For the first time since 2013, I shall be missing the annual conference at St. Benedict Center. Alas, my attendance is a victim of the Corona-induced restrictions on travel. So, I have decided to tick off the things I’ll miss by not attending. My intention is not to rouse pity, but to encourage you who read this to enjoy them in my stead!
First and foremost, of course, I’ll miss the crew at St. Benedict Center itself. The annual get-together is always a tonic for my soul, and it is a deep pleasure to see old friends and make new ones. As Gary Potter — whom I really missed last year — once said, the annual conference is a real community that appears once a year, like Brigadoon. The chance to chat with people who understand or are trying to understand the problems we face in Church and State — and yet withal have a deep joy about them — is wonderful. In the immediate neighbourhood are two very different shrines of two very different Faiths: Rindge New Hampshire’s Cathedral of the Pines, which is a sort of temple of the Old American civil religion, and the beautiful Catholic Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa, over the Massachusetts line in Turners’ Falls.
I’ll miss the New England Autumn. It is not only a question of the leaves of red, gold, and orange, and “October’s bright blue weather.” New England country folk decorate their houses with elaborate displays of scarecrows, Indian corn, squash, and pumpkins, in preparation for Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving — and especially, now that I am in Austria, I shall particularly miss the Jack O’Lanterns. Indeed, this is the season when — for good or ill — the land of the Yankees becomes most truly itself.
There are certain places that I always try to get to when come to the Conference. Most obvious of these is Still River, Massachusetts, where Father Feeney and Sister Catherine Goddard Clarke presided over the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for decades. In the cemetery of St. Benedict’s Abbey they await the Final Judgment with many other members of the Order, including my own mentor, Br. Leonard Mary. M.I.C.M. Father offered Mass many times at the altar of the Abbey’s chapel, and within its venerable wall is also the relic-lined room where the M.I.C.M. co-founders would receive the brothers and sisters. At nearby St. Anne’s House, home toa distinct branch of the M.I.C.M. Sisters, there is another chapel where Fr. Feeney celebrated the divine mysteries in days gone by.
Still River is part of the Town of Harvard. Harvard’s Centre boasts not only a General Store with a cafe, but a “burying ground,” as the old Yankees called their cemeteries, which boasts the grave of Fanny Farmer. True to the fame of her candies, the marble obelisk that marks her resting place is topped by an obelisk of chocolate-coloured marble. In the immediate area is the venerable restaurant, the Old Mill, and the Shaker settlement of Fruitlands.
Another requirement for me is a trip to Sudbury’s Wayside Inn, made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The colonial-style cuisine is deliciously accompanied by such early American cocktails as the Coo Woo, in rooms immortalised by the verse of America’s first internationally known poet. Also in Sudbury is St. Elizabeth’s Chapel, run by the local Episcopalians but designed by Ralph Adams Cram (one of my favourite church architects and writers) as his family chapel — the Crams are all buried close by. Fortunately, his firm survives him under Catholic ownership, and continues to design beautiful churches.
Concord (in Massachusetts, not the capital of New Hampshire) is another town with a lot of things I try to see annually. The Colonial Inn in the centre of town is as old as its name implies, with again, really wonderful food. When I can, enjoy seeing Concord bridge where the revolution began in earnest — in tandem with Lexington Green. Also nearby is the Wayside and the Old Manse where Hawthorne wrote his Mosses from an Old Manse!
But of paramount importance to me is visiting Cambridge, site of Harvard University, where St. Benedict Center first began. There, across the street from the lovely St. Paul’s church, is the site of the first building occupied by the Center, now housing Sasha’s Salon and Spa. The building next door, first home of Ravengate Press, was for a long, long time host to the wonderful Café Pamplona — now, alas, permanently shuttered thanks to COVID. I’ll never forget their coffee, sopa de ajo, and media noche sandwiches. Even more firmly etched in my memory, however, was the scene back in 2014 during the abortive attempt at a Black Mass at Harvard. A thousand of us marched in a Eucharistic procession from the chapel at MIT to St. Paul’s which was already packed with another thousand observing a Holy Hour of reparation. We were joined by the 80 or so who had been saying the rosary on campus by the site of the cancelled rite. I observed to a friend that night that the display of Pan-Catholic solidarity would have been a joy for Fr. Feeney to have seen.
There are a few sights in Boston itself that I never tire of: the Cathedral, St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine, and the Mission Church for example, although I’ll never stop mourning the unjust and unwarranted loss of Holy Trinity. The same is true for restaurants: much as I prize the Union Oyster House, the late lamented (and very different from each other) Durgin-Park, Locke-Ober (with steak au poivre and Lobster Savannah), and Jake Wirth’s cannot be replaced. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is always a must see — and the Fine Arts Museum as well. So too the Boston Public Library, with its incredible artwork, boasting on the one hand illustrations of the Holy Grail and on the other of the Triumph of Religion. Colonial and Revolutionary War buff that I am, I never tire of the Freedom Trail.
Salem is another town that always draws me — especially the House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne again), the Hawthorne Hotel, and the Peabody-Essex Museum. I might go a little further north and enjoy the strangely built Hammond Castle and the Gloucester House restaurant.
These are my basic go-to sights. If I have a bit more time, I might see the Robert Frost homesteads in Bennington and Ripton, Vermont and in Derry and Franconia, New Hampshire, or else visit the Pilgrim sights around Plymouth (Plimoth Plantation, Pilgrim Hall, and of course the Rock itself). Then again, it might be Central Massachusetts that calls me — to the living history towns of Historic Deerfield and Old Sturbridge Village, or the Ste. Anne’s Shrine next door to the latter. It might be the Berkshires that summon, to such places as the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Mercy Shrine.
But this year it shall fall to you rather than to me to see these things. The six New England States offer an endless supply of interesting, thought provoking, and at times holy destinations. However long you have, see as much as you can before and after the Conference. Put your GPS on “No Highways,” drive about, and marvel at the beauty. It shall be a real respite from all the mayhem and darkness this year has brought us — and who knows? Maybe next year, you can tell me about some wonderful spot you’ve discovered that I’ve never heard of. Certainly, journeying through the villages dotting the colourful autumnal countryside will remind you of the truth of Fr. Feeney’s poem:
IF there be pale princesses,
And ragged royalty;
And monarchs without money,
And pompless pedigree;
And queens without courtiers,
And kings without crowns,
Lord, make me laureate
In towns and little towns.