A dozen years ago, a friend contacted the Rev. Fletcher Lowe and asked him to fill in for him as summer supply priest at St. James in Florence, Italy. A decade later, Lowe and his wife, Mary Fran, returned to Florence, where he served as interim for three-and-a-half months.
“We saw a radical change there from 1994 to 2004,” said Mary Fran Lowe. St. James had moved from a quiet, struggling congregation to a bustling parish with active ministries to Nigerian refugees and to American students studying in Florence.
“Many more businesspeople from the States are in Florence and in other cities, too, and like it so well that they’ve decided to stay there. There are more young families,” she said. The parish “had easily doubled in size, if not tripled, and that’s exciting.”
It’s one example of the vibrancy of congregations within the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, according to the Lowes. Since 1994, they’ve observed the convocation’s growth and ministries as Fletcher Lowe has served as interim in Munich, Germany; Geneva; Waterloo, Belgium; and Florence and as supply priest during summers or sabbaticals in Rome, Florence and Paris.
“Each one of these cities has got its uniqueness about it,” Fletcher Lowe said. “We were intentional about becoming really connected with the history and the art and architecture and the ambiance of those cities.”
Apparently, they were successful. When they were in Munich, a tour agency asked Mary Fran for her help in developing an English-speaking tour, Fletcher Lowe said. In Belgium, after Mary Fran got “heavily involved with art nouveau,” the church women asked her to give a lecture, he said.
The church ministries were unique as well. “Each one of them is very different,” Fletcher Lowe said. “Each one of them has its separate identity in terms of its mission and its way of operating. Each one of them is growing and expanding and is energized in some really creative ways.”
He noted the great diversity within the congregations. St. James in Florence, he said, roughly consisted of 20 percent American women who married Italian men; 15 percent Americans who became permanent residents in Italy; 20 to 25 percent Americans there on business; 5 to 10 percent native Italians; 15 percent Africans, especially Nigerians; and 10 percent or more students.
St. Paul’s in Rome has an “extraordinary” ministry to refugees, he said. “They also have got a strong ministry to the Hispanics that come there.”
One Sunday in Geneva, the congregation of about 140 included members representing 36 different nationalities, he said. “The United Nations is there and all these NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are there, so it’s drawing on people from all around the world.” “All Saints in Waterloo is mostly English, made up of people from England because they broke away from the English chaplaincy there because of certain issues where they felt more comfortable with the Episcopal polity,” he said.
For Lowe and his wife, who live in Richmond, Va., these European excursions have been part of an active retirement. Ordained in 1959, Fletcher Lowe, 74, spent most of his career as a parish priest or vicar, retiring in 1993. He then worked as a teacher, chaplain and coach at Episcopal Academy near Philadelphia, then served as an interim in Richmond and later became executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
Overseas, the interim positions have been the most demanding, said Fletcher Lowe, who is a trained interim. “When you’re the interim, it really is full-time-plus, because you’re not only doing services and doing pastoral care and administration and all of that, you’re also trying to help that congregation get adjusted to issues that they have that need to be dealt with in order that when the new rector comes in, he or she would have a reasonably clean slate so that they don’t go tripping over land mines.”
“In each of these congregations,” he noted, “we’ve come away with some close friendships that have sustained themselves, and that’s been a major boost for us.” If they get their wish, more new friendships are in the Lowes’ future. Although nothing is arranged at the moment, Fletcher Lowe said he hoped to return to Europe on another assignment.