The Hippie Priest
This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Earlier this summer, Father James Grubb celebrated the 40th year of his ordination with a solemn High Mass at his church in Ottumwa, Iowa. Father Grubb is ultra- conservative. His church is one of few in Iowa offering masses in Latin. As music for his anniversary, he chose Gregorian chants.
Rock Islanders who were here in the 1960s and ‘70s when Father Grubb was pastor of St. Anthony's Church in Davenport might be pardoned for furrowing their brows. At St. Anthony's, James Grubb quickly became one of the most controversial priests in the Diocese of Davenport and made national headlines as the hippie priest of the love generation. He was the Catholic version of the Native American trickster figure who defies tradition in order to open up new possibilities.
Announcing that the church must be all things to all people, Father Grubb instituted a folk mass that drew such large crowds of young Catholics, protestants, and non-believers that police were needed to direct traffic.
Often at these masses, Father Grubb, wearing long sideburns and fringed burlap vestments decorated with daisies, butterflies, and a peace symbol, danced down the aisle to Beatles tunes, beads and baubles swinging, passing the kiss of peace down each pew. Behind him came a procession of tambourine-shaking nuns, and a banner of jumping jacks proclaiming, "We are fools for Christ."
Father Grubb was once the principle speaker at a rally of a thousand students who gathered on the levee in Davenport to protest the expulsion from school of several students for wearing long hair. It was a matter of blind prejudice on the part of straight people, Father Grubb told the protesters.
Father Grubb left St. Anthony's for Sacred Heart in Ottumwa in 1979. "I've changed a bit," he admits. “Sold out,” we might reply.
But perhaps the ways have changed more than the heart. In the world of the ‘90s, with congregations of Catholics growing ever more restless, isn't Father Grubb's preference for chants and for Latin just a new sign of the trickster?
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.