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A Pastor's Son, Born and Baptized on "the Canadian Frontier"


The pastor took bricks from the stove and wrapped them in newspaper.

NeuhausThrough the sudden steam that clouded his wire-rimmed spectacles, he saw his daughter watching him. She was dressed in her Sunday best. She looked grateful. The hot bricks were for her, she knew, as were the bearskin rugs he would wrap around her legs for the journey ahead. Soon, father and daughter would exit the parsonage through the rear door into the snow-filled backyard where, this morning at least, there were no hungry, desperate men offering to split wood for a little food. Instead, there waited only the horse and cutter that Clemens Neuhaus rented on Sundays, in the winter months of his 1930s life and work as a Lutheran pastor leading two congregations in the Ottawa Valley. He used the cutter to trek up to a mission church that sat some ten miles northeast of St. John's Lutheran Church of Pembroke, Ontario, his main congregation. He'd answered a call and come here in 1933, then aged thirty-three, moving his young family from a congregation some two hundred miles farther to the north, in Sudbury. In either place, they were far from what once was home — Illinois in Clem's case, Arkansas for his wife, Ella. The Neuhaus family had been glad to leave the deep far north of Sudbury, where they had lived overtop a sugar factory that sat cheek-by-jowl beside the church that had been the young pastor's first major assignment after he'd married. His second assignment, to St. John's Pembroke as it was locally known, was to lead a congregation that was part of a lumber town located along the dark, wide Ottawa River. Like small towns across North America in the 1930s, Pembroke was struggling with the hardships of the Great Depression.

Lutheran settlers from north Germany had first migrated to this verdant fold of central Canada in the middle of the nineteenth century. Strong in their faith but isolated, they were "spiritually-hungry," as one historian describes them, and were intermittently served through the latter half of the 1800s by a succession of missionary-pastors who ministered to their scattered small settlements by horseback. These men came first from Germany, and then from Lutheran seminaries in the United States that were connected to various synods, or ecclesial governing councils, the basic units of organization in Lutheranism. These were self-organized around a complicated set of geographic, ethnic, and doctrinal factors, often in opposition to one another. Over time, these Lutherans of the Ottawa Valley became identified and organized as part of the Canada Synod, which was served predominantly by pastors from the powerful and conservative Missouri Synod. Founded in 1847, it was to be a new "Zion on the Mississippi," according to its leading pastor, C. F. Walther, who vowed that this council would be a "true church," preaching and teaching in fidelity to the sixteenth-century founding statements of Lutheranism itself. Such a promise would have been appealing to Lutherans in the Ottawa Valley; throughout their early history, concerns and controversies over the perceived orthodoxy of various pastors — as determined by the strength and purity of their commitments to the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord (1580), a series of declarations on belief and doctrine devised principally by Martin Luther and Philippe Melanchthon — were of a piece with the intensity of the people's faith.

The Ottawa Valley Lutherans first practiced this faith in services that were held in a little log cabin owned by a cabinetmaker and in assorted private homes, until these places proved insufficient for the growing number of Lutherans living in and around the town of Pembroke — which, in addition to being ninety minutes from Canada's capital city, Ottawa, was itself a regional center of some significance owing to its robust lumber industry. By 1891, a strong enough community of believers had been established in the town that a Lutheran congregation was founded and a rudimentary church built. Forty years later, in 1933, after four pastors had come and gone through a time of great growth for the congregation, growth dramatized by the 1920 erection of a grand new church that could boast of the tallest steeple in town, Clemens Neuhaus took charge. He led them in a glorious celebration that first year, of the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth, and went on to serve for almost three decades, longer than any pastor before him, while living next door with his wife, Ella, at 357 Miller Street, in a simple red brick eight-room pastorage where, on $81 a month, they raised their eight children.

