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Sacred Site

At All Souls Interfaith Gathering, the faith is inclusive and the views are divine

By Amy Lilly [07.13.11]

On a recent sunny day, the view of Lake Champlain from the top of Bostwick Farm Road, next to the Shelburne Museum, is typically spectacular. But not everyone knows that an even better prospect lies a short way down the road — named for Dunbar Bostwick, who married Electra Webb, daughter of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb — after a right turn onto a narrow gravel road lined with stately trees.

An easy-to-miss sign indicates that the turn leads to All Souls Interfaith Gathering, which, despite its vaguely religious name, is not a church. The road continues through rolling fields bordered by woods, in the course of which busy Chittenden County seems to drop away. Around another turn you can see the pleasing, unpretentious façade of the 1970s house Bostwick built for his second wife, with an eye-catching circular addition off to the side. The front door is open. When visitors step inside, the first thing they see is the view out the far windows: Gently rolling fields lead the eye down to the lake and the blue, blocky Adirondacks beyond.

As befits its beautiful location, All Souls hosts weddings, concerts, yoga classes, masseuses’ offices, a Waldorf School and a growing roster of community events. These rentals fund the primary purpose of the nonprofit in possession of the property: to convene people of all faiths, as the “interfaith” in its name indicates.

Founder Reverend Mary Abele, an interfaith minister who trained at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, seems not so much distracted by her creation’s beautiful setting as absorbed by it. Strolling the curved paths of the labyrinth — a circular clearing designed for meditation in the woods near the house — the “over 60” Abele unhurriedly explains the term “interfaith” while pausing to pick up fallen sticks and apologize for the occasional weed.

“It’s a step beyond Unitarian Universalism,” Abele (pronounced A-buh-lee) says, in its emphasis on “spirituality over dogma.” Children’s programs introduce kids to Jesus, the Buddha, Sikhs and more, she explains, so they learn “early that there’s a wide variety of opinions.” This all-inclusive approach to the world’s belief systems “encourages people to make their own connection with the Divine.”

A commotion at the edge of the labyrinth interrupts the tranquil lesson. A surprisingly tall, lanky fox has just startled a squawking turkey into flight and is bounding playfully away, unperturbed by the presence of humans. Because this is All Souls and not, for example, a Nature Conservancy-owned wood, the moment seems laden with significance. Could the Vermont landscape be a manifestation of “the Divine”?

Such reflections aren’t unusual here. Many begin coming to All Souls, according to events planner Lisa Desmond, as converts to the spot’s beauty. “They come to walk the labyrinth, or for a wedding in the sanctuary” — that’s the circular addition, completed in 2008, whose bank of windows frames the stunning lake view. “Some people walk into the sanctuary and just burst into tears,” she adds.

Newcomers can sign up for the Gathering’s online newsletter, which currently reaches more than 500 people, to keep abreast of classes being developed for the community and other educational opportunities, such as a coming-of-age program intended to bolster teens’ self-esteem. It also notifies subscribers of special events, including the upcoming second annual September 11 Day of Transformation; and lectures, such as a series on the environment that Vermont Public Television host Fran Stoddard moderated last year.

Abele says that between 20 and 60 people attend Sunday evening Evensong Services, which occur during the school year and are officiated by either Abele — who gives homilies with titles such as “Trees and the Soul” — or invited representatives from other faiths. During the summer, members can attend Sunday morning meditation services. The grounds are open to the public (except during weddings, which usually occur every summer weekend).

Despite the beauty of its setting and its multiple uses, All Souls is still under the radar of many locals, says Desmond. She often finds that newcomers are neighbors who just never ventured in before: “They’ll say, ‘I’m embarrassed to say it, but I live over on [nearby] Greenbush Road.’”

