It Happened at the Cathedral
Letters of Bishop R.F. Shepherd, 1948 to 2012
By Mary Shepherd
48 Hour Books, 2015
As a student first of history and now of library and archival science, I am acutely aware of an existential crisis currently ongoing in both fields.
Nobody writes letters anymore.
That’s something of an exaggeration, of course, but nowadays letter writing almost certainly qualifies as a lost art. Letters, which throughout history have given us rare glimpses into the inner workings of world-shaping events and the minds of great and not-so-great men and women alike, have been largely replaced with emails, text messages and chat. And while these forms of communication are sufficient in terms of delivering content, they often fail to convey the intimacy inherent in writing a letter.
It is this intimacy that makes It Happened at the Cathedral, a compendium consisting of personal missives, pastoral newsletters and poetry penned by the late Anglican Bishop Ronald Francis Shepherd, such a valuable and rewarding read. Shepherd’s writings, curated here by his daughter, Mary, span from 1948 to 2012, and serve as a threefold historical resource, allowing for detailed insights into his personal history, the history of the Anglican Church of Canada and the social history of Canada itself.
It Happened at the Cathedral begins, appropriately enough, with Shepherd’s personal account of his conversion experience in England, as told through a letter to his then-fiancée, Ann. (Ann, still in Canada at the time, must have been somewhat shocked to learn that her partner’s erstwhile academic career had veered sharply into theology.)
The book proceeds to run the gamut of Shepherd’s career, and includes colourful anecdotes ranging from tales of “Middle-earth,” the Edmonton-based church hall-turned-youth centre he helped run in the summer of 1968, which hosted “rock bands, dances (complete with strobe lights), movies, and dramatic plays,” and aimed to “bring the youth of our city to Jesus via a language they [could] understand”; to the sight of “gun-toting soldiers” outside of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Montreal during the October crisis, when members of the radical separatist group Front de libération du Québec kidnapped provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross; to his experience taking women’s studies courses through Concordia University at the height of second-wave feminism in the 1970s.
Mary Shepherd deserves special credit here for her work in curating this collection. There must be some measure of temptation, especially when writing about one’s family, to gloss over or even edit out life’s darker periods. But hard times are visible here amidst the good, and the book is all the richer for it: particularly moving is a section detailing a momentary crisis of faith later in Shepherd’s life. Collages made up of old photographs and original artwork, along with an appendix providing further context for each letter, are also most welcome additions that aid in fleshing out and personalizing Shepherd’s life and work.
In all, It Happened at the Cathedral stands as a testament to a life thoughtfully and thoroughly lived. Rich in personal detail and church and societal history, it serves to remind us of a not-so-distant past, and allows us to appreciate the perhaps soon-to-be-lost art of the letter.
(The book can be ordered by contacting Mary Shepherd at: [email protected] or (514) 487-0126)