Mystery man leaves surprise behest to churches totalling $81,000

PORT TOWNSEND — It is an old tale, told since medieval times, of the stranger who comes to the church door on a winter’s night and knocks.

Asking for a bite of bread or a place to get in out of the cold, he is welcomed and given food. Then, pulling back the hood of his cloak, the visitor reveals himself to be a person of means who is able to return the charity.

It is a story that echoes what happened to Wendell Ankeny, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church this Christmas.

The stranger was an elderly man Ankeny knew as John, who would stop by the church office on Clay Street from time to time.

John was thin and stooped, his beard often unshaven, his gray hair sticking out of the watch cap he always wore.

Ankeny said he and John knew each other for a couple of years, though John never came to a service.

Last Tuesday, Ankeny had another visitor — John’s brother, who delivered a gift from John’s estate to the church.

It was a check for $27,000.

“It was out of the blue,” Ankeny said.

The brother, Tom Camfield, also delivered checks for $27,000 each to two other uptown churches — First Presbyterian and St. Paul’s Episcopal.

With the former, Camfield included a letter explaining that back in the 1930s, he and his brothers attended Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church.

The connection to St. Paul’s is unknown.

“There is nothing like this, to receive something you did nothing to attain, that is pure gift,” said Elizabeth Bloch, rector of St. Paul’s.

According to Camfield, his brother — born Richard Ernest Camfield but who changed his name to John Richard Ernest — was a loner who was estranged from his family in the last decades of his life.

Except for a stint in the Air Force in the 1950s, Richard lived in the family home on Morgan Hill all his life, said Camfield, who referred to his brother as Richard.

His brother wrote poetry, mostly about nature, which he had made into a book and peddled at the ferry dock in the ’70s, Camfield said.

When their mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, it was Richard who took care of her for eight years until her death at the age of 96, he added.

Then Richard lived alone in the house, changing his name and removing any connection with the family name.

Other than occasionally seeing him at Safeway, Camfield had no contact with Richard, nor did any of the family, he said.

“He became very secretive and hid away from the world,” he said.

So when Richard became ill last summer, it was Ankeny who got the call from the hospital.

It was the man he knew as John, asking if Ankeny would come and baptize him. John also asked to become a member of the church.

Ankeny fulfilled both of John’s requests, baptizing him in the name he adopted, as well as fulfilling another request — bringing him a chocolate malt from the local drug store.

Ankeny visited John the next day, bringing another chocolate malt that John was unable to drink.

On the third day, when Ankeny arrived at the hospital, the bed was empty.

John died of cancer Aug. 28. He was 79 years old.

In his will, he left bequests for the three churches, which Camfield delivered last week as early Christmas presents.

“I hastened to get it here before Christmas in case Santa might have some financial shortfalls,” Camfield said.

“He wanted to leave that money to those churches.”

Said the Rev. Dr. Bob Slater, minister of First Presbyterian Church: “I do believe in Santa”

The gifts come with no strings attached, so the churches are free to decide how they want to use the funds.

All three churches are in historic buildings uptown that are more than a century-and-a-quarter old.

First Presbyterian is in the process of retrofitting all the lights, Slater said, and also may use some of the funds for a planned addition.

Part of any unspecified donation or funds raised is always set aside for mission work, Slater said, including Habitat for Humanity and the food bank.

The church also maintains a 10-year relationship with a village in El Salvador, Santa Elena — sending work teams and funds to build houses, a community center and a well — and has a supportive partnership with the Evangelical Seminary in Cairo.

“We feel fortunately blessed by this gentleman,” Slater said of the gift.

At St. Paul’s, the gift came at a time when the church is expanding its local outreach to people beyond the walls.

Last summer, parishioners started a weekly soup lunch that is drawing up to three dozen people, mostly working people who need help making ends meet, Deacon Karen Pierce said.

The parish had plans to expand and had started raising funds.

So when Bloch opened the envelope that Camfield handed her and saw the check, she whooped with joy.

“It was like someone had popped a champagne cork in your spirit,” she said.

“We had a specific need, and this kicked us over the top. It truly felt miraculous.”

Slater said that while First Presbyterian Church has received bequests from people he doesn’t know, they are usually past members who had moved away or were no longer active for health reasons.

None he remembers was half as large as John’s gift; all were for a specific use.

Bloch said St. Paul’s has received anonymous gifts in the past but not one of this size.

“He has blessed a need that he had no idea about,” Bloch said of John’s bequest.

The unexpected gift is the second windfall for Trinity UMC, which nearly closed 12 years ago for lack of members.

Since then, it has rebounded with the help of a woman who attended services but would arrive late and leave early. The woman wouldn’t give Ankeny her name, he said, even when he visited her in the hospital.

When she died, Ankeny had to track down the relatives and arrange the service.

In her will, the woman left her estate, including her Lincoln town car, her piano, all her household possessions and her large collection of hats, to Trinity.

The church kept the hats, which people wear in the woman’s memory on Easter and Mother’s Day, but held a garage sale to sell the household items, realizing $30,000 to kick-start the building restoration.

That included shoring up the bell tower, which was twisted in an earthquake, and placing a foundation under the unsupported building.

Ankeny said it’s up to the church to decide how to use John’s gift but said part of it will probably be used for a mission project and part to finish projects in the building, which opened its door to a stranger.

Camfield said people have told him that his brother was a kindly sort at the end of his life and would have liked people to know about his last gifts.

________

Jennifer Jackson, who writes the column Port Townsend Neighbor, can be reached at 360-379-5688 or jjackson@olypen.com.

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