Of Mills and Mansions

During much of the last decade, I served as rector of a parish in Newport, Rhode Island.  Newport, which styles itself as “America’s First Resort,” was famously the summer home of “The Four Hundred” leaders of East Coast society at the turn of the 20th Century, living in “cottages” with 60 to 70 rooms, full staffs, and

The Breakers, Newport, RI. Photo by Matt H. Wade

grand ballrooms.  By 2000 when we moved there, these mansions had become museums and were part of the booming Newport tourist industry, along with its famous harbor, the “Cliff Walk,” and similarly preserved and restored colonial homes and structures, including Trinity Church, my parish.  Newport, I discovered, also had the second highest concentration of Section 8 housing in the state, a fact almost never disclosed or talked about.  Both of these realities, however, were an intrinsic part of the community and that area of New England, as I was to discover in a very personal way.

My grandfather was born and grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, a hardscrabble city within a half hour of Newport.  When I was young, I would hear him talk from time to time about working there in a mill as a kid.  I just always assumed that he had a part-time job after school working in a neat lumber mill infused with the wondrous smell of fresh cut wood.  It wasn’t until I got to Newport that I learned the truth of his Fall River experience from nearby relatives.  My great-grandparents had emigrated from England in the mid-18thCentury at a time of severe unemployment, poverty, and social turmoil.  They came here after agreeing to work virtually every waking hour of the day at the industrialized woolen and cotton mills that grew up all over Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  These were brutal sweatshops, with virtually no protection for the workers’ health or safety.  They

Workers in the Sagamore Mfg. Co, Fall River, Mass., 1911. Photo from Department of Commerce and Labor, Children's Bureau

were the same kind of mills that the English poet William Blake, in his famous hymn text to “Jerusalem,” would call “satanic.”  My grandfather left school in 3rd grade to join his parents working in the same mills with the same kind of days, hours, and conditions.

About the time I learned about that, I also discovered that many of those mills were owned or controlled by people at the heart of that “Gilded Age” Newport society.  Many of their elegant “cottages” were even built with the identical stone out of which the mills were constructed.  At the time that my grandfather, born and raised in a strong Anglican tradition, was experiencing the dehumanizing and demoralizing effects of child labor in Fall River, those responsible were leading citizens of Newport and parishioners of Trinity Church.  I realized that I, his grandson who loved him dearly, had become rector of a parish in which, a century or so earlier, he and his family would never have felt (or been) welcome.

The Help,” a new movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s recent novel recounting the experience of African-American domestic workers in Mississippi during the early 1960s, reflects not only that formative and difficult period but also the ways in which people of the South today often struggle to come to terms with their own history and heritage.  But they are certainly not alone.  In one way or another, we are all heirs (by culture and history, if not by blood) of a past that has included human slavery, child labor, racism, xenophobia, sexism, class warfare, unbridled greed, violence, and destruction.  Of course, we are also more than that as well.  Our history can trap, ensnare, and corrupt us, but only if we ignore it.  Our faith teaches us that, unless we are able to own up to the sins of the past out of which we have come and accept our corporate as well as our personal reliance on God’s mercy and forgiveness, we will never be truly free to become the people God truly wants us to be.  As the great hymn, “Lift every voice and sing,” expresses this so well, we can indeed come, with God’s grace, “out of the gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

Let your light so shine.

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1 Response to Of Mills and Mansions

  1. Anton Vanterpool II says:

    Thanks for the meditation. The earthly journey each of us takes asks the question: “Does life imitate art or vice versa?” I enjoyed watching “The Help.” The movie tells a story well and leaves us with the point, the journey is yours, over beaten paths or broken roads.

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