By Dave Rogers
---- — For the most part, monks visiting or residing at Emery House by the banks of the Merrimack River adhere to their vows of silence, preferring to gaze upon God’s creation and listen rather than speak.
But yesterday, Society of St. John the Evangelist monks had plenty to say as they welcomed hundreds of people to the Emery Lane compound as part of its first open house in several years. About a half dozen members of the SSJE were scattered throughout the extensive grounds to give the curious informal tours of the 18th century main house, its modern chapel and its 140 acres of land.
“A place of peace and something of a sanctuary, really,” Brother Geoffrey Tristram, the society’s superior, said.
The West Newbury Emery House, located right over the Newburyport border off Route 113, serves as a retreat for SSJE monks, most living at the main monastery near Harvard Square, Cambridge. It is bounded by the Merrimack and Artichoke rivers and is adjacent to Maudslay State Park’s 600 acres. Founded in 1866 in Oxford, England, the SSJE is a monastic community of the Episcopal Church. Brothers are required to make vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience.
Guests are welcome to spend a day, weekends or longer with the monks at their retreat having the opportunity to stay in modern one-bed cottages that the monks call hermitages. Typically, guests come to revel in the quiet and will often join the brothers in prayer inside the Chapel of the Transfiguration.
“A time to be still, to rest, to be refreshed,” Tristram said.
Unlike the more introspective Cambridge chapel, with its stained glass windows, massive columns and overall darkness, the Chapel of the Transfiguration is minimalistic in design. With expansive clear windows, worshipers are bathed in light and pray while gazing upon breathtaking views of the river and the grounds.
As some guests checked out the chapel, others were taken on a guided tour of the compound and given a brief history of Emery House.
Guests were shown the compound’s beehives where the house’s honey, available for purchase, is cultivated. A chicken coop and its fenced-off area was also part of the tour. Eggs laid by the chickens inside the coop were used to bake many of the cakes, brownies and other snacks offered to guests during the open house.
“It’s quite a revelation for some people,” Tristam said.
During the tour, several people, many wearing crosses, were heard remarking about how beautiful and peaceful the Emery House was and thinking that the hermitages were perfect for a weekend away.
Brian Cassin and Joan Meister, both of Newburyport, were among those thoroughly impressed.
“It’s awesome, blows my mind,” Cassin said.
“I’m ready to book my weekend in a hermitage,” added Meister.
The purpose of the open house, which attracted people mostly from the Greater Newburyport area, was to be good neighbors to the West Newbury community at large, Tristam said.
“We feel we wanted to give the opportunity for local people to get to know the Emery House, meet the brothers,” Tristam said.
Overall, SSJE has 17 brothers who strive to be “men of the moment,” responding with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to contemporary issues and needs. SSJE is the core of a larger international community of nearly 1,000 associates in the Fellowship of St. John, and SSJE’s guesthouses welcome over 2,000 guests annually, according to its website.