One of the great treasures unearthed in the clean-up and remodeling of the Canterbury space at the A.D. Bruce last fall was a decaying scrapbook started by Mrs. J.W. Fritts in 1953. The scrapbook was full of amazing pictures, newspaper clippings, and documentation of the early years of the ministry, but it had the nasty habit of leaving scraps of paper all over the lap of anyone curious enough to give it a look. So, this summer, I spent some time reformatting it to preserve its precious contents, and, in the process, I learned a good bit about the history of Canterbury at UH.
The Canterbury Association at UH traces its beginnings back to 1951, but it was not until August 1953, that The Rev. John W. Fritts moved into the new Canterbury House at 4362 Wheeler with his wife (always referred to as Mrs. John W. Fritts), their son Ricky, and their dog Skippy.
The Rev. John Fritts, a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, served both the UH and the Rice campuses, but UH students had special access to the chaplain since his home was right across the street from the male dorms and Mrs. Fritts kept the doors open for students from 7:30 am and into the night. Mrs. Fritts was known as an excellent hostess, an engaging conversationalist, and a rather successful matchmaker. She clearly took pride in this latter capacity, because the last pages of her scrapbook are filled with wedding announcements. I recently served at a funeral at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Houston, and among the friends of the deceased was a woman who met her partner at UH Canterbury thanks to the keen intuition and timely intervention of Mrs. Fritts.
The Rev. John Fritts always credited his wife with bringing him into the church with sweet patience and persuasive argument. Upon his return from service on the battlefields of France and Germany in World War II, Fritts was a firm agnostic who felt certain that modern science had supplanted faith. However, his wife and a priest in the Episcopal Church made him think again, and, after getting involved in intensive inquiry and the liturgy of the church, he decided to be baptized with his infant son, Ricky. It is clear that his ministry at UH and Rice was dedicated to helping students develop an integrated and reasonable faith that united mind, heart, and spirit and directed the whole person toward God. He described himself as a “spiritual welder who brings into the proper focus of cooperation and understanding the intellectual emphasis of a university campus and the spiritual emphasis a church group.”
The Rev. John Fritts believed that his primary calling at both universities was to be a faithful counselor to the students under his care. At that time, The Houston Post estimated that there were some 300 students at Rice and 600 students at the University of Houston who claimed affiliation with the Episcopal Church. The Rev. Fritts worked alongside a Methodist pastor and later another Episcopal priest to serve these students. He is described as “counselor”, “referee and final authority in matters of dispute”, presider over common worship and study of scripture, and chaperone for social affairs.
I was somewhat confounded to find an article entitled, “Episcopalians Dedicate Chapel”, only to find that this chapel was located in the attic of the Fritts’ home – the largest gathering space available to them. According to Mrs. Fritts’ yearly report for 1953-54, the liturgical furnishings (altar, credence table, and altar rail) of the Chapel of the Resurrection were constructed “by the chaplain and the male students” (Rodney Charlton, Laskey Baker, Earle Choate, and David McMillin). Fr. Fritts was also known for celebrating the Eucharist outdoors when the crowd exceeded the space available in the attic (or it was too hot). Often the first celebrations of the school year occurred outdoors.
Although Fr. Fritts served UH Canterbury until 1957, his family moved out of the Canterbury House after 18 months in residence for what would now seem to be obvious reasons. In a span of four years, Fr. Fritts made an indelible mark upon the Episcopal ministry at UH. His energy, intellect, and personal charisma drew students together, and he set the bar high for the chaplains who would follow (in rapid succession).