We were invited to join our good friends Pierre and Ellie to renew their wedding vows. Our instructions were to arrive at dawn and park our car on the cathedral grounds: "You’ll need to find the side entrance; we were told it’s the only one open at that hour."
After parking, we approached the building through a heavy fog that sat low to the ground making it hard to see where we were going. Out of that fog, we heard a voice call out: “Birds, birds, it’s this way.” Through the mist, we spotted a fanciful silhouette, a man wearing a cloak and a hat. He had seen us walking with trepidation, hesitating on the direction to choose.
Realizing that his call was an endearment, we followed him up a set of metal stairs through a door that easily could have led us to a side building, but once inside, we found ourselves dwarfed by the massive space. There was no question we had entered the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. As we inhaled the atmosphere, our cloaked guide pointed in the direction we should go, then disappeared into the massive expanse before I could thank him.
Walking down the aisle that lead us behind the alter, we peaked in and out of all the chapels, searching for the one where we would find our friends. When we finally located the right one, there they were quietly sitting in the front pews. Joining them, we sat, respecting the silence, and waited for the service to begin.
After a few minutes the minister entered and welcomed us. He was our cloaked guide, transformed by his vestments; it was James Parks Morton, the Dean of the Cathedral.
At the end of the service, we were re-introduced to Dean Morton. With a big smile he discovered this was our first visit to the Cathedral and with zeal he showed us around, explaining all the projects that were going on. His enthusiasm was addictive. We followed him as he pointed and explained and we took in the largesse of building. “It is said to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and one of the biggest church buildings anywhere.”1 We were hooked.
Ellie suggested that we go across the street to have coffee and pastries. It was just the three of us: Jim, Ellie, and me. And sitting at the café, we began a conversation that would continue for years.
At the time my son was about a year old and I was having trouble finding a church that would baptize him. It was a ritual that was important to my mother and she pressed that I not give up the search. I was raised Roman Catholic so that was where I went to find a priest. I wandered to the church down the street from where we lived and met with the priest.
"Are you a member?" he asked.
“No," I replied, "but I would be happy to join.”
“That won’t be possible," he answered.
“Why?" I asked, confused. "I assure you I’m Roman Catholic.”
"I’m sorry,” he insisted, “that just isn’t possible.”
I walked away confused, wondering if I had done or said something that had offended him. But determined not to let my mother down, I visited other churches—they all said the same thing. Annoyed and exasperated, I called my mother and explained. A few weeks later I heard back from her: “I had the same responses,” she said with a heaviness. “I even went to the churches I had attended,” she added.
As we now sat in the café opposite the Cathedral drinking our coffees, Ellie said, “Adeline, you have to tell Jim about your experience trying to baptize Tyler at a Catholic Church."
Jim’s eyes brightened. “Oh, do tell. What happened?”
As I relayed the story, he listened with amazement, as surprised as we were by the refusals. Then opening his jacket, he pulled out his pocket agenda. “When would you like to baptize Tyler? I would be honored to do it.”
Taken aback, I blurted, “After Christmas would be great; that’s when my entire family will be together.” Realizing that he was the Dean of the Cathedral and had an exceptionally busy schedule, I quickly added, "But any time that works for you would be great."
“What day after Christmas would be good for you?” he asked, Looking at his calendar.
As we settled on a date, I sat stupefied: this incredible man had just asked what would work for me
Tyler’s baptism was an amazing day. When my family and friends gathered, something happened—they felt they had come home. The experience was so open, so warm that you knew you were in the presence of God and we were all welcomed. We were experiencing the magic of Jim Morton and the Cathedral. He had created a space that allowed such joy.
That is what a spiritual space is supposed to be.
Dean Morton became a part of our lives and a part of our family.
Whenever Jim would see Tyler at Mass, he would wave, allowing Tyler to glow in their relationship. "This is Tyler, my godson," he would say when introducing him to others. And indeed he was God’s son.
When Tyler was baptized, Jim baptized Tyler’s father also. “What a great bond to have between father and son,” he exclaimed.
It was Jim who led the memorial Mass when my father passed away.
When my brother Tony and his fiancé, Theo, were married, Jim officiated at the Cathedral and of course attended the reception.
We would invite him and his wife, Pamela, to dinner parties and they would always attend.
When I had questions about religion and the world in general, Jim was the person I would ask and always I walked away with thought-provoking ideas that I was grateful for.
And of course my husband Mark and I asked him to marry us.
On January 4, 2020, the New York Times reported that “James Parks Morton, Dean Who Brought a Cathedral to Life, Dies at 89.”
I’m filled with sadness and immense gratitude for having had the privilege to know this extraordinary man and for the gifts he gave my family and friends.
I realize that I am just one of so very many people who are sharing similar thoughts today and whose hearts are bigger because of the love of this great man.
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