Again, from Fr. Kevin, our resident…resident:
My native place is an old city, Albany N.Y., where in grade school and through subsequent civic efforts we learned our local history through symbols, horticulture, and artifacts. Albany took off as a settlement of Dutchmen who were seeking the wealth of the new world. Their coveted sources of wealth were the hides of native beaver.
I have never seen a living beaver in or around Albany though their memory is preserved. The city seal has long included a beaver felling a tree and one of the city’s former names, Beverwyck, calls the rodent to mind. At the height of hunting in the mid-seventeenth century tens of thousands of beaver pelts were sent annually from Albany to the Netherlands for the production of hats and coats. Far from the days of trapping, my grandmother once gave my sister a synthetically furred Bucky Beaver stuffed animal, a reward from a local bank’s Christmas Club.
Along with beaver, the Dutch of seventeenth century Netherlands were going crazy over another export of Turkish origin, the tulip. Rare bulbs were being purchased for small fortunes amidst fierce competition by the Dutch. Albany sponsors an annual Tulip Festival complete with a Tulip Queen. Beaver hats and tulips, beauties known to a season, are reminders too of fashion and the pursuit of wealth.
There were two artifacts of note drawn to our attention. Both artifacts belong to the Dutch Reformed Church in downtown Albany. First there is the preacher’s pulpit, the oldest pulpit in all of North America. Second, the oldest weathervane in the United States, dating to 1656, stood atop the original church and was damaged by a bullet in the French and Indian War. This weathervane was imported from the Netherlands and paid for in beaver pelts.
For most of my life I had not thought much about that weathervane, which is in the form of a rooster, thus its more precise name– weathercock. I thought only of the bird that greets the day and so there he was, on a high perch, always ready to see and call. The rooster, in another setting, e.g. a Good Friday procession, would remind me of St. Peter and the Passion, but on top of an old protestant church it seemed simply agrarian. The fullness of this artifact and its placement above the tulips and beavers has a longer history, perhaps unknown to the Dutch of 1656.
My little bit of weathervane rooster research began unintentionally with my reading, probably in a doctor’s office, of a June 2012 Smithsonian magazine article: How the Chicken Conquered the World. In the ninth century, Pope St. Leo IV had a rooster image placed atop the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The rooster was a symbol of St. Peter, of the preacher, of vigilance but also of the Christian in general. Later, Pope St. Nicholas the Great, who had been ordained deacon by Leo IV, decreed that a rooster emblem should be placed atop every church in recognition of its universal application to the Christian life. The eleventh century Bayeux Tapestry includes depiction of a church with a mounted rooster decoration.
Like St. Peter, all Christians are called back to the Lord consistently; to the renewal of the Day that began in baptism. The voice of the rooster crowing reminded Peter of the Lord’s providential voice–the voice that knows and loves that cares and recalls, pursues while going ahead, beyond our denial and anticipating our repentance. As the rooster’s distinct voice pierces darkness and awakens hope in the approaching dawn, so Peter recognized again the voice of the Lord as that which speaks efficaciously to our darkness “the words of eternal life” and so… “To whom shall we go?” The dawn from on high has broken upon us.