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Feast of James Chisholm (September 15)   Leave a comment

Chisholm Grave

Above:  The Grave Marker of James and Jane Page Chisholm

Image Source = Jweaver28



Episcopal Priest

James Chisholm devoted his life to Christ and gave that life while being a pastor during an epidemic.  He exemplified the truth that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s brothers and sisters.

Chisholm, a native of Salem, Massachusetts, entered the world on September 30, 1815.  He grew up a Baptist.  His father was William Chisholm, a Scottish immigrant and a member of a family with Jacobite sympathies.  Our saint’s mother was Martha Vincent, of Italian ancestry as well as a native of Salem.  William died when our saint, as a youth, was 12 years old.

Our saint, as a youth, established certain life-long patterns.  He was a bookish youth with a gift for languages.   By the time Chisholm graduated from Harvard College in 1836 he had mastered the written and oral forms of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, German, and Italian.  He was also fond of singing sacred music and attending church and Sunday school regularly.  The serious-minded young man was able to obtain an education because of the financial support of his siblings.  Chisholm understood the principle of interdependence, by which he lived until the end.

Chisholm taught for a few years after graduating from Harvard College.  For less than a year, starting in 1836, our saint taught at the Academy in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia).  In Charles Town our saint became enamored of worship according to The Book of Common Prayer (1789) and attended Episcopal services regularly.   David Holmes Conrad, Chisholm’s biographer, wrote:

The beautiful simplicity of the ancient ritual spoke to his taste; the subdued and chastened emotions of the communicants, to his better feelings; the deep import of the whole, to his heart.  It was the first direct appeal of the Spirit, and was not unheeded.

Memoir of the Rev. James Chisholm (1856), page 25

For a year and half, starting in 1837, our saint lived in Washington, D.C., where he taught at a classical school.  In Washington, on February 24, 1839, he became an Episcopalian.  He studied at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia, graduating in 1840.  Chisholm became a deacon on October 4, 1840.

Chisholm was a clergyman for about 15 years.  For about two years he worked among the slaves of U.S. Senator William Cabell Rives of Virginia.  In 1842 our saint, as a priest, began to serve at Norborne Parish, Berkeley County, Virginia.  The parish consisted of two rural congregations–Trinity Church, Martinsburg, and Mount Zion Church, Hedgesville.  Chisholm attended to the needs of his flock faithfully and revitalized the congregations.  He remained there until 1850, when he left for financial reasons.  Chisholm, having married Jane Page of Clarke County, Virginia, in 1847 and became the father of William Byrd “Willy” Chisholm in September 1848, had a family to support.

St. John’s Church, Portsmouth, founded as a High Church congregation at a time when that was a subject of heated controversy in The Episcopal Church, called Chisholm to be their first rector.  He accepted.  During the next few years our saint’s family life continued.  The Chisholm’s welcomed their second son, Johnny.  Then, on February 28, 1855, Jane died of natural causes, leaving our saint a widower with two young sons.

Matters turned for the worse in late July 1855, when the outbreak of yellow fever in the tidewater region of Virginia began.  By the time the epidemic was over, thousands of people had died during several months.  Many people, especially the wealthy and many physicians and pastors, escaped to safety.  This reality made matters worse for those who could not leave and those who chose to remain.  Chisholm, who chose to remain, sent his two sons away, to live with their aunt, Mary Page, of Cumberland County, Virginia.  Nevertheless, Johnny died of measles on August 31, 1855.  The priest, who had to contend with personal grief, helped many in their times of desperation.  He, for example, functioned as a pastor, delivered food, served as a medic, and dug graves, often to the point of exhaustion day after day.  He died of yellow fever on September 15, 1855, 15 days short of his fortieth birthday.

Although Chisholm, as a youth, was capable of long walks without difficulty as a youth, had a delicate constitution by the 1850s.  He was also an introvert, so many of his duties, even during the best of times, must have proved difficult.  (Aside:  My experience is that many, if not most, church members prefer extroverted ministers.  I have also known holy, capable, and introverted priests need to undertake long retreats occasionally.)  Chisholm was definitely compassionate, however, and he died because he insisted on living compassionately.


Merciful God, you called your priest James Chisholm to sacrifice his life in working

to relieve his parishioners and the people of his city during a yellow fever epidemic:

Help us remember that in giving up our lives to your service,

we win the eternal crown that never fades away in that heavenly kingdom where,

with Jesus Christ our Savior and the Holy Spirit, you reign, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38:9-17

Psalm 116:5-9

2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Matthew 24:1-8

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 585