Thursday, July 11, 2013

Woodbury's Mystical William V. Rauscher

William V. Rauscher
photo: Douglas A. Hill
Throughout its 330 years of existence, Woodbury has continuously laid claim to being home to extraordinary people. This post aims to highlight just a few of the many accomplishments of one such individual, the Rev. Canon William V. Rauscher, Jr., author, Freemason, magician, and of course, former Rector of Christ Episcopal Church from 1960 to 1996. I am excited to have had the opportunity to ask Canon Rauscher a few questions regarding what life was like in Woodbury in the 1960s and more. I'll present the Q & A below, but first a little introduction.
Having been born in Long Branch, NJ and raised in Highlands, NJ, Canon Rauscher did not arrive in Woodbury until 1960 when he accepted the call to become the 11th Rector of Christ Church. "A student of Ascetical and Mystical Theology, as well as Parapsychology, Psychical Research, and Comparative Religions, Canon Rauscher's studies and experiences span decades, including his special interests in magic, mentalism, mediums and psychics (Mitchell, 2008)." A former president of the Woodbury Clergy Association, Rauscher was instrumental in bringing together two early panel discussions at the Roman Catholic Church. It was considered the first ecumenical effort in Woodbury. During his many years as Rector, Rauscher hosted popular religion and science seminars which brought guests and speakers from across the United States (and even abroad) to Woodbury. Attendance to these lectures was comprised of a mixture of people from all faiths and walks of life. Some of the guest speakers for these lectures include astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell (6th man to walk on the moon); Hugh Lynn Cayce of the Association for Research and Enlightenment (son of psychic Edgar Cayce); Yoga master Amrit Desai; controversial famous psychic Arthur Ford; "heavy organist" Virgil Fox; and a range of other magicians, actors, parapsychologists and writers.

Canon Rauscher (r) and J.B. Rhine (l),
founder of the Duke University
Parapsychology lab
photo from: Religion, Magic,
and the Supernatural
Canon Rauscher in his autobiography further elaborates, "As far back as 1960 I had hosted science and religions seminars. I believed, even then, that the future would bring these two fields closer together. My former rectories have hosted many personalities in a long list of lectures, discussions, and remarkable guests. The famous healers Ambrose and Olga Worrall often visited and prayed for the sick. The noted researcher Dr. Ian Stevenson once conducted interviews. Arthur Ford demonstrated his trance mediumship for guests. The British medium Douglas Johnson turned into Chiang, his spirit control. Ted Serios strained at a camera to attempt to produce pictures by thought. A medium called forth "supposed" past lives. A famous magician talked of illusion, sleight of hand, and fraud. Hypnotists tried to create X-ray vision. Scientists spoke of parapsychology and religion. Clergy told of their psychic and mystical experiences. People claiming to be possessed paced my study. Astrologers drew charts over dinner. A prominent psychiatrist privately read tarot cards for the parish staff. Automatic writers brought their manuscripts to be read. A relative who read tea leaves and cards gave a special session for the Bishop's wife. Secret visits were made by prominent persons who wished their interests to remain unknown. Flying saucer fans brought their photos of UFO's. Young adults begged help for others involved in Satan worship. Newscasters privately pursued their interests in my research library. Students came to borrow books and prepare papers. Telephone calls ranged from those seeking help under "psychic attack" to those thinking they were destined to be the successors of some famous psychic, or who were convinced they lived in a haunted house. College professors came to Christ Church to research papers -- all because of interest in what was then called the "psychic revolution" and the calling within to seek and find."

Christ Church, Woodbury NJ
photo: dw Brown
Anyone who has ever traversed downtown Woodbury along Delaware Street has certainly admired the lovingly preserved Christ Church building. It is partially to Canon Rauscher's credit that it is in as good of shape as it is today. Built in 1856 in a Gothic Revival style, the church is noted for being designed by notable Scottish/American architect John Notman who was accredited for introducing the Italianate architectural style to America. The adjacent Victorian era "Norris House," now the Christ Church rectory is even older, dating back before 1855. When Rev. Rauscher arrived over one hundred years later, the buildings were in need of restoration. One of his first moves as Rector was to assure the longevity of these historic buildings by initiating such repairs as a complete repointing of the stone church, replacement of termite-damaged beams, replacing the church's slate roof and many other improvements to the parish buildings. Throughout his many years following as rector, the parish was continually kept in top order. In 1998 a stained glass window was placed in the church honoring Canon Rauscher's life and ministry. It features numerous symbolic representations unique to Canon Rauscher's life such as a Square and Compass, Zener Cards, and Moon complete with embedded lunar material presented by Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell (see below for a photo of the window).

