One of the most interesting residents of Lake Geneva during the middle of the 19th century is a person whom few current residents have ever heard of. He is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery just north of the large tombstone for Dr. Philip Maxwell’s grave. His name is the Rev. John McNamara. He was the first rector (minister) of the Church of the Holy Communion in Lake Geneva.
He was born on Dec. 27, 1824, in Dromore, Ireland, a small village in County Down in the north of Ireland, nine miles southwest of Belfast on the Belfast-Dublin Road. Because he was brought to the United States as an infant, he was never certain about the year of his birth. Therefore, accounts of his birth year range from 1821 (which is on his memorial plaque on the west wall of the Church of the Holy Communion’s sanctuary) to 1824 (which is on his tombstone in Pioneer Cemetery).
McNamara was brought to New York City at a very young age. Who brought him to the United States is not known. In New York City, he was adopted by the Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg, an Episcopal priest who sent him to be educated at St. Paul’s College in Flushing, New York, on Long Island, and paid for his education. Reverend Muhlenberg regarded John McNamara as his son.
In 1881, McNamara donated a carved Credence Table to Geneva’s Church of the Holy Communion in honor of his mentor, the Rev. William August Muhlenberg, and posted a memorial plaque on the west wall of the sanctuary.
McNamara studied theology at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. After completing his education, John McNamara became an Episcopal priest. He preferred to be a missionary priest and, accordingly, was sent from New York City west to the village of Geneva in 1850 at the age of 26 where on Jan. 20, 1850, he founded the Church of the Holy Communion. Prior to his arrival, the small Episcopal community in Geneva, which had been organized in March 1844 in Bloomfield Township, was served by Episcopal priests-in-training from the Nashotah Seminary in Delafield. McNamara named the Episcopal Church in Geneva that he had founded the Church of the Holy Communion in honor of his home church of that name in New York City.
After serving for a year as the rector of the Episcopal Church in Geneva, where he had published the first newspaper to appear in Geneva, the Geneva Express — one page of which was titled the Anti-Slavery Churchman — he was assigned by the Episcopal Church to serve as a missionary priest on the Kansas-Missouri border, where he spent the years 1851 and 1852. Following his marriage to Sarah E. Banks Gould in New York City on Nov. 18, 1852, he returned to Geneva, where he resumed his role as the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion until 1854 when with his wife and infant daughter, he once again returned to the Kansas-Missouri border across the Missouri River from Leavenworth, Kansas. There, he spent the years 1854 and 1855 before returning once again to Geneva, where he resumed his position as the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion. He served as rector until 1858, when he was assigned by the Episcopal Church to serve elsewhere.
McNamara’s years in Geneva were very productive. In 1857, he arranged to have the wooden building of the Presbyterian Church (later the First Congregational Church) moved west across Broad Street to become the first building of the Church of the Holy Communion. He supervised the construction of the church’s first permanent building at the northwest corner of Broad and Geneva streets on land that the church had purchased.
In 1861, when the Civil War began, the Reverend McNamara enlisted in the 1st Wisconsin Regiment of the Union Army as a chaplain and served as a chaplain in the Union Army throughout the entirety of the war. Because of his slight stature, he became known during the Civil War as the “Little Chaplain.” McNamara’s account of the well-known Battle of Chickamauga (in Georgia), Sept. 19 to 21, 1863, in which his regiment fought, remains one of the best accounts of the battle — the Civil War’s second-bloodiest.
After the Civil War ended, Reverend McNamara briefly returned to the Church of the Holy Communion as its rector. However, he was soon assigned to serve as a missionary priest in various towns in Illinois, Missouri, and eventually in Nebraska (which became a state on March 1, 1867). After serving for a decade and a half as an Episcopal priest at parishes in Nebraska and as the President of Nebraska College in Nebraska City, Nebraska, which awarded him a doctor of divinity in 1869, he died of a stroke on Oct. 24, 1885 in North Platte, Nebraska, where he had been serving as the Episcopal rector of the Church of the Holy Savior for the preceding year.
He was 61 years old. His body was returned to Geneva for burial in the Pioneer Cemetery adjacent to the graves of four of his children who had predeceased him (Annie, Louisa, Mary, and Archie). At his death, he was survived by his wife, Sarah, three daughters, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Caroline, and a son, Arthur. His wife died in 1911 and was buried in Fremont, Nebraska.
The Rev. John McNamara became especially well known because of his book “Three Years on the Kansas Border,” which was first published in 1856 (and republished in 2015). He lived on the Missouri side of the Kansas-Missouri border during the same years that the famous John Brown was living on the Kansas side. During those years, Kansas Territory (it didn’t become a state until 1861) was a fiercely fought over battleground between pro-slavery proponents (primarily from Missouri) and anti-slavery proponents (primarily from the eastern United States). Reverend McNamara was an ardent champion of the anti-slavery cause in Missouri and Kansas, just as he had been the most fervent anti-slavery proponent in Geneva during the decade preceding the Civil War.
His book is still well worth reading, as it is one of the best accounts of the tensions between the “sound-on-the-goose” pro-slavery proponents and the anti-slavery proponents who were diametrically opposed on the issue of whether Kansas, once it was admitted to the Union, would become a free or a slave state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed by Congress on May 30, 1854, specified that the residents of Kansas (and Nebraska) could determine whether to become a free or slave state, launching a bloody struggle.
In various of his obituaries, the Reverend McNamara was praised as being “progressive” in his views, and as someone who always did what he considered to be “the most good for God and humanity.” The Reverend McNamara was also known as a very skillful orator who, at a rally in New York City in 1856 in support of the anti-slavery cause in Kansas, reportedly spoke more eloquently than the famed preacher and renowned orator Henry Ward Beecher.
Although today unknown by most residents of Lake Geneva, the Rev. John McNamara was one of the most interesting, accomplished, and significant residents of Geneva during the middle of the 19th Century. Despite the relatively short time that the Reverend McNamara lived in Geneva, he surely deserves to be remembered by current residents of the city.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.