By mid-April, 1936, Ella was a month away from giving birth to the seventh of these children, a son who would be called Richard John thanks to a naming contest secretly handicapped by her husband. Not that she likely had much time to consider any naming possibilities herself. Ella was, as ever in those years, busy taking care of the children. In this latest case, while almost to term, she was already occupied with infant twin boys and with their rambunctious trio of older brothers. The best help Ella's nine-year-old daughter could afford her on a cold Sunday in April was to accompany Clem on his Sunday visit to the mission church and, in Ella's absence, fulfill the important duties of the pastor's wife: to ask after the new babies in the congregation; to console those who had lately lost loved ones; to commiserate about the weather and the tough times for the many out of work; to agree that the choir was once more both solemn and beautiful; and also to agree that the pastor's sermon had indeed been another good one, strong and sound, echt Missouri, echt Lutheran. And so to offer this great help to her mother was why the little girl, who was named Mildred and called Mim, was waiting in the Neuhaus kitchen on this cold Sunday morning, watching as her father heated and wrapped up the bricks he would place beneath her feet for the cold journey ahead.


Ready to depart, Clem strode down the hall to bid Ella good-bye. As was her way whenever the day allowed for it, she was seated in the front parlor, reading to the children. Clem sternly commanded the older boys to mind their mother. He had reason to do so; as usual, Fred, Joe, and Clem Jr. weren't sitting still so much as readying for the latest round of horseplay once their father left. But he informed them he would hear word of their behavior once he returned home later that Sunday, when he would gather the family together after a roast chicken dinner — while Clem carved, he made the children laugh with a decidedly Lutheran kind of levity, calling the chicken's tail end "the Pope's nose" — for devotional readings, a hymn, and evening prayer. Turning away from the bigger boys, who knew their father readily backed up his words with a stick, and just before leaving the parlor, Clem looked in on his and Ella's youngest children, Tom and George, twin boys born the year before Richard John. They lay quiet in their bassinets. Clem showed then that rare tenderness and warm, wide smile that newborn life inspired in him. Recalling his sacred duties and practical plans to fulfill them, he put on his heavy coat and his massive fur hat, gathered up the hot bricks and his pastor's kit, and walked out the back door with Mim. They climbed into the cutter, Clem took up the reins, the horse stamped, and they set off in the bright cold weather. Before they were out of town, Clem began going over the different family names and particular family situations of the congregants whom Mim was responsible for knowing and asking after in place of her mother. They rode along a Sunday-quiet country road surrounded by banks of snow through which you could see, now and then, timeworn parts of simple wooden fences marking off farmers' steads. Great snowcapped evergreens and leaf-barren trees edged in frost surrounded them as they made their way to the waiting congregation.

Almost forty years later, perhaps inspired more by his father's memories of these days circulating through the wintry heart of the Ottawa Valley than by his own small-town childhood, Richard John Neuhaus would evoke a boyhood spent on the "Canadian frontier" in one of his earliest books, In Defense of People (1971). This evocation was, as these usually would be for Neuhaus, less sentimental than pointed, less romantic than strategic. In conjuring up an image of the "Canadian frontier," Neuhaus compared roughing it in the wilds of 1930s rural Canada with rough living in 1960s New York City. He made this rather strange but autobiographical comparison to defend the dignity of life in New York from critics of its urban blight. This was an urban blight that, for Neuhaus, never obscured the wonders and promise of life in the city where he lived for almost fifty years, first as a Lutheran pastor and then as a Roman Catholic priest, a city that was, for him, after growing up in Pembroke and then living and studying and discerning and pursuing his vocation to God and man in small-town Nebraska, rural Texas, and St. Louis, nothing less than "the prolepsis of the New Jerusalem."

But back in 1936, a month before Richard John Neuhaus was born, his father would not have been thinking about New York City — never mind imagining that any son of his would grow up to defend the place as all-but-heaven-on-earth in an array of books and magazines, no less become a Catholic priest, among the most prominent and influential in America! No, while riding along the cold, hard road to his mission church, his daughter bundled up beside him against the cold weather persisting past Easter and into springtime, Clem would have been thinking and, no doubt, also praying more immediately about the readings and the Gospel for that morning's service, and about the sermon he was to give thereafter. This was the second Sunday of Easter, and, with the fullness of life and faith that Clemens Neuhaus had received and created as a pastor and a family man, he may have been thinking and praying especially on the last line of the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: "And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ." This was a standard Lutheran Eastertime selection, and in describing the joyful efforts of Christ's earliest disciples, the line captures the very efforts that Clem had robustly taken up as his every day's work and his lifelong vocation, at church and home both.

