Parish History:Hugh Latimer Willson

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HUGH LATIMER WILLSON, son of Thomas H. and Amelia (Hyser) Willson, was born 5 August 1904 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His father was an accountant in a public accounting firm. He prepared for college at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Haddonville High School in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He was graduated from Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania, at that time a Quaker-affiliated college, in 1925 with an A.B. degree and from the University of Pennsylvania in 1929 with an M.A. degree in History of Religions. He continued his studies at the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he received an S.T.B. (Bachelor of Scientific Theology) degree in 1928 and an S.T.M. (Masters of Scientific Theology) degree in 1929. He was ordained a deacon in June 1928, and a priest in June 1929, by the Rt. Rev. Thomas James Garland, Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He never married.

After his ordination to the priesthood, he was given a fellowship to the American School for Oriental Research (now the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research) in Jerusalem, where he studied for six months. He returned to the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he was a Fellow in Ecclesiastical History from 1928-1931 and an instructor in Greek language from 1931-1937. While teaching, he pursued his studies and received a Th.D. (Doctor of Theology) from the School in 1936. Beginning in June 1934, he took on the additional responsibilities of curate at the Church of St. Asaph in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania (under former St. Andrew's vicar, the Rev. Richard T. Lyford) and also of vicar at St. Andrew's Chapel in West Manayunk, Pennsylvania. In 1938-1939, he was an instructor in Greek language and Church History at the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

In January 1939, the Rev. Dr. Hugh L. Willson accepted the position of vicar at St. Andrew's Church in Ayer, Massachusetts and its mission at Forge Village (Westford, Massachusetts), serving until his untimely death. His years as vicar were particularly challenging. World War II broke out in Europe in September 1939, prompting a massive building program at nearby Fort Devens. The base was designated a reception center for all New England men destined to serve for one year as draftees. In addition, the 1st, 32nd and the 45th Infantry Divisions and the Fourth Womens Army Auxiliary Corps trained at Fort Devens during the war. While the influx of military families increased membership, the life of the parish was seriously affected as more and more of its men were sent overseas. The 50th anniversary of the first service that the Rev. William G. Thayer had held in the new church was celebrated at a special service on Sunday, January 3, 1943 at which the Rev. Dr. Endicott Peabody preached. However, the celebration came at a very worrisome time. Gas rationing made it difficult to carry on the work of the parish; both choir and Sunday School activites were cut back, though not eliminated. In September 1943, a war shrine altar was dedicated, at which daily prayers were said; there were 26 St. Andrew's men serving in the armed forces. The parish owes a great debt of gratitude to Rev. Dr. Willson for holding St. Andrew's parish and missions together through the war years.

The Rev. Dr. Hugh Latimer Willson died of cancer 26 June 1947 in Ayer, Massachusetts after an illness of about three months. He was 42 years old. His funeral service at St. Andrew's Church was conducted by the Rev. John Crocker, rector of the St. Andrew's parish and headmaster of Groton School, assisted by the Rev. Paul L. Abrey, assistant headmaster of Groton School. He was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

In his memory, the parishioners of St. Andrew's Church donated the funds for a pair of large brass candlesticks for the altar. They are each inscribed "To the glory of God and in memory of / Hugh Latimer Willson - Vicar of St. Andrew's Church 1939-1947 / Given by members of the Parish."
Sources:
1. Bennett, Mrs. Frank Silas History of St. Andrew's Church: Ayer, Groton, Forge Village 1892-1942 (Ayer, Massachusetts: St. Andrew's Church, 1944), 20-21.
2. "Rev. Willson Dies in Ayer," Turner's Public Spirit, Ayer, Massachusetts, 3 July 1947, 1.
3. Stowe's Clerical Directory of The American Episcopal Church 1938-39 (Northfield, Minnesota: G. Stowe Fish, 1938), 374.
4. Stowe's Clerical Directory of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America 1941 (New York, The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1941).
Photograph courtesy of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Westford, Massachusetts.
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