Local Preacher and Student
With the Welsh Revival chapel attendance dramatically increased. There were many opportunities for local preachers and my grandfather Bert Constance took up the call. He was “on the plan” as the Methodist chapels called it, preaching, teaching, and studying with local mentors. The census listed him a “ministry student” and he honed his craft on Sundays and in evening services throughout the week.
He served with such acceptability that he was urged to prepare himself for the travelling ministry. Through the generosity of funds from Harcourt Terrace Wesleyan Methodist Church Sunday School, in 1909 Bert enrolled at Cliff College in Sheffield, England and studied under such men as Samuel Chadwick, renowned professor of theology, and Joseph Agar Beet, a biblical scholar whose commentaries are used to this day.
Joseph Agar Beet
Pastor and Missionary
Late in 1911 Bert Constance went to a Wesleyan Reform Union Church near London and became its pastor for a few months, but travelling ministry soon called and he packed his Bible, books, clothes, and a few photographs in a steamer trunk and boarded a ship in Liverpool, England bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
It was April 1912 and the now Reverend Bert Constance was headed for the Liscomb Methodist Church in Liscomb, NS. This little maritime community was 112 miles NE of Halifax and would have been a two-day horse drawn wagon trip from the port.
The little church had been dedicated in 1898 and the sanctuary had a seating capacity of 175. As one congregant stated at the time, “What with an exceptionally poor fishing summer among our people, disappointments for finance, and a host of smaller trials, our people have had a trying, yet it may be hoped, a profitable experience during the year.”
No family lore has ever been passed down regarding the timing of my grandfather’s arrival in Nova Scotia, but April of 1912 was an important month in maritime and Halifax history.
Bert arrived in Halifax on April 7, 1912, and on April 15, the RMS Titanic sank in the icy North Atlantic. While the closest land was Newfoundland, the larger and more accessible port was Halifax. Cable ships were dispatched from the port and led the recovery operation. Of the 209 bodies recovered and brought ashore, 150 were laid to rest in three cemeteries in Halifax.
I’m sure it was soon the news of the day in Nova Scotia and the source would have been telegraph. Bert probably arrived in Liscomb on Wednesday, April 10 and the disaster would have occurred the Monday after his first Sunday at the Methodist Church.
On to the United States
Bert Constance was the Liscomb pastor for one year (or as I imagine, one long winter.) The only photographs we have of that year all contain snow, lots of snow. Horses in snow, wagons in snow, and Reverend Constance in snow. Now while snow was familiar weather in Wales (Dylan Thomas tells us “There was always snow at Christmas”), the amount and length of the season must have been a dramatic change. We have one picture of Bert standing in front of his church. He is knee-deep in snow and appears to be leaning to his left for some reason. As I have thought about it over the years, he is probably leaning into a gale-force southeast wind, a wind that blew him out of the Maritimes and into Maryland. Several years after he left, one gust of wind blew the steeple right off the church.
Bert boarded an Intercolonial Railway train in Halifax and connected to the Canadian Pacific in New Brunswick. His port of entry to the United States was a train station in Vanceboro, Maine where he arrived on the 21st of March 1913. He continued to Baltimore Maryland where he had accepted a job with the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was assigned to the East Harford Circuit and was to be the junior preacher to Frank Thompson at Darlington. In 1914 he was admitted “on trial” to the Conference.
Within Bert’s circuit was a little Methodist Church in Magnolia, Maryland. There he met a beautiful young woman named Grace Leone Skillman and they were wed on June 2, 1915. Bert was 29 years old, and Grace was 21.
Grace was the daughter of John Skillman, the town blacksmith, and Blanche Jeffers Skillman. Whereas Bert could count his American experience in months, the Skillman's counted theirs in centuries. Thomas Skillman, Sr., my eighth great grandfather was born in Surrey England, but emigrated to New York as a young man in 1664. The family name is so tied into the fabric of this country that books have been written about our genealogy and Skillman Street in Brooklyn was the site of the family estate house for many years.
My dad, Allan was born in 1916 at his grandmother’s house in Magnolia and his sister arrived eight years later when the family was living in the Methodist parsonage in Abingdon, Maryland.
Twenty-Eight Years of Maryland Ministry
Bert Constance never left the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church and had nine charges in his twenty-eight years of ministry.
William Lewis said, “Bert’s preaching grew out of his experience and he had a fine native ability. He knew his Bible, he loved it and knew how to use it wisely and well in his preaching.”