This was work and a vocation that his son Richard would eventually take on and make his own. "I have often thought the life I have lived is in very large part his," Neuhaus wrote in a 1994 essay, puckishly and pointedly entitled "Like Father, Like Son, Almost." And through the many lines of continuity and also discontinuity that emerged and endured between Richard and Clemens, and between all that Richard sought to be and become and all that Clemens Neuhaus taught and embodied, there came a remarkable, controversial, and decisively Christian life in the American public square.


This was a life informed significantly by Neuhaus' growing up as a pastor's son in a small town in which that Lutheran pastor commanded so much authority that he was called "Pope Neuhaus" out of respect, admiration, and not a little fear. Clemens didn't mind this; in fact, he once lent a book to one of his congregants with "C. Pope" inscribed on the inside cover. As a nickname, "Pope Neuhaus" was both theologically loaded and highly ironic when fitted to a Lutheran pastor emerging from a confession that had a decidedly anti-papal bent: Lehre und Wehre, the Missouri Synod's main theological journal, ran articles in the early twentieth century emphasizing that "everything truly Lutheran condemns the pope and everything papistic" while also demonizing the pope himself: "The 'old man' . . . looks as if a whole flock of devils had taken possession of him. He smiles so antagonistically, so repulsively, so diabolically." In light of this virulence, it's more ironic still, in retrospect, that a Lutheran pastor formed by such a strongly anti-Catholic Protestantism would raise a son who would become a Catholic priest so passionately and enthusiastically committed to Rome and the papacy, friends and foes alike would describe him as sometimes seeming "more Catholic than the pope." Clem's own papal moniker came from his seminary days in Springfield, Illinois, as Neuhaus himself noted elsewhere in that same 1994 essay, where he also admitted to being "endlessly fascinated by my parents' stories about 'the olden days,' meaning mainly the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, the decade before my birth." To underscore this fascination, Neuhaus then quoted a wonder-tinged meditation from the early twentieth-century English writer Llewelyn Powys: "The years lived by our father before he begot us have upon them a wonder that cannot be easily matched. . . . In some dim way we share in those adventures of this mortal who not so long ago moved over the face of the earth like a god called to us out of the deep."

"The years lived by our father before he begot us have upon them a wonder that cannot be easily matched. . . . In some dim way we share in those adventures of this mortal who not so long ago moved over the face of the earth like a god called to us out of the deep."

It is no great surprise that Clemens Neuhaus inspired such outsized notions on the part of his children. More than six feet tall, he weighed well over two hundred pounds by the time his seventh child came around. His contemporaries and congregants alike remember his sizeable presence; one in-law describes him in near-mythic terms, recalling how he "could walk up to a stranger, grasp him by the belt, and twist him over his head with one arm." He made much of his size, himself. Many years after he had had to visit his mission church in a rented horse and cutter in the winter, and, in summer months, by a bicycle (which was displayed at the church for years thereafter as much to signal the congregation's humble history as it was to prove Clem Neuhaus' gravity-defiance), he drove a succession of small cars — a Baby Austin, then an Anglia, and eventually a Volkswagen Beetle. When he was asked by congregants and fellow pastors how a man of his size could get into such small cars, his grinning response was always "I don't get into it. I wear it." Not that he was always a grinning giant. Indeed, one of his Pembroke nieces recalls a Saturday morning confirmation class in the 1940s where another of the children "gave him attitude, and he bolted off the stage over a table and he had to weigh at least 230 pounds and he said 'Out! Out!' " Decades later, this same niece could still shudder and laugh and shake her head in wonder at the recollection: an angered Pastor Neuhaus moving at top speed was as terrifying to witness from up close as it was amazing, because of the velocity that this massive man could generate when he had to, and he had to, in this case, because he perceived a show of disrespect to his holy office and teaching.

