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Life With Father Gowen

Ann Gowen Combs at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, the Bainbridge landmark whose first vicar was her father. She and her brother, Geoffrey Gowen, present Father Gowen’s memoirs Thursday.    - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Ann Gowen Combs at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, the Bainbridge landmark whose first vicar was her father. She and her brother, Geoffrey Gowen, present Father Gowen’s memoirs Thursday.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The legendary island clergyman is the subject of a new memoir.

To old Bainbridge Islanders – not necessarily those of advanced years, but those who have been around these parts awhile – Father Vincent Gowen was, in a word, legendary.

The esteemed educator and clergyman ministered to the congregation of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church from 1945 to 1961, beginning his tenure there even before the sanctuary’s stone walls were constructed.

According to his daughter, Ann Gowen Combs, it was common for those who regularly attended his learned sermons to exclaim, when his name came up in conversation, “Oh dear Father Gowen!”

To which Ann sometimes silently replied, “Hmmmm.”

Her explanation would no doubt resonate with the child of any esteemed public figure.

“It’s just Daddy,” she said.

Yet, as matter-of-fact as Combs is about her father’s accomplishments, there’s a strong core of admiration there, not just for her father, but for the family and the community he helped build on Bainbridge.

She’s also a woman who appreciates history and the power of a good story. In that spirit, when her older brother, Geoffrey Gowen, told her he thought it was time they transcribed and published their late father’s memoirs, she agreed.

Their effort, “Sunrise to Sunrise – One Man’s Journey through History: China, The Philippines and World War II Internment,” is just off the presses. Father Gowen’s children will hold a reading and slide show Thursday night at Eagle Harbor Book Co.

In the book, Geoffrey Gowen’s acknowledgments paint an initial picture of Father Gowen as a fastidious diarist and excellent prose stylist, and “Sunrise to Sunrise” is both vivid and dense.

The story begins in 1913 when, as a young University of Washington graduate, Father Gowen headed to the Orient. What followed were years of work and family-building that spanned China, where he was ordained as a minister; the mountains of the Philippines as a missionary teacher; and the nearly three years during World War II that he, his wife and the two young Gowens spent in Baguio, one of the Philippines-based Japanese internment camps.

From her present vantage point, as she calls attention to the pictures of the “adorable children” in the center pages of the book – including Geoffrey, herself and her beloved doll, Heidi – Combs looks back on her family’s internment at Baguio from the perspective of the child she was.

“I thought it was grand,” she said. “Suddenly, I had all these playmates – it wasn’t just Geoff throwing Heidi out the window. A kid takes whatever’s happening as ‘this is how it is.’”

At Baguio, Ann and her mother bunked together with the other women and girls, while Geoffrey and their father stayed with the men.

Ann remembers having a bed that swung eight feet off the ground and recalls regular entertainment including plays and lectures given by “anyone who knew anything about anything.”

In one fairy tale production, she played a moonbeam. In Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” her father played the Stage Manager.

When the war ended and the Gowens were released, they headed to Bainbridge, where Anne and Geoffrey lived a simple island childhood in Port Blakely, full of time outdoors and summers on the water, in which poison oak was the biggest risk.

In keeping with Geoffrey’s introduction in the book, Ann describes her father as an intellectual and a true idealist. Her own “Sunrise to Sunrise” preface offers a picture of her father ensconced in a book-filled study, working on sermons or lesson plans.

Her father’s pursuits of the mind left him domestically indifferent, a trait counter-balanced by her mother’s humor, practicality and unrelenting common sense.

“Mother kept him from being too lofty,” she said.”He was terribly British, you know, and couldn’t cook.”

So whenever Mrs. Gowen had to spend time away, she left pages and pages of notes. It didn’t stop him from putting an entire basket of food in the oven to reheat. Basket and all.

“His mother used to say he’d heard the temple bells but didn’t see the beggars on the street,” Ann said.

She characterized her father’s ministerial and sermonic style as quite high-brow; yet most of his sermons were composed in a rowboat. She also recalls his excellent sense of humor and enormous capacity for tolerance.

“One of the neat things about Daddy in the Philippines is that he didn’t proselytize. He didn’t force Christianity on the natives. He always respected your beliefs,” she said. “Except if you trimmed his forsythia. Then he didn’t care for it at all.”

Ann said as far as she can tell, no member of her family bore scars from the three years spent at Baguio. In fact, what was far scarier was being sent to boarding school in Tacoma at the age of 10. (Homesickness at one point drove her to attempt a break.)

Nonetheless, she and other internees with whom she still corresponds view the experience as a turning point. She also said that the late Don Nakata, a classmate at Bainbridge High School who was also interned during World War II, felt a connection with her based on shared experience, albeit in different countries.

“I always had a soft spot for you,” he told her, “because we went through the same thing.”

As part of the task of compiling this book with Geoffrey, Ann transcribed her father’s wartime diary and was struck anew by his idealism. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one who saw the experience through soft eyes.

“You don’t get the feeling of the grit, but you do hear the temple bells,” she said. “Which was great. He saw the best in everyone.”

**************

Father knew best

Geoffrey Gowen and Ann Gowen Combs will present “Sunrise to Sunrise: One Man’s Journey through History” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at Eagle Harbor Book Co.

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