For Virginia’s Cunningham Chapel, the Holy Grail has been found by the Knights of Columbus in New Bern.
Well, not exactly the Holy Grail. But darned close.
Monty Python aside, the Holy Grail is said to be the lost cup that Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper, the night before the faithful believe he died as a sacrifice for their sins.
In imitation of that sacrifice, churches for the past 2,000 years have held communion – often with valuable and decorative cruits (vase-like containers to hold the wine) and chalices (a fancy word for a fancy cup).
Cunningham Chapel, a historical Episcopal church in Millwood, Virginia, had such a set – a quadruple silver-plated cruit, chalice and platen (more church-talk: it means “a tray”) crafted by Meridan Brittania of Connecticut. It was donated to the church by J.C. Terrell, a prominent Texas attorney (and later ambassador under President Grover Cleveland) while he was visiting family in 1856.
Then, that Civil War thing took place. Millwood is located near the Shenandoah/Winchester area, a region that switched hands from Northern to Southern control several times throughout the war.
“We don’t know the exact circumstances,” Matt Rhodes, pastor of the church said, but sometime during the war the set disappeared. “The word that I’ve heard in the two months that I’ve been here is that it was stolen,” he said.
Stolen, as in “liberated” by a Union soldier whose eye it caught.
The church never saw its communion set again.
Advance 150-odd years into the future, to the Knights of Columbus Council 3303 in New Bern.
The local K of C, an organization with close ties to the Catholic Church, is involved in a number of social and charitable activities. Ralph Aviles, who chairs the organization’s thrice-annual yard sales, said the group budgets about $100,000 each year. “Most of that money goes back to the community,” he said, including donations to RCS, the women’s shelter and Wounded Warriors. It also purchases coats for school children, among other activities.
The yard sale, held at the hall at 1125 Pinetree Drive, is one of the organization’s most important fund raisers. It receives numerous donations that are catalogued and stacked in preparation for the popular community sales (the next will be Oct. 26-28).
Cheryl Lawrence, who works with the sales, said that among the items most recently donated was box in which there was an old, faded cruit. She looked it over and her first impression was not a strong one, even though she quickly realized it was a 19th-century piece. Dulled, and marred with a couple of minor dings and pings as it was, she at first decided it was not of any great value. “Age does not automatically mean value,” she explained, adding that her first thoughts were that the piece would sell for under $20.
But, she said, “I got bored and started polishing silver. That’s when I came across that inscription.”
Printed (and curiously misspelled) on the cruit’s side was “Cuningham Chapel from J.C. Terrell.”
Curious, Lawrence launched into an investigation.
She was able to find the piece’s maker by tracing a stamp on its underside. The creator, Meridan Brittania, was founded in 1852 according to Wikipedia, but it no longer exists. Still, its work is well-known and a quick internet search will turn up numerous pieces for sale on E-bay and other sites.
As to J.C. Terrell, it didn’t take her long to piece together a biography.
Terrell was born in Tennessee in 1831 and eventually settled as an attorney in Fort Worth, Texas. He formed a company of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War – whether for Tennessee or Texas or where, Lawrence wasn’t able to determine.
She ascertained that he visited family in Virginia in 1856, she said, when he most likely donated the communion set. A number of Terrells lived in Virginia at the time, Lawrence learned.
Excited, she tracked down Cunningham Chapel (named in the 1700s for after local tavern, by the way) and picked up her phone.
“One day she called us about the cruit and we got excited,” Rhodes recalled. “Then two days later she told us she found the chalice that went with it.”
She sent cell phone shots of the set to him.
Arrangements are being made about its return and Rhodes said the whole congregation is looking forward to it. “It amazes me that something’s that’s been floating around 150 years was cared for this much,” he said.
“There are many times you read papers, where something like this has been turned over to a historic site that’s been missing for years. But you never expect (it to happen in) a place like this that has such deep roots in the community.”
As for Lawrence, Aviles and the rest of the Knights of Columbus, they’re wondering exactly where this anonymous donation came from, and if there’s a way to trace its history since the war.
Avile said he hopes the person who donated it will contact him and tell its tale. He can be reached at 638-1704.
Rhodes says his congregation hasn’t decided what exactly they’ll do once their communion set arrives home again. Likely they will send it out for restoration and display; if its condition is good enough, he said, it may be used for communion again.
“At some point we’ll rejoice,” he said. “It’s one of those pieces that you think is gone for ever, and suddenly there it is.”
Contact Bill Hand at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.