Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana Archives

Rev. James McNeal Wheatley

James McNeal Wheatley was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 30 June 1896, the son of Samuel Thomas Wheatley and Mary Louise (Taylor). His father was an accountant, and both Wheatley and his brother Samuel were trained as bookkeepers. He married Winifred Marie Taylor on 15 July 1916, and the couple had two children, a son, James McNeal Jr., called "Mac," and a daughter Anne.
Wheatley was raised as a member of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Baltimore and served as a lay reader before getting the call to be a priest. Finding it difficult to go to seminary with a small family, he read for orders under the tuteladge of Bishop John Gardiner Murray, later Presiding Bishop, and Bishop Edward Helfenstein. He was ordained tot he diaconate in June 1928 and the priesthood the following December. Bishop Murray was a High Churchman and instilled in Wheatley a reverence for this liturgical style.

Wheatley's first assignment after ordination was to be priest-in-charge of St. George's Church in Dundalk, Maryland. He remained there for three years until becoming curate of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois, where he took charge of the student chapel at Northwestern University. In November 1932, he received a call to the rectorate of Trinity at a salary of $2,800 per year.

Upon his arrival Wheatley found the parish mired in debt of $58,000 and in danger of losing the church to Penn Mutual Life Insurance Comapny, which held the mortgage. He immediately went to work to reduce the interest rate on the loan and by early 1933, succeeded in forestalling the foreclosure crisis. The diocese felt the effects of the Depression, and Bishop Gray had been forced to go without a salary in order to meet expenses.

Unlike his predecessor, Wheatley seemed determined to pay off the mortgage, agreeing to pay Penn Mutual an additional $100 per month in interest and reduce the principal on the loan. Many suffered difficult financial circumstances at the time and were unable to pledge to the church.

In March 1933, the parish received a bequest from Clara Edgerton, who left Trinity $18,000 in a trust stipulating that it go to a hiring a deaconess for missionary work. After several years of legal petitions, Wheatley succeeded in getting the language of the trust changed, replacing "priest" for deaconess, but he was able to apply most of the income of the trust tot he payment of the mortgage.

Wheatley was a strong pastor and well liked in the parish. His liturgical High Churchmanship aligned him closely with that of Bishop Campbell Gray. Early in his rectorate he worked parishioner John Wilding at drilling the corps of acolytes with military precision, forming what became known as St. Hugh's Guild and making them as accomplished as the corps at St. Luke's Evanston, his former parish. The musci program also underwent changes with the hiring of Eliza (Hanna) Elliott as organist and William R. Sur, a faculty member of North Side High School, as choirmaster. The boys' choir had diminished in size by this date, and by 1940 there were both senior and junior choirs with members of both sexes.

Wheatley faced a major pastoral crises. One involved the suicide pact of the Kenneth Larwill family in Fort Wayne. After losing a daughter, Louise, to illness, the surviving family members resolved to die together by turning on the gas registers in the home. Kenneth, his wife Mary, and a daughter, also named Mary, all died, but another daughter, Louise, survived, having fallen in a bathroom where she received enough oxygen from a nearby window. The parish was shaken by their deaths, but Louise became very attached to both the rector and his wife.

The Depression years were ones of great austerity for the parish. The women of the church prepared lunches for the public as a way of raising money. The building needed significant repair, including new boilers and major repairs to the spire, which had cracked because a carillon installed in 1920 was too heavy for the structure. In 1936, the shingles installed in the 1890s were replaced with copper sheathing. The entire spire was rebuilt at a cost of more than $2,000. Wheatley came up with the idea of selling mortgage bonds to members of the parish, which could raise additional funds and be redeemed at a later date.

The financial adversity of the Depression years brought Wheatley and Bishop Gray increasingly together out of necessity, and Gray gave Wheatley more diocesan responsibility. He was given charge of arranging the Howe Conference at Howe Military School, who was initially a summer retreat for both adults and youth to take classes and build fellowship across the diocese. In 1939, Gray appointed Wheatley as archdeacon, which gave him oversight of all diocesan missions. It appeared to some that Wheatley was being groomed as Gray's possible successor. In this role he appealed to the diocese through the Every Member Canvass to think more broadly about stewardship and the needs of the whole diocese.

Membership at Trinity grew throughout the Depression years, even if funds were in short supply. Attendance at the Easter services of 1939 exceeded 1,200 with over 600 communicants. The need for redecorating the church led a group of men of the parish to form what became known as the Holy Rollers, and together they painted the nave themselves.

The outbreak of World War II led many men of the parish to enlist. An altar dedicated to their safety was placed under the Great Window at the rear of the nave. Wheatley held daily noon-day prayers and would often visit Baer Field to minister to soldiers on their way overseas. The parish house of the church was outfitted as a hospital, and parish women received training from the Red Cross to act as nurses in case the war should come to Fort Wayne. Then in 1944, the mortgage was finally burned and the parish was at last freed from debt.

Bishop Gray died unexpectedly in 1944, and a special convocation to elect his successor resulted in a split decision. Wheatley received the support of the laity on thirteen consecutive ballots, but he failed to get sufficient votes from his fellow clergy. He was bitterly disappointed at the outcome and felt that the jealousy of his fellow priests had prevented in election. A second convocation resulted in the election of Reginald Mallett of Baltimore as the new bishop, and almost immediately, tension developed between the two men.

During the war Wheatley had taken a job as accountant for several downtown theaters owned by parishioner Helen Quimby, widow of entrepreneur, Clyde Quimby. The job took him away from the parish during the week, and some members of the parish suspected him of having an affair with Quimby, which he vehemently denied. When new members were proposed for the vestry that year, Wheatley's son Mac decided to run, but this action precipitated additional anger in the parish, believing that Wheatley was promoting his son's candidacy.

The matter came to a head at the Annual Meeting in January 1947, when a group of vestry members headed by Franklin Peddie demanded Wheatley's resignation. This action was countered by the rector's supporters, who denounced Peddie's actions. Bishop Mallett refused to intervene, and Wheatley reluctantly resigned, leaving the parish deeply divided. Mallett forced the appointment of the Rev. Peter Langendorff as priest-in-charge, but the senior warden, Harold Owen, a Wheatley supporter, refused to recognize the appointment. Langendorff, with Mallett's support, had Owen excommunicated.

Wheatley became canonically resident of the Diocese of Quincy, Illinois, but he continued to live in Fort Wayne. He hoped to remain in the diocese in a different capacity, but Bishop Mallett refused to give him an assignment or altar. In 1951 he became rector of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, where he remained until 1958, when he became rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg, Florida. He retired from the priesthood in 1951, and in 1963 wrote to Mallett's successor, Bishop Walter Conrad Klein, for an assignment, but was again refused. He spent his remaining years in Maryland, attending services at St. Peter's in Ellicott City and St. John's in Glyndon. He visited Fort Wayne to visit friends but was not allowed by Trinity's rector, George Wood, to attend services. He died in Fort Wayne on 27 January 1969 of a heart attack. At the time he owned property at 1225 Illsley Drive.

Wheatley is considered a significant rector in Trinity's history and is best remembered for his leadership in saving the parish financially during the Depression. His grandson, National Security Advisor James Clapper, was baptized in the parish in 1941.

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