When we stayed in Chautauqua last summer, my sister pointed out a hydrangea and remarked, “Probably, that perennial has bloomed here every summer for more than 100 years.” Indeed, in Chautauqua, gardens, people, and ideas have blossomed for a very long time. Like a perennial, Chautauqua sprouts, grows, ages, appears to die, then blooms again.
When Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 by several Methodists, their aim was to encourage Christians to engage with the world in a rigorous and intellectual way. This spiritual, learning and arts center in Western New York was a response to the era’s histrionic emotionalism exhibited at evangelical meetings.
Chautauqua became a movement. From its inception as a place to engage Sunday School teachers in substantive Bible studies, it has become what it is today — a mecca for people of faith who seek to deepen their understanding of life’s meaning through religion, the arts, culture, and the humanities.
It’s hard to imagine that at one point most U.S. citizens knew about or had attended Chautauqua or one of its events. In 1924, its peak year, the traveling Chautauqua circuit visited 10,000 communities and more than 40 million people attended Chautauqua programs.
As an ecumenical and interfaith institute, Chautauqua continues to stand for “earnestness and breadth of vision and it is again becoming a leader in meeting the new religious needs of today.” (From an article entitled, “Aggressive Christianity at Chautauqua,” in the weekly Chautauqua newsmagazine written August 23, 1913.)
Tens of thousands of people continue to visit Chautauqua during its nine-week summer season. In 2009, I was one of those thousands of Chautauquans looking for rest, revitalization, and religious reconnection.
Fenton Deaconess Home
When I mention to friends, even church friends, that I had a great time in Chautauqua last summer, most of them stare at me blankly. None of my friends had heard of Chautauqua. So I’ve taken it upon myself to spread the word.
I learned about Chautauqua Institution when I worked in the finance department of the Women’s Division about six years ago. I learned the Women’s Division owns two summer homes there: the Fenton Memorial Deaconess Home and The United Methodist Missionary Vacation Home.
I longed to visit, but the photos in the brochure did not show any children. Among my three children, not one is a shrinking violet. However, Marva Usher-Kerr, fellow staff, encouraged me to visit with kids in tow. Since then, my children have grown up a little (even though I told them not to). Last spring, Becky Louter, deaconess office, also nudged me to make a pilgrimage to Chautauqua. The kids and I could stay in the deaconess home.
I reasoned that my kids might be ready. So as part of my professional leave from Global Ministries in the summer of ’09, my sister and I spent a week at Chautauqua. We took over the Fenton Deaconess Home with our combined six children between the ages of 6 and 12. Almost all of us had a single room at the Fenton Home.
The registration letter recommends a donation to the Fenton Home of about $39/day a person. The Fenton Home has six single rooms and one double room. The cost was well worth it! However, deaconesses can stay in the home and receive a free gate pass. (The gate fee to enter the institution is pricey, about $354 for the week. There are fees for parking and for the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, too.)
My 9-year old twin daughters had never before slept in single rooms. They showed their maturity by making their beds and tidying up their cozy rooms every day, tucking their stuffed animals under the white bedspreads.
Penny Krug was the deaconess hostess at the red-brick home. She and her lovable husband, Charlie, were completely unfazed by our little brood. Penny provided good company, delicious lunches and breakfasts, a beautiful (and tidy!) home to share, and the daily newspaper with our coffee at breakfast-time.
One day we were all excited at breakfast to discover that my six-year old nephew Joey’s picture appeared in the newspaper. There he was, eating cake, celebrating the birthday of the Chautauqua Symphony.
The Fenton Deaconess Home is located near Thunder Bridge, so called because bikes rumble over the bridge. Next summer (and I do hope to make it back) I will try to bring bikes. But I won’t need to bring bike locks. No one locks their bikes at Chautauqua. The trees near the Fenton Home were eminently huggable. I hugged the trees and smelled the flowers every day.
We made good use of the tennis and basketball courts and playground near our home. We made lots of friends on the playground, including a Brazilian missionary family. At a women’s ministry luncheon I met Dean Maxine Beach from Drew Theological University. The chaplain for the week was Rev. Barbara Lundblad, who officiated at my marriage 14 years ago.
Classes, Lectures & Kids’ Clubs
The week was a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Chautauqua offers almost any kind of class that one can imagine. I had considered joining a women’s sharing circle, a digital photography class or a history of Chautauqua architecture survey. But I settled on two standbys: watercolor painting and non-fiction writing.
After my morning art class, I met my sister for the lecture at the 7,000 seat ampitheater. The theme for the week was, “What Makes Us Moral: An Abrahamic Perspective.” The first lecture was given by Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, author, and survivor of a Nazi Concentration Camp.
Other lecturers at various venues that week included: Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church, Harvey Cox of Harvard University, Dr. Leila Nadya Sadat of the International Criminal Court, Dr. Robert Michael Franklin of Morehouse University, Dr. Ralph Williams from the University of Michigan; and Dr. Michael Gazzaniga from the Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California.
While we listened to the morning lectures, our children attended the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, the oldest daycamp in the country.
On the first day of day camp, I asked my oldest, “What did you do today?”
“We went sailing,” my son answered. A first!
Other activities with the children included: juggling by the Gizmo Guys; a Star Trek movie at the cinema; the Bat Chat, a scientific discussion on bats; a Pas de Deux ballet from the North Carolina; and a comedy performance by Jason Alexander.
One rainy day we jumped into the indoor YMCA-like community center pool. We left the small-town life one night to eat at a nearby Italian restaurant. Most other nights we ate at the snack bar near the town center by the Bestor Plaza fountain. One night we dined at Hurlbut United Methodist Church for an old-fashioned Thanksgiving feast. There, we kept our young server very busy. Little Joey traded his bright green pistachio pie for a gooey cherry pie.
Towards the end of the week, my sister and I found ourselves listening to a lecture on discernment while doing a jigsaw puzzle on the wide porch of the Methodist Home, another United Methodist residence. I felt we’d come home. We chatted with the friendly hostess, Karen Douds and her husband Bob Douds.
While we did attend many lectures and activities in Chautauqua, this memory of sitting on the porch, just hanging out with my sister was a highlight. It felt right, like we were pieces in the big puzzle. We fit in. Even with our kids, we had become like those perennial flowers, blooming in Chautauqua.
To learn more about the Chautauqua Institution, visit their website at: http://www.ciweb.org/