A life purpose much higher than a lighthouse
Jessie Moniz Hardy – Royal Gazette Bermuda
Published Jul 16, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 16, 2019 at 7:23 am)
In his younger years “Ted” Cowen would fly up the 185 steps of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse.
It was something he did frequently. His father, Rudolph, was the lighthouse keeper and would send him to grab a tool needed for machinery work — sometimes four or five times in a row.
“It was a great way to get some exercise,” joked the 85-year-old whose real name is Edward.
Now a minister in Sun City, Arizona, he recently returned to Bermuda to officiate at friends’ funerals.
As always, he made a point of visiting the lighthouse; having had heart bypass surgery a few years ago, his climb was a lot slower.
“I stopped at each platform and had a look at things so I wasn’t tired,” he said. “It was exciting that I could still do it [but] it was definitely in need of a paint job.”
His father insisted everything was buffed to a high shine when he was the keeper — from 1946 to 1968. He often called on Rev Cowen and his siblings — Edwin, Rosehelen “Tinky” and Wyndham “Toppy” — to help.
The minister had no fear of heights and was often hoisted up on a boatswain’s chair to the top of the signal pole that still sits outside the lighthouse.
“I’d be fixing different lanyards,” he said. “My father had a whole series of flags that he’d put up the pole to communicate with passing ships. There was also a black ball that was put up when a hurricane was approaching. I remember when one ship in particular came in, my father had me put up the letters JD at the top of the pole. JD meant that your ship is in danger. The ship stopped and he put further flags up and had him turn around and go out. That was before modern communication. If my father hadn’t done that they would have definitely been on the southwest breakers.”
During particularly bad hurricanes the lighthouse could sway as much as seven inches, enough to tip out the mercury in the trough that the lens rested on.
“We’d just sweep it up with a whisk broom, dust it off and put it back,” Rev Cowen said. “We didn’t have all the health concerns that people have today.”
At 20 he went to work at the Bank of Butterfield as a clerk, but something kept telling him he was on the wrong path.
He joined the Evangelical Church of Bermuda, where he was sometimes called upon to preach to the congregation.
“People kept saying I should be a minister,” he said. “I was praying about what God wanted me to do; the bank wanted me to stay there. I just read the scriptures and discussed it with people.”
His mother, Gladys, was supportive of his decision to study for the clergy, his father, not so much.
“He was really battling alcoholism at the time,” Rev Cowen said. “He told me if I walked out that door you’ll never hear from me again.”
He spent four years at Northeastern Bible College in Essex Fells, New Jersey. With no money, he had to work. A milk company hired him to do their accounting and he spent weekends doing night shifts at a grocery store.
As it turned out, the move convinced his father to clean himself up and turn his life around.
“After that he was supportive,” Rev Cowen said. “A year later after I left, he sent me a plane ticket to come home for a visit.”
It was while in college that he met his future wife, Patricia.
“She was a very accomplished musician,” he said. “She started playing the piano at 4 and did her first concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia when she was 7. She was a year ahead of me in college, but a year younger than me.
“While I was doing my last year she travelled around the United States performing with the White Sisters. It was an interesting time. We would sometimes see each other on weekends when she would come back to play for rallies in New York.”
The couple married in 1957 and Rev Cowen took up a pastorate on Long Island, New York. They moved often — to New Jersey, Alaska, Minnesota and back to New Jersey. Along the way, they had three children Timothy, Stephen and Cathy Lynn Silva.
In 1981 while he was home on a visit, the Evangelical Church asked Rev Cowen to minister for three Sundays. That turned into a couple of weeks, and then three months and then four years.
“One of the things I loved about the Evangelical Church when I was here was the enthusiasm for the old pastor [Henry] Santos,” he said. “He was Portuguese. I didn’t understand him, but just to listen to him preach to the Portuguese congregation was an inspiration. He had such an enthusiasm for the word of God.”
In 1985 doctors discovered his wife had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Told that it was aggravated by Bermuda’s humidity, they moved to Sun City hoping the drier climate would be better for her.
“It gave us 30 more years,” Rev Cowen said.
In Arizona, he focused on repairing churches.
“I would fix up the building itself, get the congregation functioning and move on as soon as I could get another pastorate,” he said. He supported his family by working as a handyman, doing plumbing, electrical and carpentry work.
“Patsy developed Alzheimer’s Disease,” Rev Cowen said. “I worked up until she needed constant care then when I was having trouble coping my daughter, Cathy Lynne, moved in with us. I am so grateful that she did that.”
Mrs Cowen passed away in 2016.
“I took her in the hospital at 7am and by 4am she was with the Lord,” Rev Cowen said. “We like to blame people, but the Lord’s timing is always perfect.”