Flower Power

Flower images by Christina Harper

Flower images by Christina Harper

The quiet beauty of the Flower Communion rates high on the church calendar for Unitarians around the world as a precious time of union and sharing. St Mark’s members Jane Aaronson and Lynsey Bailey will lead our Flower Communion on 19 May. But the story of this beloved service, highlights the courage and bravery of one Unitarian who, even in the face of death, held true to his faith. 

Norbert Fabian Čapek was born into a Roman Catholic family on 3 June, 1870, in southern Bohemia known now as the Czech Republic. Young Čapek wanted to be a priest until he became disheartened with his religion at 18 years old. Čapek joined the Baptist church but when Europe was entering WW1 he and his wife Marie and eight children moved to the United States. Shortly after arriving Marie died while singing in church.

Čapek was studying for his PhD and moved to New York. In a city library he met Czech-born Maja Oktavec. They married in 1917 and Čapek left the Baptist Ministry. The couple soon began a search for an open and liberal faith. Together they joined the First Unitarian Church of Essex County in New Jersey.

After the war the family headed home and Čapek founded the Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia in Prague. He built a community for people of all creeds, and those who had stepped away from their religions but who might still be looking for a faith community and were willing to search for the truth and be of service to others. It was here that he created a service, the Flower Communion, with all the elements his faith community and of the natural beauty that surrounded Prague. The first one was held on 4 June, 1923.

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“The symbolism of the flowers that each one brings is very powerful,” said Jane. “In this, sometimes, terrible world there is a certain innocence in the giving and receiving of the flowers that have been brought, and the way we distribute them during the ceremony is touching.”

At Čapek’s first service each member brought a flower and placed it in a vase. At the end of the service congregants took a different flower home. That’s what members and visitors to St Mark’s can expect as the essence of Čapek’s Flower Communion has not changed in almost 100 years.

“I feel it is very inclusive,” said Lynsey. “It’s something that everybody can take part in and appreciate.”

While Čapek chose to stay in Europe during WW2, his wife went back to the US to raise money for relief efforts in Czechoslovakia. From 1940 to 1943 she served at a Unitarian church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “She (Maja) was a very prominent influence in the New Bedford Unitarian Church and the relief effort following WW2,” Lynsey said.

But back home Čapek and his daughter, in March 1941, were taken by the Gestapo, who seized his books and free-thinking writings. He was charged with a capital crime: listening to foreign broadcasts. Nazi records show that his Čapek’s work was ‘too dangerous to the Reich (for him) to be allowed to live.’ Čapek was taken to Dachau concentration camp and in October 1942 was gassed. Maja was unaware of his death until the war ended.

As Unitarian congregations we are often united in feeling that we must never forget the horror and terror of war.

“This is enshrined in the Norbert Čapek story,” Jane said. “He was a remarkable man.”