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Seventy-five years worth of candle wax, incense smoke, and general wear and tear left quite a mark on the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge. But after an 18-month, $11 million renovation and restoration of its chapel, guesthouse, and monastery buildings, the society’s monks are ready to welcome guests and worshippers again.
Originally built during the Great Depression, the Episcopal monastery just steps from the Kennedy School on Memorial Drive is currently home to nine monks. The guesthouse hosts visitors who come for spiritual retreat, including Harvard students, faculty, and affiliates.’
As part of the restoration, a specialist carefully cleaned each of the chapel’s stained glass windows—depicting the lives of monastic saints—with a solution of ammonia and water.
“We’re seeing colors we’ve never seen before,” said Brother Kevin Hackett, a resident monk and director of communications at the monastery.
Contractors installed new wiring and plumbing and reinsulated the complex for temperature and sound. Guest rooms were refurbished and outfitted with energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, and a handicap-accessible was bathroom added. The renovation also repaired leaks in the chapel tower, roof, and walls, and replaced the bell that calls the brothers to prayer five times a day.
Little known to Harvard undergraduates, the monastery was built between 1924 and 1936 on land donated to the society by Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardener. The buildings were designed by a well-known collegiate and ecclesiastical architect, Ralph Adams Cram, who also designed the campuses of Princeton and Rice Universities, as well as Princeton Chapel and many churches throughout New England. The romanesque Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) chapel, dedicated to St. John and St. Mary and built with granite taken from New England quarries, is considered a departure from Cram’s usual neogothic style, according to Hackett.
As he put finishing touches on the chapel floor Thursday, laborer foreman Brian Pike remarked on how this project has been different from a typical construction job.
“We’re a commercial contractor, so we don’t get to see a lot of the real old stuff,” said Pike. “It’s interesting, it’s dirty, but it’s definitely rewarding if you’re into the old architecture.”
The guesthouse welcomed its first post-renovation visitors on September 13, and chapel services are now running on a regular five-a-day schedule. The brothers have moved back in, after being split between the society’s second home, Emery House in West Newbury, and temporary housing in Cambridge.
“As with any kind of renewal or construction project, it took much more time than we had imagined,” said Hackett. “The sense of displacement underscored for us how central the monastery was—particularly the chapel—to our sense of corporate identity and what we do.”
Though SSJE was founded in 1866 in Cowley, England, the brothers are very much engaged in modern-day culture. They maintain an extensive website, with a collection of over 500 sermons and a daily mailing list called “Brother, Give Us a Word.”
Hackett himself dresses as only a 21st century monk could—long black robes, simple glasses, hair cut short and an iPhone in hand.
And what sort of applications does a monk have on his phone? “I have Skype, I have Yahoo, I have the Weather Channel and I have Epicurious because I like to cook,” Hackett said.
Still, guestrooms at the monastery are plain and devoid of technology—apart from new, energy-efficient lighting and air conditioners. “One of the ways in which we are endeavoring to offer a kind of 21st century monastic hospitality is to offer a sense of being quiet and unconnected, so that the deepest part of ourselves can be reconnected with God,” said
Wendel W. “Tad” Meyer, acting Pusey Minister at Memorial Church, described the renovation as a symbol of the society’s commitment to providing a refuge for the public. Meyer first encountered the SSJE brothers when he was in seminary, 32 years ago, and credits them with providing him both spiritual direction and space to retreat.
“The rooms are nice, but what they represent is even nicer,” Meyer said. “They represent that the brothers have rededicated themselves to providing Christians from all over the country a space where they can be quiet, discern, heal, and grow.”
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