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Building Hope: Constructing the Monastery during the Great Depression – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

Fr. Spence Burton next to Ralph Adams Cram, with three unidentified contractors, at the construction site of the Monastery.

Fr. Spence Burton next to Ralph Adams Cram, with three unidentified contractors, at the construction site of the Monastery.

In October 1929, the stock market crashed, sending the nation into the worst economic depression in history, the Great Depression. During this time, Spence Burton, the superior of SSJE, was working with the celebrated architect Ralph Adams Cram on plans for the new Monastery on Memorial Drive. The project, when finished, would not only enable the Society’s work in the spiritual formation of students, lay people, seminarians, and clergy, but would also be a living monument to the Society’s hope for the future

The American Congregation of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist gained autonomy from the English branch of the order in 1914. When Spence Burton was elected the second superior of the American branch in 1924, he had high aspirations for its mission; aspirations that required a suitable mother house for the Society’s growing numbers and ministry. The project began to be realized when initial financial gifts from Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Burton family allowed land to be bought and the first building to be built. This building, known as Saint Francis House, was completed in 1926. A second unit, with more rooms and a temporary chapel in the basement, was added to it in 1928. It was used for ten years to house the members of the Society, and is now the Guesthouse of the Monastery. But much was left to be built, including the chapel and new living quarters for the Brothers, as well as a refectory, library, and common rooms.

When the Great Depression first hit and many banks and companies failed, most building projects in the nation came to an abrupt halt. But hope persisted among the members of the Society that a way forward would be found. Burton and Cram continued to work on the plans for the new monastic complex, with Cram finishing his first sketch of the proposed buildings in 1929. Then, in the early 1930’s, Burton’s parents died, leaving substantial funds to continue the project. The new chapel would be built as a memorial to Burton’s mother, Byrd Waithman Spence Burton, as indicated by the memorial stone placed below the Rose Window (now concealed by the current organ). The main unit of the new Monastery would be dedicated to Burton’s father, Caspar Burton.

Stone masons laying the stones for the north wall of the Chapel.

Stone masons laying the stones for the north wall of the Chapel.

Work began on the new buildings in 1936, with Burton and Cram laying the cornerstone for the new chapel in a public ceremony on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin on August 15. Local construction companies were used, and the project provided jobs for many stone cutters, brick layers, electricians, plumbers, and artisans in a time when unemployment was still extremely high.

The chapel was designed along monastic lines in the Romanesque or Norman style, with a monastic choir, arches, and an apse containing the high altar. It was constructed of granite from a local quarry in Quincy, with Indiana limestone for the pillars and arches. For the floor of the choir and sanctuary, marble from Tennessee as well as from Belgium, France, and Italy was used. Cram, who would often reuse materials in his designs, obtained large beams that had once been part of a wooden bridge over the local Mystic River that had recently been pulled down. These beams were used in the roof of the chapel, as well as the roof of the new refectory in the Monastery wing.

Cram designed a regal tower, eighty-nine feet in height, to connect the chapel to the Monastery wing. It provided for storage space, an incredible view of the area from its top floor, and an organ chamber in the second floor (in which an organ has yet to be installed). The Monastery wing, like St. Francis house, was built of brick and tile covered with light gray stucco.

Construction was finished within a year, but no money had been put aside for outfitting. Later in the chapel, a baldacchino was added over the high altar, as well as stained glass from the studio of Boston artisan Charles J. Connick, funded by donations from friends of the Society in New York City. Gifts from across the nation provided furnishings for the Brothers’ cells, the kitchen, and the laundry room.

b Saint Francis House

St. Francis House, now the Monastery Guesthouse, as it looked in 1928.

Cram was aware that the great European monasteries were built gradually over time, adding buildings when the need arose and when finances made it possible. So, with money running low, the new Monastery on 980 Memorial Drive was intentionally left incomplete. As the Society continued to grow over time, two additional wings to the Monastery would be added to complete the cloister. But decades went past, and no new construction was accomplished.

Our buildings are now in drastic need of repair and renovation, and added space is desired for offices, meeting rooms, and common areas. Recently the Society launched a capital campaign, STONE & Light, to address these needs. But the economic crisis of our own day has compelled us to reconsider our priorities. We brothers have chosen to see this time as an opportunity to strengthen our communal life and refocus our ministries. We do not know what the future holds, but hope still abides, and we are confident that God will show us a way forward.

A 1929 sketch by Ralph Adams Cram depicting his original vision for the Monastery and Guesthouse.

A 1929 sketch by Ralph Adams Cram depicting his original vision for the Monastery and Guesthouse.

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