THE REV. MICHAEL MAYER:
A Little Chocolate with the Eucharist?
PHOTO: Father Mayer on Easter Day 2006 talking to the Rev. Celeste Cox and the Ferguson family of Christ Church, Dover. Photo by Lee Ann Walling
by Lee Ann Walling
Christ Church, Dover
Returning from the altar rail after the Eucharist, the children of Christ Church in Dover file past the Rev. Michael G. Mayer, who sits faithfully in the third pew on the right. Some offer a sheepish smile. Others give him a hug. Most manage a quiet “thank you.” But they all walk away with a piece of chocolate.
“The kids all migrated toward him,” says Christ Church parishioner Dawn Ferguson. “He’s sort of a father figure for them here at church.” She and her children, Lee and Victoria, visit Father Michael once a week at his new home in an assisted living facility in Dover.
“He’s always fussed over the kids,” notes the Rev. Celeste O. Cox, who dubbed Father Michael “Priest in Residence” to honor his emeritus status. At 89, he still has an upright Anglican bearing and a soft German accent that hint at a remarkable life story.
Born in the medieval town of Tubingen, Michael Mayer was the son of a Jewish doctor and a mother who hosted informal post-World War I salons that drew such literary figures as Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden. He left home at 16 to go to school in Cranleigh, England. With trouble stirring in Germany, refugee organizations placed him in British homes, and “an extremely wealthy Jewish family” paid his way to the United States in 1937.
The entire Mayer family “wound up assembled in Amityville, New York in 1941” and Michael moved to Manhattan with his sister. While attending a neighborhood Episcopal church, the rector introduced him to “four or five people who I’ve never been able to get rid of again,” including 7-year-old Gregory Howe.
“He is part father figure, part ecclesiastical mentor, part friend,” said the Rev. Howe, who served as the Rector of Christ Church for 34 years.
Michael was drafted in 1941 and spent five years in the Army, but stayed in the States and the Aleutian Islands and never saw combat in World War II. He was already a sergeant when he became a United States citizen in August 1942. The GI Bill sent him to Columbia College and on to General Theological Seminary, both with the help of family friend, W.H. Auden.
He was ordained in 1953. His assignments included St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Queens, St. Mary of the Virgin in Times Square, and the Church of the Transfiguration (nicknamed “The Little Church Around the Corner”) on East 29th Street.
He often visited Greg Howe at his parish in Dover. In 1971, he learned of a vacancy at Calvary Church at Fourth and Rodney Streets in Wilmington but was told the bishop planned to close the parish. He “crashed” a Standing Committee meeting in Middletown. “I told them: I’ll take it,” he recalled, encountering some skepticism about his ability to relate to a congregation that would be mostly disadvantaged.
“Our family were refugees from Nazi Germany,” was his indignant response. “I know more about being oppressed than you ever will.”
Despite that first impression, he got the job. “He got mugged a couple of times by drug addicts looking for money,” the Rev. Howe recalled.
He served as rector from 1971 to 1988, eventually moving to Dover where he assisted his protégé at Christ Church.
“I’ve been in perfect health all my life until this year,” Father Michael said with a bit of frustration. But he is doted on by members of the parish; they visit regularly, take him to lunch, church and doctor visits, help him with his finances and even do his laundry.
“The people of the church have truly become his next of kin,” the Rev. Cox remarked.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” Dawn Ferguson said with a smile. “And there’s not a better person to do it for.”