Tuesday, June 16, 2009
The Cathedral of the Pines
Last December a brutal ice storm hit the Monadnock region and other parts of New Hampshire. A ridge in Rindge where the Cathedral of the Pines is located, as well as where my mother now lives, was particularly hard hit. Ironically, the Hurricane of '38 left a devastating blow to the local woodlands, too, when it barreled up the Connecticut River from Long Island Sound. That damage is what helped lead to the eventual creation of the Cathedral of the Pines, a non-demoninational outdoor cathedral for all people to worship. The Sloane family, who owned a farm on the site and adjacent pine woods, were impressed by the views that opened to Mount Monadnock after the storm. When their son Sandy was killed in World War II they wanted to make a memorial to him as well as an outdoor chapel. In 1946 the stone altar was created and the first services were held.
Mount Monadnock rises to the west behind the main altar.
The Cathedral is also a war memorial for all veterans and those who lost their lives serving our country. The Women' Memorial Bell Tower was dedicated in 1967 and features four bronze panels of women protecting or serving their home, hearth and country. Designed by Norman Rockwell, the panels were created by his son Peter and bear both of their initials. My favorite has always been the pioneer woman, at left, defending her cabin.
1946 was the same year that my grandparents bought their farm a few miles down the road in Jaffrey. The Cathedral has always been integral to our summers and life here. We would snowshoe amidst the pines in winter, pick blueberries in summer, and ride our horses below on the old abandoned roads that helped link the Cathedral with our farm–and still do thanks to Annett State Forest and the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests. In the mid-70s our friend Bill Keep was director and he and his wife Jane, and family, brought new life and spirit to the place. [It was also where I had my first summer job, apart from babysitting, in the gift shop in 1977–I was disappointed that it was closed as I was hoping for a balsam pillow and some post cards.]
The tree of life, inside of the open structure of the bell tower, bears this passage from the Book of Revelations [22:1-2]: "On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” When the wind was just right, we could always hear the bell tower carillon wafting down Sherwin Hill to the farm.
My grandparents, both Cathedral incorporators and trustees, are buried in the small Trustees plot to the left of the altar as are my aunt and uncle. It was good to visit them all again as I don't think I'd been to the Cathedral since my aunt's burial twelve years ago. Hard to believe, but then again, one often has to be a tourist in their own land to see the local sites.
The Cathedral as it looked before the 2008 Ice Storm [from Cathedral of the Pines website]
The main Cathedral sanctuary as it appears in June 2009, post ice storm.
What was truly astonishing, however, was the change of landscape. With the tall pines destroyed and removed, the cathedral is now an open space framed by pines. There was something lovely about being outdoors for a service or event–like the Easter sunrise service, weddings or our high school baccalaureate–and hearing the breeze blow through the pines and the scratchy speakers echoing it back. Now they were able to install an in-ground sound system while relandscaping the chapel area. It is a dramatic change but the Cathedral has certainly made the best of a difficult situation that was out of their control. And yet, like a church that has been destroyed or damaged by fire, the essence of the Cathedral, that special spirit that it has always had, still pervades the pines and this tranquil hilltop eyrie.
Apart from a guide in the main building, I had the place to myself and I was selfishly glad of that. The sun came out for the first time in days after a lingering rainy front passed, at last, this morning. The June afternoon was glorious: blue skies, fleecy clouds, rather cool.
On June 6, I arrived in New Hampshire on a beautiful early summer day and drove past the Cathedral to see my mother for the first time in ten months. Tomorrow I leave for a few days in Ohio–for more family homages–and then Kentucky. This has been a special trip of reconnection and remembrance and, while I am ready to go back to my "new" home again and see my boys and husband, I will hold New Hampshire–and my mother and daughter and friends–close in my heart until I return.