Clemens Neuhaus had been, at first, reluctant about a life in ministry. He was born in Steelville, Illinois, in 1900. His father, Fritz, was a contractor, and his mother, Clara, was a milliner. He enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. His family's deeper ancestry was made up of German immigrants who had settled in the Lutheran stronghold that developed across the midwestern states through the nineteenth century, and it included a Union soldier and also, if quietly at the time, a Jewish line. In fact, family lore has it that Clemens' Hanover-born grandmother, Maria, was initially denied a Christian burial because she was Jewish, even though her 1927 obituary reports that she "was a faithful member of the St. Mark's Lutheran Church, and died in firm faith in her Savior." By the same family lore, the initial denial of burial was reportedly overturned after her grieving husband threatened to burn down the church if he couldn't "await the last trumpet side by side" in the earth with his beloved wife, as one of their great-grandchildren describes the widower's demands in an informal family history.

A man of less volatile bearing and dramatic religiosity than his grandfather, who was in fact more inclined to hunting, boxing, tennis, and baseball than ministry, Clem wasn't naturally drawn to religious life. But his parents desperately wanted him to become a pastor. He acquiesced, enrolling in a Lutheran seminary in Springfield, Illinois. This led to his spending the better part of his seminarian vicarage year, 1923–24, assigned to a Missouri Synod church in Crockett's Bluff, Arkansas. This town sits some eighty miles southeast of Little Rock by way of Stuttgart, which was founded in the late nineteenth century by a Lutheran minister and populated with German immigrants. In time, some of them went farther along, to the little town set up on the banks of the White River that Clem Neuhaus reached in 1923. He spent that year living at the home of the local superintendent of schools, C. F. Prange, who had a free bedroom because his daughter Ella was away teaching every week. When she would come home for weekends, the seminarian-boarder slept elsewhere. But this petite and demure young woman was on Clem's mind throughout his vicarage year in Crockett's Bluff. As he morosely but dutifully reported in his diary, he proposed to her twice and was rebuffed both times.

But Clem wasn't so easily discouraged. After leaving Arkansas to return for his final year of seminary in September 1925, he wrote her many letters — letters that went unanswered. Meanwhile, Ella had left Crockett's Bluff as well; she'd moved out to California to be with her sister, who was expecting a baby. While there, she worked part-time in the library at UCLA. Throughout Ella's year in California, letters kept coming from Clem, and then, more starkly, a one-line postcard: "Your man would appreciate letters at this address." This must have been a gamble: there was no clear evidence yet that he was, in fact, her man. Indeed, when her father died in April 1926, she didn't even write Clem with that news, though she knew how fond Clem had been of him. Instead, she took a train home for the funeral, only to be met at the station by Clemens Neuhaus. One of Ella's brothers had informed him. After the funeral, as Ella was preparing to return to California, Clem made his case in person. No sweet words alone would do; Ella was a practical-minded young woman: she insisted she wouldn't consider marrying him unless he accepted a call first.

Whether providentially or tactically or both, upon graduating from seminary that June, Clem accepted a call to a church in Russellville, Arkansas, a town north of Little Rock. Right away, he made plans to see Ella, inviting her to visit with him in a neutral location — the home of a pastor friend of his in the town of Waldenburg, which was near Stuttgart, where Ella was then living with a friend. (She hadn't gone back to California, after all.) Ella agreed to the visit, but didn't know what to expect. She packed a dress for the journey, just in case she ended up married. She did, faster than either she or even long-smitten Clem could have imagined. He met her at the station and said, "We have to get married because Frank and Crystal just got company and they don't have enough bedrooms." And so fifteen minutes later, Ella wed Clem in Frank and Crystal's garden. She didn't even change her dress.

"I have often thought the life I have lived is in very large part his," Neuhaus wrote in a 1994 essay, puckishly and pointedly entitled "Like Father, Like Son, Almost."

