The little red wooden church of St. John Chrysostom, in Delafield, Wisconsin, on its quiet hill in the lake country, bears witness to the romantic and controversial missionary brotherhood which established nearby Nashotah House in 1842. The story of Nashotah is well known, although it is susceptible to different interpretive frameworks. Were the founders inspired by a sweeping vision of mission and strengthened by a heroic spiritual discipline? Or were they rigid tractarian ideologues obsessed with winning the American midwest for the catholic party before the evangelicals arrived? Or were they well-intentioned but dreamy youth whose deficits of administrative ability, social skills, and common sense severely limited their successes? But perhaps all three interpretations can be true at the same time.
The 1835 General Convention, a watershed in Episcopal Church mission history, appointed David Jackson Kemper (1789-1870) missionary bishop over the remote areas west of major American settlement. His huge territory began in Indiana and Missouri, and extended north to Hudson's Bay Company territory and west to the Rocky Mountains. It included Wisconsin, which became a U.S. territory in 1836 and then attracted settlers and speculators in large numbers. Its non-Indian population exploded from 11,683 in 1836 to 155,277 in 1847. It became a state in 1848.
Part of Kemper's job was to recruit clergy, and this task took him in 1840 to General Theological Seminary in New York. Thomas C. Reeves continues the story in an article in this journal in March 1996, and several valuable historical sources are available at Project Canterbury's internet site (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/pc). Briefly, one of the students at General, James Lloyd Breck (1818-1876), an avid and uncompromising devotee of the tractarian movement, volunteered himself to Kemper the next year. He began dreaming of an Episcopal Church monastery in the wilderness. The brothers would be committed to celibacy and obedience. Every day they would rise at 5 AM, dress in cassocks, say the morning office (with Latin chants), do manual labor for several hours, evangelize and pastor the surrounding region, and run a school and seminary. Daily eucharist would be the rule, too. Breck and two other General graduates were ordained and set out for Wisconsin. One soon fell away, into marriage. Breck and his remaining companion, the genial though eccentric William Adams (1813-1897), arranged for the purchase of a beautiful property which they discovered in the woodlands next to the Nashotah lakes about thirty miles west of Milwaukee. They moved there in 1842, and enrolled a few students and lay brothers. But Breck ran through money quickly; he was inefficient as a property manager; his humorless and dictatorial manner made him a difficult leader; his expanding lists of community rules were soon alienating students; and his catholic theology and ritualism provoked sharp controversy both locally and back east. Increasingly he was an embarrassment to Kemper, who tried to rein him in. Conflict inevitably increased when the bishop moved from St. Louis to Nashotah in 1846. And when Adams married the bishop's daughter in 1848, Breck's remaining influence sank. Breck was gone a little over a year later.
Under Breck in 1849 the Rev. William Markoe, the heir of a wealthy Philadelphia family, had charge of the mission stations belonging to Nashotah House. One of these was the postal village of Delafield, about two miles away. It was part of a town of the same name, first settled in 1839, and grown to 1100 residents in 1850. Worship was held in the hotel, in homes, or in the schoolhouse. According to Thomas Withey in a 1934 unpublished history available in the Nashotah House library, it was Markoe who encouraged the villagers to want a church building. He initially proposed a site belonging to Nashotah House, but title could not be transferred, and Kemper suggested a location in Delafield itself. …