Aside from his many parochial accomplishments, Canon Rauscher is also a prolific author of many titles, some of which are pictured below. A complete list can be found at his publisher's website: Mystic Light Press and include such titles as the Mind Readers, Magic in Rhyme, and Church in Frenzy. His recent autobiography Religion, Magic, and the Supernatural: The Autobiography, Reflections, and Essays of an Episcopal Priest, an 850+ page tour de force documents the many facets of Canon Rauscher's fascinating life. Charles Reynolds, author, theatrical consultant and magic historian calls the autobiography his, "magnum opus" and goes on to explain, "In addition to his pastoral duties, Rauscher has devoted his life to a study of mystery in the pulpit, the seance room, and on stage. Much of this giant volume of over 850 pages with hundreds of illustrations (many previously unpublished) is devoted to the history of magic and magicians as well as overlapping fields such as spiritualism, the paranormal, spook shows, escapology, and even ventriloquism."

Of course I am merely scratching the surface regarding Canon Rauscher. It is impossible to provide here a complete overview of the many stories that make up his extraordinary life, which is why I highly recommend the above autobiography. For now, let's hear a little from the man himself and his recollections of "old" Woodbury...

1.       When you arrived in Woodbury in 1960 what was your first impression?
Woodbury was much less urban.  Broad St. had the usual compliment of American town stores such as the corner drug store, Wakmans Hardware, 5 & 10, clothing store, movie theater and the Homestead restaurant.  When I arrived in Woodbury, Underwood Hospital was still a wooden building.  I recall that when they wanted to drop the name Underwood for what I believe was Memorial Hospital there was an outcry from the old guard of the town.   The second Mrs. Underwood (Althea) was one of my parishioners and many of our people were volunteers at Underwood.  In a sense, they prevented the drop of the Underwood name and so it went on.   All things come to an end with advancing decisions and now it is no longer Underwood.   People walked the street, had a soda at the 5 & 10 soda counter all in a kind of middle America atmosphere.  I arrived in August of 1960 as the new rector of Christ Church having served 3 years prior to Woodbury in Florence, NJ at St. Stephens Episcopal Church.  

2.       You certainly had a long run as the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church and I’ve read of the extensive restoration/repair work to the Church and Parish house you had done. What prompted you to initiate this work?
I followed a rector, The Rev. Canon Robert G.W. Williams who had been rector 42 years!  He was a kind, devoted and wonderful man.  He was born in Wales, a Welshman with wife and family.  His wife Alice wrote a column for the Woodbury Times.  Since property was always a problem, there were many repairs needed to the buildings. The improvements were eventually accomplished and during the remainder of his life we were close friends.  He lived in Woodbury, loved the parish, had many friends and it never bothered me if he served or took part in any parish event.

My ministry lasted 36 years.  There have been two rectors since I retired in 1996.  The current rector, The Rev. Brian Burgess and his wife Denise have made many improvements to the property including beautifying the interior of the rectory. Father Burgess has maintained meticulous attention to the property and grounds along with distinguishing himself as a pastor.

3.        Did you enjoy staying in the circa 1850 Victorian “Norris House,” which later became the Christ Church Rectory in 1885? What did you like most about living there?

The rectory has been the residence for rectors since the beginning.  Many churches have sold off their rectories which I think is a mistake.  New rectors usually like to buy their own house and receive a housing allowance then move on. They sell their house and the churches are left with no rector, no rectory.   Christ Church has maintained the large and well-kept rectory all these years.  It was expected that the rectors that followed me live in the rectory provided by the church.   One advantage is that you are close to the property.  As a rector you are a custodian of the past, an heir to history and expected to be in command of the present.  I enjoyed the house.  I always felt it had a special ambiance, a mood, a link with the past and even a link with the spiritual history of the parish itself.

Circa 1896 photo of the Rectory, Christ Church and the old Temperance Hall (from L-R)

Circa 1909 postcard of the Rectory, Christ Church and the old Temperance Hall (from L-R)

4.      Throughout the years of your lecture series you certainly had a cast of characters staying overnight at the rectory. Do you have any interesting stories to tell regarding this?