Their wedding portrait captures the make-do beginnings of their life together. Chambered in lush southern foliage, the background trees all but blocking out the dusk hour light while plants and bushes encircle them, the young couple pose for the photographer. Clem, who weighed 185 pounds to Ella's 85 on their wedding day, towers beside her in a white dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves, dark trousers, and a black bow-tie that looks almost comically small against the broad expanse of his frame. He is excessively clean-shaven; the razor line extends into his side-parted brown hair well above his big ears, drawing that much more attention to their flappy, turned-out shape. He is not staring at the camera but instead down at Ella, while fidgeting with the leafy tail end of a shrub. Beside him, she looks very small, very slight. She is wearing a light-colored short-sleeved dress hemmed a few hand-lengths below her knees. Her shoes are flat and plain, ideal for a long journey, if not for a wedding. Indeed, but for a bit of frill around the collar of her dress, Ella is dressed simply. She looks directly into the camera. She wears her brown hair in a close-crop, as she always would. She's smiling, sort of. If Clem looks nervous but intent in their wedding portrait, Ella seems calmer but also enigmatic. For the rest of her life, whether when her children were arguing about how much longer Clem had to live before the cancer claimed him, or when her son Richard was scolding her for hanging up on the President of the United States while Richard was napping, or when a crowd of academic and religious worthies were laughing at a sweet sharp joke she'd just made at Richard's expense, Ella would often show the world an inscrutable face. She didn't say much beyond what needed to be said, and in the meantime, becoming in 1926 a pastor's wife and thereafter mother to six sons and two daughters, moving from Arkansas to northern Canada to less northern Canada as her husband's ministerial work developed and finally found the right fit at St. John's Pembroke, Ella just kept doing what needed to be done — what God and family life were calling her to be and do.

On May 14, 1936, she gave birth to a sixth son. Clem went to visit Ella and the new baby, who were lying in at a maternity home in town. He brought along Mim and two of his older boys, Fred and Joe. On the way, the children argued over what to name their new baby brother. Fred insisted he should be called Burton Arnold, in honor of a friend of his from the congregation whose claim to fame was his skill as an ice-skater — no small source of acclaim in small town Canada. But Clem signaled to Mim that he wasn't much taken with that name. He preferred her suggestion instead. After looking in on Ella and meeting the new baby, they returned home. Gathering the children together in the kitchen, Clem instructed them to commit their picks to scraps of paper. He gave Fred a larger piece than the others, so he would know which one read "Burton Arnold." Clem placed all of these scraps in a bowl and asked Mim to pick the winning name. He took her hand and guided it right to the scrap that read "Richard John." Nineteen days later, Pastor Clemens Neuhaus baptized his new son, cleansing him of original sin and claiming him for God and His Church.

And even though this was the seventh baptism in nine years for the Neuhaus family, and even though the pastor father would have no doubt been officiating at the baptism of many other children in those days, Richard John's was especially memorable. He grew up hearing stories about it, and he would write about the event decades later, with his distinctive combination of wry wit and theological seriousness: "For many years I've been responding to evangelical friends who want to know when I was born again or, as it is commonly put, when I became a Christian," he wrote in a 2000 issue of his magazine First Things. "'I don't remember it at all,' I say, 'but I know precisely the time and place. It was at 357 Miller St., Pembroke, Ontario, on Sunday June 2, 1936 twelve [sic] days after birth I was born again in the sacrament of Holy Baptism." And even though it was sitting right next door, no baptismal font was involved in the administering of this sacrament. Instead, Richard John Neuhaus was "born again in the sacrament of Holy Baptism" in the family kitchen, over the sink. On police orders, the Neuhaus family wasn't allowed outside. The day and hour baby Richard John became a Christian, the rest of the Neuhaus kids were quarantined with the measles.



boyagoda Randy Boyagoda "A Pastor's Son, Born and Baptized on 'the Canadian Frontier'." from Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square (New York: Image, 2015): 3-14.

Excerpted from Richard John Neuhaus by Randy Boyagoda Copyright © 2015 by Randy Boyagoda. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Reprinted with permission of

The Author

boyagoda1boyagodaRandy Boyagoda is a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is the author of Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square His latest novel is Beggar's Feast, which was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, nominated for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, and has been published to critical acclaim around the world. His debut novel, Governor of the Northern Province, was nominated for the 2006 ScotiaBank Giller Prize. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, First Things, The New Statesman, and Harper's. He lives in Toronto with his wife and four daughters.  

Copyright © 2015 Randy Boyagoda
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