My Aunt Jean told me that her dad used all his Welshness from the pulpit, including breaking into song when a hymn lyric would emphasize a point in his sermon. His lilting accent and beautiful singing voice made him a sought-after preacher in pulpits throughout the state.
One of my prized possessions is a little black leather three-ringed binder that contains some of Bert’s sermons. He never wrote out a sermon but always worked from a type-written outline. Pen notations of names, places, and churches were inscribed throughout in his neat hand. As a circuit-rider, keeping track of where you had preached what sermon was an important record of your ministry.
Three short tales immediately come to mind about Bert’s ministry, told and retold by my dad so often that I know them by heart.
At one point when Bert’s home church was in Hereford, he and the family lived in the parsonage, steps away from the sanctuary. On more than one occasion, a knock on the door would announce a young couple who wanted to get married. If the license was in order, Bert would oblige with my grandmother acting as the witness. One night at about 9:30 pm they were awakened by such a knock and after donning his dressing gown, Bert stumbled downstairs and opened the front door. There stood a very young couple, complete with Bible and bouquet, requesting the matrimonial services of Reverend Constance. He invited them into the parlor and requested to see their license. Unfortunately, the license was for Baltimore City, and they were standing 20 miles from the city line in Baltimore County. Bert gave them the bad news and the young girl burst into tears. My grandmother Grace had joined the gathering and immediately suggested to Bert that he phone a friend in the city and that they could drive there, do the ceremony, and drive home in the morning. The girl was still sobbing when Bert came back from the phone and said all was arranged. Bert and Grace got in their car, the young couple got in theirs and began to follow my grandparents down US Route 111. When they passed the sign marking the city line, the couple sped up, passed my grandfather, and pulled over on York Road.
My grandfather pulled in behind them and he and the groom got out of their cars and met in the light of Bert’s headlights. The young groom began, “Reverend, we’ve gotten you out of your bed and taken you on a long drive, for which we are deeply sorry. But we are running low on gasoline and were wondering whether we could do the service right here.”
“Right here on the road?”, Bert asked.
“Yes sir. We are across the city line, and it would be legal here, right?”
Bert had a interest in sleeping in his own bed that night, was sure his city friend would appreciate the cancellation, and just wanted it to be over. So, illuminated by headlights on the side of York Road in Baltimore City, Summer 1927, Bert Constance performed his first (and only) open-air wedding ceremony.
The second family story was from Bert’s first days in Maryland as a young pastor. He had received a hand delivered note that a long-time parishioner of the church had passed away on his farm about two miles outside Magnolia and in addition to the undertaker they wanted their minister to make a pastoral call. Bert got in his Model T and drove out Magnolia Rd. to the farmhouse. He walked up on the large front porch, banged on the screened door, and awaited a response. It was a hot summers day and although the settee on the porch was covered with a floral sheet, Bert sat down to wait. He didn’t sit long because he immediately realized that he had just sat on the corpse.
The final tale takes place in Lonaconing, Maryland in 1932. “Coney” as it is called by the locals is a town in Allegheny County in the western region of the state. Its economy was built around an iron furnace, coal mining, and rail transportation, much like Bert Constance’s native Tredegar. Also, like Tredegar it was populated by the Welsh who had emigrated to this area and to the coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In the Methodist church you are not “called” by the people. You are assigned by the Conference. Prior to his arrival Bert knew two things, the previous pastor was beloved by the congregation of First Methodist and the matriarch of the church was the president of his fan club. He had one additional fact. The matriarch was the widow of a coal miner and had been born near Bridgend in Wales. While Bert was not a native Welsh speaker, he had picked up enough Welsh in the mines and in chapel to get by.
On his first Sunday, he was ready. Positioned at the top of the church steps, he saw the woman whose black clothing and short stature was as had been described to him. As she mounted the stairs, she had the look of someone who had just consumed a lemon, peel and all. She looked up at Bert when she got to the landing, and he extended his hand and said, “Bore da” (Good morning). Her whole demeanor changed, and she blurted out “Bore da I chi hefyd” (Good morning to you too). A friendship blossomed in two sentences, and she eventually became Bert’s biggest supporter and confidant among the older members.
Prohibition and the Lord’s Day Alliance
John Wesley called distilled alcohol “poison” and that was that. Methodism became synonymous with temperance and abstention and Methodists were at the head of the column when it came to the campaign for prohibition in America. While attitudes have changed over the years, in my grandfather’s day, just say no to booze was his mantra and he used his platform to spread the word.
