillips was in exile as his parishioners stormed heaven with daily prayer, fasting and sacrifice while the San Antonio archbishop mounted a hostile takeover of their beloved pastoral provision parish.
All this started to unfold at the beginning of the Catholic Church’s annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25), which was initially established as the Church Unity Octave by Fr. Paul of Graymoor and Mother Lurana of the Society of the Atonement. The two Anglican religious order founders and their followers were actively seeking “At-one-ment — the unity of men and women with God and with one another.”
The flap ended up going to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for resolution. The CDF is the Vatican’s curial office which oversees the world’s three Anglican ordinariates. Ultimately it was Pope Francis who decreed that Our Lady of the Atonement would be transferred into the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. But in so doing, Fr. Phillips was no longer the rector when he returned to the Ordinariate-bound parish. His primary task had been fulfilled. Our Lady of the Atonement would safely land in the Ordinariate with its church and school property intact.
Immediately, the parish had new episcopal authority — Bishop Steven Lopes, who on March 21 travelled to San Antonio with the exciting news that Fr. Phillips would be joyfully returned to his parish as pastor-emeritus. But a new priest was needed to carry on Fr. Phillips’ work and expand his vision. Fr. Phillips would no longer be the “father” of the parish, he would now be the revered “grandfather” of the parish and his many years of knowledge, experience and wisdom would be invaluable to whomever the Bishop Lopes tapped as the new rector.
At 67, Fr. Phillips is not being put out to pasture. He continues simply as a parish priest — celebrating Mass, hearing Confessions, teaching the children their prayers — but without the burden, weight and responsibly of leadership on his shoulders. His talents and passion will also be tapped by Bishop Lopes, who has asked him to share his insight, skills and familiarity with church planting and growth with the other 40-plus parishes in the wide-flung Ordinariate.
Enter Fr. Mark Lewis
It is Fr. Mark Lewis who was tapped as Our Lady of the Atonement’s second pastor. He is a first generation Ordinariate priest, just as Fr. Phillips is a first generation Pastoral Provision priest. In 2011, Fr. Lewis was converted along with members of his Anglo-Catholic congregation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bladensburg, Maryland.
Eventually, St. Luke’s joined forces with St. Thomas of Canterbury Society in Washington, DC, and St. John Fisher Community in northern Virginia to form a unified parish. The larger Ordinariate congregation, bearing St. Luke’s name, then moved to a bigger centralized location to share worship space at the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
It was to St. Luke’s that the Bishop Lopes reached out to fill the pulpit at Our Lady of the Atonement.
“Father Lewis is known across the Ordinariate for his pastoral wisdom, spirit of hospitality, and keen administrative gifts. We are confident he will bring the same qualities of kindness and vision to his service to the faithful of Our Lady of the Atonement …” Bishop Lopes explained as he announced Fr. Lewis’ new appointment. “We know you will welcome and encourage your new Pastor — and that together, you will continue to share the vitality our faith offers to all those seeking the spiritual treasures of the Universal Church.”
Mark Lewis was graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and then he picked up a Masters of Divinity from Nashotah House. As an Episcopal priest, he served as curate at St. Stephen’s in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, before moving on to St. Luke’s as rector. Fr. Lewis is also an ex-officio member of the Ordinariate’s Governing Council. He and his wife Vicky have two children and one grandchild.
On August 15, Bishop Lopes made his third trip to San Antonio since the Anglican Use parish came into the Ordinariate five months before. This time he was accompanied by at least 50 parishioners and clergy from Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston, who came in solidarity to witness Bishop Lopes install Fr. Lewis. OLW was established just one year after OLA and there has always been a close fraternal connection between the two Anglican Use Texas parishes for more than thirty years.
During the installation rite, Bishop Lopes led Fr. Lewis to different parts of the church. First, they went to the baptismal font where the priest was given the faculties to baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
The next stop was the confessional, where the priest was given the authority to hear confessions and pronounce absolution, then on to the raised pulpit, highlighting the prophetic nature of Fr. Lewis’ priesthood as he preaches.
Next was a stop at the sedilia — the needlepoint embroidered priest’s chair — nestled in the alcove on the Gospel side of the altar. The throne-like sedilia represents the earthly priest’s kingship with his ruling authority and leadership of the parish.
Finally, the incoming Ordinariate priest was led to the Tabernacle, where he was given the Tabernacle key and took possession of the Reserved Sacrament. Turning around, he stepped to the altar, where he will be celebrating the Mass, possibly for many years to come. The altar is the heart of the church and the place where a priest most exercises the sacerdotal aspects of his priesthood. It was at the altar, that the new priest signed the Decree of Possession and at 7:55 p.m., the deed was done, the Rev. Mark Lewis had officially become the second pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement, 30 years to the day that the ornate Anglican Use church was first dedicated as a bastion for the Anglican patrimony.
Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline