Fall 1973. Life in St. Louis began with a flurry of activity at 1840 Hogan. Our family belongings stored in the basement of this 2-story former convent, we obediently began our year of internship in the Order: Ecumenical. The prior-ship of the St. Louis Religious House was assigned by the leadership team in Chicago: Dan and Lin Tuecke and their 2 sons, Troy and Eric, Fred and Jann McGuire and 2 of their 3 sons and one daughter, Patrick and Barry, and Adam Thomson, a single Brit. The remainder of those in the House were, like us, interns from the St. Louis Regions: Walt Epley, a farmer from Iowa, and his family, the Hawleys (Bob a Methodist Minister) with their 3 kids, John Rodda, a paraplegic, and his wife Jill, and two or three assorted single women with a child each.
Religious House life was probably not unlike that in any convent or monastery, except we were all family units, including young children. Couples and singles had their own separate living spaces. The boys were in a dorm and some of older girls roomed together. The very youngest kids stayed with their parents.
Pre-schoolers were placed in a neighborhood church-run pre-school and fortunately, there was a good Catholic school in the area where we could enroll all the rest of our kids. The inner-city schools in St. Louis were pretty tough for white kids, especially in our neighborhood. After-school and on weekends we had adults assigned to care for the “emerging generation” (E.G., a term we insensitive adults came to regret using in later years). These “children’s structures” as they were also known, were assigned to any adult who might be available, and often became a burden for them and a worse experience for the kids. Some of those assigned were more creative than others and we did try to give our kids enriching experiences, outings to cultural events, to the St. Louis Zoo, to the top of the recently constructed Arch. But it was definitely a mixed bag and made for many of our youth being neglected and even abused in their most formative years, which we as parents did not learn until years later.
Since we were to be a self-supporting House, some of us had to go out and find jobs to support the rest of us who were carrying out the full-time teaching and recruiting mission of the Order. Often this meant the women were sent out to find jobs, or those who had substantial earning power. Because I was clergy and a big part of our task was calling on local church pastors and denominational executives, I was assigned “in-house.” Sue was sent out and found a job at a downtown Zales jewelry store.
The Order: Ecumenical’s operating image was of the family in mission to the world. This meant that all time was assigned as was all space. Where you lived and your role in the mission was assigned. Your belongings were at the disposal of the mission. The mission was everything. But this was not a chamber of horrors. Some of the principles that guided us were that decision-making was based on consensus and the individual’s right to decide was upheld, at least in principle; the family was important and required to take time for its own nurture, at least one night a week. Monday was always “family night,” and the expectation was that you would have dinner together and plan some family activity, a night out if you could afford it or just being together. We did make attempts to guard the family unit, but too often the mission, or the current understanding of it, took precedence.
Time was separated into functional units. The week was divided into Week I/Week II: Week I, Monday through Thursday, Week II Friday through Sunday. Week I was the main work week, when each person was doing his/her assigned job; Week II was usually reserved for the entire House working as a unit, either a weekend teaching program or a major cleaning/repair task at the House. We even experimented with a Day I/Day II image, with Day I the main individual tasks and Day II for family/House/team functions. The day almost always began with the Daily Office, a 20 minute worship service led by House members. All children, youth and adults were expected to be present. The year was divided into quarters, with summer quarter for 2 months of research in Chicago, where all Houses were represented, and one month reserved for family time and moving to new assignments.
Meals were generally in the common dining room, with the kids eating together in a separate room. Lunches were made and sent off with the working adults and students. Breakfasts included some led conversation and a topic of interest to all House members. Thursday evening was a special study night at dinner. Sunday evening meal was always a “House Church” common meal communion and celebrations of family events, and then reading of reports from all the Religious Houses around the world, which numbered in the hundreds at one point. There was always singing at meals, one of the activities that held us together as a movement and not just an organized group. We wrote many of the lyrics and adapted them to popular tunes.
Occasionally and at least once each quarter, we planned a major House celebration and/or outing. One of the most memorable of these was a full-blown production of Cabaret, with all of the songs adapted with words written by House members. At these celebrations we would party into the wee hours and then be up for 5 a.m. Daily Office. We worked hard and long hours when we worked, and celebrated just as hard when we celebrated.
But this was not a life for the faint-hearted. It took its toll on many families, and ours was not to be exempt.