Hunter Lewis was an Episcopal priest, sent as a missionary to New Mexico territory in the decade before the turn of the twentieth century. Born just after the end of the Civil War to a family in Virginia, at around age eleven, he suffered an illness that kept him bedridden for a year. During that time, he read the Bible, and he learned to crochet, two things that would help define his life forever.
Hunter Lewis determined early on to go into the ministry, but because his family lost everything in the war, education was beyond their means, and he had to work to put himself through. Thus, by the time he graduated from divinity school, he was quite a bit older than his fellow scholars. He accepted the call to go to New Mexico and minister to the settlers there, making his headquarters in Las Cruces.
He didn’t want to be called Father Lewis, so folks called him Preacher. Episcopal priests can marry, and he had a good wife who taught school to help support the family. He didn’t drive, so in order to care for his flock in the hamlets and ranches of a huge area, he’d walk along the road until someone would pick him up and give him a ride toward where he needed to go. As he walked, he would crochet baptismal caps for the children of his diocese.
When he got to his target village, he’d call people to a meeting place—usually the school house—and hold a service, no matter what day of the week. Any baptisms or other rites that needed to be taken care of were done, and then they pushed the chairs back against the wall, and Preacher would play for the people to dance.
If there was a tavern in the town, he’d go there, too, to collect money for the poor. People were willing to give, because they knew that none of the money they gave traveled from the leather ‘poor’ pouch to Preacher’s purse. It didn’t matter if someone was a Baptist or Catholic or one of his own flock, to Preacher Lewis, they were all God’s children, and he’d reach into that old leather pouch for anyone in need.
My path crossed Preacher Lewis’s in Las Palomas, New Mexico in 1942, when he baptized me. I still have the baptismal cap he gave me on that day. He would have been close to eighty at the time. My mother was baptized by him twenty-five years earlier and was taught Christianity by this very Christian man. After reading his biography, I felt very strongly that I was blessed to have him teach my mom and prepare her spiritually so that when the Mormon missionaries taught her, she was ready to listen.
The Reverend Hunter Lewis was a legend in southern New Mexico for a long time. I wrote him into my book Counting the Cost (coming out in March 09) which is set in New Mexico in the 1930s and is based on my family history.
I thought when I googled his name, I’d easily find lots of information about Preacher Lewis, but the only thing I found, besides a blog I wrote about him last year, was an article in Piecework Magazine where someone reproduced one of the crochet patterns he used for baptismal caps.
Last year, I found an out-of-print biography of Preacher Lewis entitled Journeys of Faith at COAS Books in Las Cruces, NM. It’s by Lee Priestley and the Lewis Family. If you’re interested in reading about a saintly, humble, servant of the Lord, then call the store (575-524-8471) and see if they have a copy. They had several when I checked this morning. When you read it, you’ll understand why I treasure this little crocheted cap.