A Poisoned Chalice? Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine in 1920
As we’ve discussed previously, in July of 1920, an all-convert, all-English Orthodox parish was founded in New York City. Called the Church of the Transfiguration, the parish was led by the newly-converted Fr. Patrick Mythen. But it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream of the elderly Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who served as the assistant priest.
The church held its first services on Sunday, July 18, 1920. Six days later, the New York Times ran an article on the parish under the headline, “Americanizing a Church.” The Church of the Transfiguration was, according to the article, part of a broader initiative, supported by Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky, to “Americanize” the Russian Archdiocese. He had apparently commissioned a fresh English translation of the Divine Liturgy. English was the primary language of instruction in the Russian seminary in Tenafly, New Jersey, and Orthodox Christians in America were encouraged to obtain US citizenship.
On Saturday, July 31, someone reportedly broke into the church. Mythen told the Times (8/16/1920) that, oddly enough, nothing at all was taken. This was surprising — the burglars could have stolen the holy vessels made of gold and silver, and expensive clergy vestments, but they didn’t. From the Times:
The priests were puzzled by the objectless burglary, but on the following day, when he drank the sacramental wine from the chalice at the end of the service, Canon Ingram N.W. Irvine became conscious of an agonizing pain in his mouth, throat and stomach. Believing that in some manner the chalice had been filled with acid instead of wine, he acted immediately to save his own life. By his promptness he escaped without serious injury, though he was very sick for a day or more. Canon Irvine is 70 years old.
Immediately after this incident an investigation was made of the receptacle containing the wine intended for sacramental purposes, but not yet consecrated. The wine there was found to be perfectly pure and fresh.
The priests then considered they had found the explanation of the burglary. One or more persons, who hated the Orthodox Church, had forced an entrance into the church in order to put poison in the chalice in the hope of killing a priest.
Fr. Patrick Mythen connected this alleged poisoning to other recent incidents. He told the Times, “In addition to this certain other churches have been attacked and broken into within the last few weeks, and other priests assaulted. One Roman Catholic priest of Greek nationality was bound and beaten. An Orthodox priest in Bayonne was also attacked by three men, but the priest being of very powerful physique, seized the man with the revolver so quickly that when the weapon was discharged, the assassin shot himself. The man was taken into custody by the United States Secret Service and found to be an anarchist.”
The Orthodox leaders, and the Times, thought that all this was connected to the Americanization program that the Russian Archdiocese was instituting. Bolshevik sympathizers, who hated both America and Orthodoxy, supposedly found the mingling of the two to be intolerable. The Times article from which I’ve been quoting is actually all about another incident, which took place on August 15 (and which I’ll discuss in another post).
Now, about the Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine poisoning — They checked the container that held the unconsecrated wine, and it was clean. So, the poison was presumably put in the chalice itself. But if that were the case, wouldn’t someone else have gotten sick, too? Then again, it was pretty common then for people to take communion only a few times a year. Combine that with the fact that the Church of the Transfiguration was a tiny, new place, and it’s entirely possible that there were no lay communicants that day. On the other hand, the church had several attached priests who probably would have partaken. Why would Irvine have been the only one affected? There are two possibilities: one, Irvine may have been the only celebrant that day, and thus the only one to partake of the Eucharist. Two, it’s possible that the poison would only cause problems if consumed in large quantities. If the other priests only took a few sips, and Irvine finished the whole chalice, it may well have only affected Irvine.
So, was Irvine really poisoned? We will probably never know for sure. I’m confident that he wasn’t a liar, but I’m just as confident that he could be a bit melodramatic at times. I’m inclined to believe him when he says he was poisoned, but the circumstances are rather odd. It would be great to see the police report of the incident, but I don’t know if one has survived.
Another thing — note the statement that Irvine “acted immediately to save his own life.” It sure sounds like he forced himself to expel — vomit — what he had just consumed. That is, he intentionally threw up the Eucharist. I realize that he thought it was filled with acid, and that he was protecting his life. And he probably took measures to ensure that what he had just expelled was disposed of in a proper manner. But still, while I fully understand his actions, I find them rather shocking as well.
Irvine was back in church on August 19, preaching a sermon on the Feast of the Transfiguration. He died the following January — 5 1/2 months after being poisoned. That said, I don’t think there was any connection between the poisoning and his death. He regained his health pretty quickly after the poisoning incident, and, according to his obituary, he died of heart disease.
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