Catholic News Service
Two years ago, the U.S. bishops endorsed the sainthood cause of Dorothy Day, who was born an Episcopalian but later became a Catholic and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement that still flourishes today.
This year, the bishops endorsed the cause of another former Episcopalian: Father Paul Wattson, who was ordained an Anglican priest but became a Catholic and whose legacy includes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, observed each January.
Support for his cause came on a voice vote Nov. 11, the second day of the bishops’ annual fall general assembly in Baltimore.
Father Wattson was born Lewis Thomas Wattson on January 16, 1863, in Millington, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, now in the Diocese of Wilmington. His parents were Rev. Joseph Wattson and his wife Mary Electa Wattson.
Eleven years after he was ordained an Episcopal priest, Rev. Paul Wattson was in ministry in Omaha, Nebraska, in the spring of 1897 when he received a letter from a novice in an Episcopal convent in Albany, N.Y.
Lurana White, though, was not content at her convent. In the letter, she expressed her frustration in finding a religious community whose members publicly professed the vow of poverty and lived according to the Franciscan tradition. Rev. Wattson knew of no such community, but he responded to White his vision of establishing a religious community of his own.
Rev. Wattson and White, through their correspondence, concluded they shared a similar dream. When they met face to face in October 1898, they established the Society of the Atonement, with separate orders for men and for women: the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement.
The society’s members would live according to the Franciscan tradition, and have as its charism the promotion of Christian unity and mission.
White, who by this time was home in Warwick, N.Y., suggested as a home base for the society a relatively secluded spot in present-day Garrison, N.Y., that some people called Graymoor. Before the winter set in, White had settled into an old farmhouse on the land; there was also a small chapel on the property called St.-John’s-in-the-Wilderness.
Rev. Wattson lived in an old painted shack on the land, which he called the “Palace of Lady Poverty.”
They decided early on to take as their cause convincing Episcopalians to join the Catholic Church. This did not sit too well with the Episcopalians and Anglicans they knew. Rev. Wattson, who took the religious name Paul, found pulpits closed to him and donations drying up.
White, now known as Sister Lurana and later Mother Lurana, would take her fellow sisters with her to New York City to beg at subway turnstiles.
Things came to a head following a 1907 decision at the Episcopal Church’s convention to permit other Christian preachers to speak at Episcopal pulpits with the approval of the local bishop. Seeing how much more closely linked Anglicans were to Catholics than to other Christian denominations, Rev. Wattson and Mother Lurana decide to leave the Episcopal Church and become Catholics themselves.
In October 1909, they and a few companions were received into the Roman Catholic Church. It is believed to be the first time since the days of the Reformation the members of an entire religious community had become Roman Catholics on a corporate, rather than individual basis. Father Wattson was ordained a Catholic priest in 1910.
At first, they were as unpopular within the Catholic Church as they had been in the Episcopal Church. Many Catholics thought them to be “secret Protestants,” a label that took several years for them to overcome.
Father Wattson “really did reach out to people of other denominations at a time when it was not popular,” said Sister Nancy Conboy, who is minister general of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement.
“I think his emphasis on Christian reconciliation and ecumenism in this day in age when there is so much so division could be a real catalyst for helping people to say we can we talk about what we have in common,” she told Catholic News Service in a phone interview in early November.
Despite suspicions about their ministry, Father Wattson and Mother Lurana’s projects took on new impetus.
The Lamp, a magazine devoted to Christian unity and mission, was published monthly for a much wider audience. The Union-That-Nothing-Be Lost, an organization which aided missionaries, grew larger and more enthusiastic. St. Christopher’s Inn, an expression of the Society of the Atonement’s commitment to Franciscan ideals, continued to receive thousands of homeless, needy men each year, providing them with hospitality in the spirit of St. Francis.
Father Wattson married a theological perspective with “very practical things,” said Father Jim Gardiner. A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement for more than 54 years, he oversees special projects at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington.
On one hand, Father Wattson very much wanted to see the “reunion of Rome and Canterbury,” the Anglican Church, Father Gardiner said, and at the same time he cared for wayfarers with St. Christopher’s Inn, emphasized the role of prayer and “took the Gospel very seriously.”
Father Wattson also co-founded the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and among other things organized Graymoor Press and the “Ave Maria Hour” on radio.
In 1903, Father Wattson started the annual Church Unity Octave, now known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is observed from Jan. 18, the feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Rome, to Jan. 25, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
Father Wattson wanted Christians to understand Christian unity as a realistic goal for churches and not some pie-in-the-sky dream. The Society for the Atonement now publishes a monthly journal called Ecumenical Trends, which collects speeches and documents written by ecumenists and interreligious figures worldwide.
Both the men’s and women’s branches of the society continued to grow through the Jazz Age and the Great Depression. Mother Lurana died in 1935, and Father Wattson in 1940.