Each morning at six o'clock, the call of "Bendicamus Domino" resounds through the halls of the Monastery of Saint Mary and Saint John, waking the Episcopal monks to their duties. The Monastery, located next to the MTA car barn on Memorial Drive, is the Mother House of the American Congregation of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist; a society which originated in Oxford, England in 1865 under the direction of Father Richard Meux Benson.
After an unsuccessful attempt to found an American branch of the society in 1870, Father Benson saw its establishment in the following year through the efforts of a Harvard Law School graduate, Father Charles C. Grafton LL.B. '53. The American Chapter used the facilities of the Church of the Advent on Bowdoin Street in Boston. When the Advent moved to a new location several years later, the building became a Mission House for the Society. Meanwhile, the novitiate (those training for monastic life) resided in Hicks House, which is now the Kirkland House Library. In 1914, the American Province gained autonomy from England.
Bought New Property on Memorial Drive
Financial help towards the purchase of the Memorial Drive property was extended by Isabelle Stewart Gardner. The gift had a curious restriction; the Cowley Fathers have to conduct a service on her birthday each year in the Gardner Museum. All her heirs must be present.
In 1926, the Fathers built the first unit of St. Francis House, and a second in 1930. The Chapel and the Monastery enclosure, which now include the monks' cells and the refectory, were erected six years later.
Designed by Ralph Adams Cram, the Chapel architecture is a combination of late Romanesque and Norman features. Inside, the grey walls are high and long, giving the Italian marble choir and altar a sense of depth. Stained-glass windows deck the clerestory, portraying the Virgin Mary (west window) and leaders in monastic history. Before construction of the Chapel commenced, 84 concrete pillars some 20 feet long were driven into the ground to insure a sturdy foundation.
"Prayer," says Father Smith, the Deputy Assistant Superior, "is the primary duty of the religious life." Accordingly, the monks assemble for prayer seven times a day, from Matins at 6:30 a.m. to Compline at 9:00 in the evening. An hour of meditation is set aside in the morning, after which they attend to various jobs such as cleaning, washing, and painting. "Extra-curricular activity" is severely limited. Some Priests depart for other churches or convents to celebrate Mass, while others have a chance to say Mass at altars in the monastery. Morning services at 7 and 9 on weekdays are open to the public. Only males, however, can attend Sunday breakfast.
For the most part, the monks observe "Holy Silence," except at certain times or in emergencies, when conversation is kept at a minimum. During dinner and supper, one of the brethren reads aloud while the others eat. For deeper meditation, the Society sets aside a two-week retreat in the summer, and one week in the winter. Fortunately, the subway traffic next door does not disturb the "greater silence" which lasts from supper until 9 o'clock in the morning.
Fathers Work Abroad
Religious activity is not confined solely to the monastery. Several priests have travelled far into the Orient to give medical and spiritual help. Father Morse, for instance, served in China until he was forced to leave to two times; once by the Japanese, and again by the Chinese Communists. At present, he lives on the Indian-Tibet border, offering his life and knowledge to the people in that area. In Japan, the three Japanese fathers took, in refugees during the last war and helped to provide food and clothing to the homeless. Bishop Spence Burton '03 is serving in Nassau.
The monastery also provides a quiet and peaceful shelter for students in the community. Anyone who wishes to join the order can follow the prescribed training of the novitiate. First, one becomes a postulant, assuming that he is acceptable to the Father Superior. If, after several months, a postulant is satisfied with his new way of life, he may be given the habit of the Society and become a novice. After a novitiate of two or three years, he is eligible for election by the Chapter to life vows, provided he has reached the age of thirty. The novice who is younger may take yearly vows until he "comes of age" Fewer than a third of those who test their vocation as novices become monks. To date the Society has about 30 members in its service.
Several Harvard students attend services at the Monastery regularly. One has helped to officiate in every public Mass over the last two years.