Priest delves into history

Friday, May 16, 2008

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The Rev. David MacDonald, rector of Christ Church, Durham Parish in Ironsides, sits near the altar inside the historic church that he wrote about in a book that was published last year.


The Rev. David MacDonald hit the jackpot when he was assigned four years ago to historic Christ Church, Durham Parish in Ironsides.

MacDonald, who serves as the rector of the church, said the rich history of Durham parish inspired him to write a dissertation while studying for his doctorate in Anglican history at the University of Oxford in England and then to follow up with a book about the church, which was founded in 1661.

‘‘The Transit of the Anglican Mind to the Maryland Colony-Thomas Bray & the Bray Libraries of Christ Church Durham Nanjemoy, Maryland 1696-1701” weaves a fascinating history of the parish and some of the men who helped to settle Charles County, including Gen. William Smallwood and William Dent.

California-born MacDonald has been an Episcopal priest for 21 years and has served as the rector of Durham Parish since 2004. The 134-acre parish and rectory is surrounded by woods, much like it was when it was founded. The peaceful setting was a great boost in helping to write the book, he said, adding that since he had all of the research material on hand it only took him a little more than a month to write it.

‘‘I wrote it in 34 days,” he said. ‘‘I put up a big shelf in my office and put all of my stuff on it. It was a lot of fun.”

MacDonald’s wife, Betty, was very supportive of the project, he said.

‘‘Betty was absolutely wonderful,” he said. ‘‘She went to England with me. While I was immersed in research and studying, she and her friends went all over England.”

MacDonald said his wife also provided the much-needed quiet and support that were necessary to write the book.

‘‘She put up with me when I was probably not much fun,” he said, smiling. ‘‘I couldn’t have asked for a better person to have around than her.”

MacDonald said he was inspired to write the book after talking to his supervisor at Oxford, Jane Shaw.

‘‘She asked me what I was going to write my dissertation on and I said, ‘I don’t know,’” he said. ‘‘She asked me what my parish was like. When I told her, she said ‘well, that’s what you’re going to study and write about.’ It was a little daunting, but I decided to start with what I did know and work backwards from there.”

In particular, MacDonald said he was intrigued by Dent and his friendship with the Rev. Thomas Bray, who had been appointed Commissary for Maryland by Henry Compton, the bishop of London. In 1696, Bray selected the first Maryland parishes to receive his parochial libraries and Christ Church Durham Parish was among them.

Bray loved the written word and believed in the positive impacts books could have on people, MacDonald said, adding that Bray especially felt that people living in Charles County, where the population was very sparse and no bookstores and libraries were available, would particularly benefit from a supply of books.

The first 10 volumes were sent to Nanjemoy in the late 1600s and a second shipment was received at Friendship Landing on Dent’s plantation, in 1701, MacDonald said.

The first shipment contained books that were mainly religious in nature, he said, adding that the second shipment included books about gardening, hunting, carpentry, glazing pottery and the like.

None of the volumes, bound in leather with the guild markings stamped in gold, remain at Durham Parish, MacDonald said, adding that most of the works are housed at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Durham Parish, one of the oldest continuously operated Episcopal churches in the United States, holds historic treasures that are still used during worship services, MacDonald said. The 18th century chalice and paten, gifts from Dent that are inscribed with his name, are unique because both pieces bear the guild marks of the London silversmiths who crafted them in 1704.

‘‘It’s one of the oldest complete sets in the U.S. and it’s ours,” MacDonald said. ‘‘It’s a bit of tangible history.”

‘‘Old Durham” parish began as a log structure built on the same spot where the current church stands, MacDonald said. In 1732, the wooden church was razed to make way for a one-story structure made from bricks that came from England. The project was paid for with 46,000 pounds of tobacco leaf.

A second story was added to the church in 1790 when Gen. William Smallwood served as the senior warden.

The parish’s rich history was a great inspiration for the book, MacDonald said, who also holds a master’s of theology from the University of Wales in the United Kingdom.

MacDonald, who was educated at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, serves as the Chaplain of Washington National Cathedral and is a member of the Order of St. John.

MacDonald is also the author of ‘‘Padre E.C. Cross & ‘The Devonshire Epitaph,’” the story of a British Army chaplain who was assigned to the 8th and 9th Devonshire Regiments at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He is currently working on his next book, ‘‘High Reaches,” a publication of Christian reflections on how to live life in the spirit.

‘‘I do all of this because I simply like to learn; I find it interesting,” he said. ‘‘I’ll probably keep going back to school because it keeps your mind alive. It gives you a broader vision so that you can better relate to other people.”