24 July 2007

Chimes for St. James Episcopal Church

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Test pilot, stunt flier, hellraising owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club guest ranch — Florence "Pancho" Barnes was all these things. She was also, truth be known, a minister's wife! Her first husband (she had four) was the Reverend Calvin Rankin Barnes, whose father was the rector of a large church in San Diego. A pious man who earned a reputation as a church leader during a long and storied career, Rankin Barnes was not a very good match for young Florence. Theirs was not a marriage for the sake of love or romance, but an arrangement made by Florence's parents, Thad Lowe and Florence Dobbins Lowe. Her parents whistfully hoped that marriage would put the brakes on Florence's predeliction for creating trouble. It did, but not for long.

Photo: The January 5, 1921 wedding of Florence Lowe to the Rev. C. Rankin Barnes, at St. James Church in South Pasadena.

"I had married a clergyman and that was to be my life," Pancho wrote in her unpublished autobiography. "I taught Sunday school. I had a class of boys about nine years old. I bribed them with jackknives to learn the catechism." Her life was far busier in many ways than that of her mother, who had a staff of servants. "I entertained at dinner, I cooked meals, I planned things in the parish house," she noted. "I embroidered beautiful embroidery for the veil, that is the veil for the chalice. I worked with various color satins, starting off with the white ones, for the different seasons of the church year." Meanwhile, Florence's young — and most ladies agreed, very handsome — husband kept his own busy schedule. "He lived a very busy life and always seemed to be doing something, night or day in his job with the church," Florence wrote. "In the meantime, I realized that the existence was almost intolerable. Every now and then I would get away and go over to my parent's house where my horses were and go for a ride. More and more I spent time with my horses."

Florence's loneliness caused her to act out in many ways. She sought refuge with friends in Hollywood and, despite the fact that she had a child with Rankin, had a series of affairs. Eventually she ran away to Mexico, only to return with the name she'd be known as the rest of her life — "Pancho". She learned to fly, and allegedly thumbed her nose at her husband, buzzing the church on one of her first flights. Yet, despite her antics and notoriety, Rankin Barnes would not grant Florence a divorce. Allegedly he believed that it would be injurious to his church career. Whatever the cause, he did eventually grant her freedom in 1941. There are various accounts of just exactly how Florence gained her freedom. Barbara Little, a friend and writer who was interviewed for the film, told us her version. "So the story goes," said Little,"that she road bare naked on a white horse from the street of the steps of the church up to the rostrum where he was standing. Smiled, turned around, and rode the horse back out of the church. I said, 'Pancho is that true?' She said, 'Good story, isn’t it?'"

Photo: interior of the St. James Church in the modern day

Florence's marriage to C. Rankin Barnes may have ended long ago, but one symbol of their relationship endures. In 1923, when Florence's mother died suddenly, her grieving relatives sought to erect a memorial to her. A concept that made perfect sense, was for the family to donate a new stone tower and a set of chimes for Rankin Barnes' parish, St. James Episcopal Church. They were unveiled with great fanfare. "The chimes," noted the newspaper, "are played electrically [and will be played] for fifteen minutes every Sunday morning and special programs will be arranged for the holidays."

The belltower is still there, in South Pasadena, and presumably so are the chimes.

Photo: The St. James Episcopal Church as it appeared on a recent day in April. (Note the contrails in the background — a subtle nod to Pancho from on high?)