Today — April 8 — St. Clement’s Episcopal Church commemorates William Augustus Muhlenberg, priest, & Anne Ayres, religious.
William Augustus Muhlenberg was the great-grandson of the founder of Lutheranism in America and the grandson of the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Drawn to the Episcopal Church, he was ordained in 1820. He soon began composing hymns.
Fr. Muhlenberg was an early leader of the liturgical movement in the Episcopal Church. His conception of beauty in worship – through music, flower, and color – had at its heart the Holy Communion itself, celebrated every Sunday.
Fr. Muhlenberg is considered to be the founder of church schools in the United States. He began schools in Pennsylvania and Long Island. Those he mentored went on to found dozens of schools across the country, employing the Muhlenberg scholastic model. Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary in Wisconsin is among them.
Muhlenberg was a practical Christian, his Christianity more practice than theology. He worshiped Christ without sentimentality, believing that Jesus was the head of his schools, which were Christian families – a part of the Body of Christ.
In 1846, Fr. Muhlenberg founded the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City, where his boldness and innovation continued. He advocated open-mindedness and the freedom of parish clergy to be responsive to parishioner needs. The Church General Convention adopted his resolution to this effect in 1853. It became known as the Muhlenberg Memorial.
Anne Ayres, an English immigrant, decided to pursue a religious life after hearing Fr. Muhlenberg speak. She took her vows on All Saints Day in 1845. With his help, she founded the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, the first Anglican religious order for women in North America.
Working together, Fr. Muhlenberg and Sister Ayres founded St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, in 1858. Ayres and her sisters provided most of the patient care and nursing.
In 1866, the two founded the Church Industrial Community of St. Johnland on Long Island. It was designed to be an intentional religious community, which would provide a home for handicapped children and the elderly, as well as a haven for needy families far from the urban squalor of New York City.
Three years after his death in 1877, Sister Ayres published her fourth book, The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg. It was reprinted last year by Wentworth Press, which identified it as culturally important. She died in 1896. Both are buried in the St. Johnland cemetery.
Excerpted, in part, from A Great Cloud of Witnesses