I sponsored many lectures in the parish house and events on the parish house stage.  All the lectures had religions implications and many were by researchers.  For example...if I had a person speak on dream research I would ask them to make reference to the subject of dreams in the bible.  All those lectures were a compliment to faith...a way of ennobling faith.  Some dealt with consciousness raising, prayer, meditation, the subject of life after death, healing and other dimensional thinking.  Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon spoke twice in my parish drawing big crowds.  It was exciting to have these people on the platform and it was also a kind of extended ministry to the community.   It was all about the study of consciousness and awareness.   Some of this took place during what we called the Psychic Revolution.  Those speakers who took on the subject of ESP, etc., were not evangelists of the subject but merely trying to show that there is within us an extra dimension that transcended the usual senses.  There were talks that also warned of the dangers of dabbling with the Occult.  It was all sensible material offered by people with good credentials.  They were interesting time in the midst of the rise of the cults, the Aquarian Age, the Hippies, the Now generation and all else.   Fortunately I had through the years, five assistants known as Curates.  We still keep in touch and some are now retired.  One of my outstanding curates was The Rev. Dr. John E. Bird who is retired and lives in Woodbury.  Years ago we had purchased the half house next to the rectory and that was the Curates residence.  With all the demands I was also active in the Diocese of NJ having served on numerous committees.

5.       Have you ever encountered any opposition in the community with you hosting psychics, magicians, illusionists, astronauts, actors, etc.?

Since my youth I was interested in stage magic and my hobby eventually resulted in doing magic shows for fun and entertainment. But..I never brought it into the pulpit...I never did Gospel Magic!  I was interested in the history of the old time great magicians.  I saw no value in trying to teach the story of the Loaves and Fishes by multiplying small sponges!   I have written books on great magicians of the past and they are listed on my website (   I did not have any backlash from those interests as I kept it all in perspective.

6.       What in your opinion caused the gradual decline of downtown Woodbury? Any thoughts on how to revive our city?
The Mall changed things.  Who was going to buy a shirt on Broad St. when you could see a thousand shirts at the Mall.  Who was going to a family owned movie house when you could select from seven movies at the Mall. Broad St. as a business district began to fade.  Small business while paying rent could not gain the income to keep going.  Friends now think of Woodbury as a Lawyer town!   Perhaps one answer might be more boutiques, antique shops, specialty shops, store fronts that exude charm and have unique products.  I don't really know the answer but the town has struggled with this problem for years.  Maybe the new shops included in the renovation of the Green building will be unique but whatever they are you still have to draw the crowd to pay the bills. None of this is unique since it is all part and parcel of the decline of towns with empty stores across the land.   
7.       What do you miss most about the “old” Woodbury?

What I miss about "old" Woodbury is the feeling it once had.  It was a feeling of family, of stores run by people who knew each other.  I guess I would call it a small town feeling even though it was and is a city.

8.       Any new books planned? 
I have enjoyed writing books.  All my titles are in the Woodbury Public Library.  My most recent was "Milbourne Christopher: The Man and His Magic". He was well known in his day as a magic historian, collector of magic memorabilia with appearance on all the T.V. shows of his day including T.V.  magic specials that paved the way for such performers as Doug Henning and David Copperfield.  I was privileged to have been published by Doubleday, St. Martins Press and New American Library.   Those books included one on the subject of Suicide, the Psychic Revolution called "The Spiritual Frontier" and several others.   I did all those in the midst of a busy life of ministry and also after I retired. I may have another book in me but until a 'light' goes off in my mind I won't know.  I do prefer non-fiction to fiction.  I find writing a solitary effort that centered in a creative aloneness where you sit and tell a story to yourself!

I found that the ministry is not a life style but a life.  I was pleased to serve and like Canon Williams I retired in Woodbury, a place I love and with people I have known for decades.  Besides:  I knew where the Acme was, the hospital, doctors and all else.  Why move away, create obstacles and then try to surmount them!!
Stained glass window in Christ Church, Woodbury
dedicated in 1998 to the life and ministry of Canon Rauscher

Thank you Canon Rauscher for your many contributions to our community and beyond. May this world continue to be a better, more enlightened (and more mysterious) place with you in it.

Mitchell, J. A. (2008). Christ episcopal church: Woodbury, New Jersey 1857-2007. (1st ed., pp. 173-175). Rockland, ME: Custom Museum Publishing.

Rauscher, W. V. (2006). Religion, magic, and the supernatural. Woodbury, NJ: Mystic Light Press.


Kim Wyckoff Henning said...

Cannon Rauscher is an amazing man that I have had the great pleasure of knowing for almost my whole life. I know I am a better person because of him and so is Christ Church. I hope he will continue to amaze people with his magic and spiritual gifts for years to come.