That disconnect can be partly attributed to the history of the land that All Souls occupies. Its seven acres belong to a 1000-acre, largely undeveloped private lot that has passed through significantly wealthy hands over the years. Part of the lot, which roughly abuts the southern end of Shelburne Farms and still contains some working farms, was gifted to Electra and Dunbar Bostwick by Electra’s parents. (Her father, Watson, was the eldest son of Shelburne Farms founders Lila and William Seward Webb.) Bostwick acquired the rest of the land over the course of his life, according to Chris Davis, the parcel’s manager since the mid-1980s.

Bostwick eventually moved into the Wake Robin life care retirement community across the road named for him. In 1997, his children sold the land to the Meach Cove Trust, formed by Abele’s husband, John, cofounder of the medical device company Boston Scientific. (The Abeles had moved to Vermont in 1993, where Mary later completed internships at the United Church of Westford and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington.) The trust then donated seven of those acres, which included the house, to Abele’s burgeoning project. A small sign for the trust’s offices accompanies the All Souls marker on Bostwick Farm Road; the road to the gathering place is actually a right-of-way on the private land held by the trust.

Abele began offering meditation services at the house 12 years ago. All Souls’ board chair, Sue Dixon, an early attendee, says she and a number of community members encouraged Abele when the pastor began talking about expanding the site. After a three-year capital campaign that Dixon coordinated, and aided by the Abeles’ “significant resources,” Abele had the house renovated in 2008 for use as an event space, complete with kitchen, library, sun porch and reception area with seating for 100.

The Abeles engaged SAS Architects in Burlington — responsible for the then-newly built ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, where the couple sat on the board — to design the centerpiece of the new building, the sanctuary.

“It was a very interesting project,” recalls principal architect Marty Sienkiewycz, in part because it was “such a personal project” for Abele, in contrast with the hands-off style of the institutional and academic clients SAS usually serves. During a design process that went on for nearly six months, he says, “We did 13 different schemes before we settled on one.”

The final plans incorporated sustainability measures, influenced by ECHO and Shelburne Farms, that included LED lighting, bamboo floors, heating by a boiler that takes wood or corn pellets and air conditioning by artesian well. The well recently failed for little-understood reasons, Sienkiewycz mentions, so traditional air-conditioning had to be installed.

The light-filled sanctuary is as much a communal as it is a personal project. A collection of heart-shaped stones donated by members fills a sunken display unit visible in the center of the floor through a plastic window. Banks of red-cushioned benches are built into the circular walls, offering families a place to sit together. Wall bays display objects representing the different religions, among them an Islamic Qur’an, a Jewish menorah and a Christian cross. These look more like art objects than symbols that inspire visceral reactions, even war, in the world outside.

Significantly, there is no altar “to bring back bad memories,” as Desmond puts it. Seating for 200 has been put away to make room for the morning yoga class, offered almost daily by Heidi Bock of Shelburne. As the students roll up their mats, one of them, Charlotte artist Emily Bissell Laird, enthuses unprompted about the time she rented the reception space next door to display her paintings, with music provided by her husband, guitarist John Creech. Other students congregate near a built-in bench, where Bock has laid out their business cards to encourage connections.

Bock “fell into being the blessed yoga teacher who gets to teach here,” she explains with a laugh, when she began offering classes four years ago — at first in the temporary space on the Meach Cove property that the gathering used during sanctuary construction. Bock’s two daughters attend All Souls’ children’s programs — an experience that couldn’t be more different from her own early encounters with religion, she says.

“I grew up Protestant” — Bock attended the Williston Federated Church — “and I never remember being moved in church,” she recalls. “My daughters feel like there’s more of a choice. You start to see that we [of all different religions] all want the same thing: to connect with ourselves on a deeper level and understand ourselves better. Throughout history that message has been spoken in different ways. It doesn’t matter what kind of practice you have, but that you have a practice.”

It may be enough of a practice merely to appreciate the view to Bock’s right as she sits on a cushioned bench. Gesturing to it, she admits that it’s as much a part of the services as the homily. “You walk in here, and right away you feel like, ‘Ahh. Exhale.’”

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