Again, in the words of his friend of thirty years, William Lewis,
“[Bert] was a man of positive views; one who had the courage of his convictions. He never feared any consequence of his loyalty. From early days he was an active worker in the temperance cause. He used every legitimate method within his reach to fight the liquor traffic: pulpit, platform, and the newspaper forum. His last speech in our Preacher’s Meeting had to do with the sale of intoxicants in the vicinity of our Army Camps.”
Some years ago, this turned the light on for me as to why my dad knew every political leader in Maryland on a first name basis. It was because of the visibility of his father far beyond the pulpit in the 1920’s and 30’s in Maryland. Governor McKeldin, Tommy D’Alesandro, William Donald Schaefer, George Radcliff, and Millard Tydings all had experienced the passion of the little Welshman in the white collar.
As a testament to the old days of American politics, I love the family story of my grandfather and Senator Millard E. Tydings. Tydings was from Havre de Grace in the heart of Harford County and had served as Maryland’s second district Congressman and United States Senator. During his reelection campaign in 1932 repeal of prohibition was one of the hot national topics and in working class Baltimore, booze was on the minds of the voters. Tydings was pro-repeal, and my grandfather was a prohibition man to his core.
The Senator and the Preacher wound up speaking at a lot of the same forums during the campaign, and always on opposite sides of the prohibition issue. After several of these appearances, Senator Tydings called my grandfather and offered him a ride to the next meeting. Out of that gesture blossomed a great friendship that has been multigenerational. My dad went to work for Senator Tydings in various capacities, up to and including babysitting his adopted son Joe. We both campaigned for Joe for the US Senate many years later and I ensured that Joe was a special guest when we dedicated the National Archives at College Park in May of 1994.
Senator Joe Tydings (who my dad babysat) and Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, my patron saint.
Senator Millard Tydings wife, Eleanor Davies Tydings was the daughter of Joseph E. Davies who was US Ambassador to the USSR, Belgium, and Luxembourg under President Franklin Roosevelt. Her Davies grandparents were both born in Wales and her mother was the first female evangelist to come out of Great Britain. And she was Methodist. The bonds with my grandfather were deep and she continued to be a friend to my parents and me for years after her husband’s death in 1961. One of my father’s treasured mementos was a piece of ivy that Mrs. Tydings had plucked from my Uncle Ivor’s grave in Belgium. My dad always kept it in his Bible.
Late in my grandfather’s ministry he was named secretary of the Lord’s Day Alliance in Maryland, an advocacy group to keep the Maryland Blue Laws on the books and ensure that the sanctity of the sabbath would be maintained in the state. Newspaper sales and any form of commerce on the Lord’s Day should be prohibited in Bert’s view. My mother once pointed out that that did not stop Bert from going next door to read the neighbor’s paper most every Sunday.
As I said early in Bert, Chapter 1, the only interruption of Bert Constance deification came from my mom, who always told it with the bark off. She clearly respected my grandfather and honored his memory. But on rare occasions she would throw in an incongruity outside of my father’s hearing.
First was the middle initial affectation. I can attest to the fact that on no birth, baptism, or census certificate did my grandfather have a middle name. He was simply Bert Constance. But as the years went along, his signature included the middle initial A. Family rumor had it that he thought it just looked better.
And there was this comment that Mom once made. I was too young to follow up, but not too young to remember. “Your grandfather was an odd duck at times.” Was that his demeanor, his culture, his piety? I didn’t ask and so I’ll never know.
A Final Toast with Judge Loeber
My mother’s father, Judge John Loeber loved Bert Constance. The reason that I have the document that I have relied on for this brief biography is because my Grandfather Loeber was so taken by Bert’s life story that he carefully filed a copy of this eulogy in his own papers. He too would suffer a cerebral hemorrhage just two months after Bert and die at the age of 50.
Judge Loeber’s daughter (and my mom’s sister), Annie was married to Theo Charles Andersen in the family living room in 1939. Reverend Bert Constance officiated. On this joyous occasion, Judge Loeber turned and offered a glass of champaign to Reverend Constance in front of the entire family. There was a silent moment of terror in the room as everyone waited for the preacher’s reaction. He said, “Well, I’ve never had a drink in my life, but on this special day, it might just be time to join in.” The room exploded in relieved laughter as my two grandfathers shared a toast.
Cheers to their memory.