Monday, June 8, 2009

The House of the Redeemer

Last week I was trying to get over a chest cold and so was unable to attend one of the favorite things that happens in my life each year: the annual Garden Party benefit at the House of the Redeemer, an Episcopal house of retreat in New York City. I'm glad to say that it was a smashing success. By all reports it was a lovely event, the people were interesting, and lots of money was raised.

The House of the Redeemer, on 95th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, was founded in 1949 by Edith Shepard Fabbri, a great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. She and her husband, Ernesto Fabbri, built it during the First World War to a Florentine Renaissance design. The architect was Grosvenor Atterbury. It incorporates many original elements brought over by ship, including a spectacular Library, the woodwork of which is from the library of a palace of the Dukes of Urbino, and is certainly one of the great rooms of the City of New York. The House is among the few standing great homes of New York, very few of which retain their original character as homes, with many of the original furnishings and works of art intact, as the Redeemer does.

Mrs. Fabbri was a devout Episcopalian, and a woman of considerable spiritual depth. When it came time for her to consider the disposition of her house, she decided she wanted to create a retreat center, "a place apart", as she put it, a place of beauty, quiet and prayer in the midst of the City. The Board was created in 1949 and the house deeded to the Board. It included Bishop Robert Campbell, OHC, who was then the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross. Bishop Campbell had been the Bishop of Liberia, but had returned to the U.S. for reasons of health. The Board asked the Sisters of the Community of St. Mary to staff and run the House, and they did so until 1980.

The House's offerings have grown to include musical programs, lectures, group spiritual retreats, and meetings and events of non-profit organizations of all kinds. But its primary work is as a place of retreat and prayer, and the Chapel sees daily Morning and Evening Prayer Monday through Friday every week,as well as the Eucharist on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the House is open. The public rooms are not air conditioned, so the House is formally closed in July and August, though some guests brave the rigors of summer. There is a faithful band of people who worship regularly together with the priest in residence, who changes monthly. Many individuals and groups, Church related or simply spiritually minded, who value quiet and calm come to stay at the House when they are in New York, making a time of retreat their base for whatever else has brought them.

I became involved with the House in 2002, during the first year after I moved to New York City to became the priest at the Church of St. Edward the Martyr in East Harlem. I was looking around for a congenial church or community related activity to join, to give me a larger scope of interests and contacts and to be useful. My friend Fr. Tom Synan invited me to the 2001 Christmas benefit at The Church of the Heavenly Rest, at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue, and in the course of that I had a chat with the Rector, Fr. James Burns. I indicated I was looking for something additional to do, and his face lit up and he told me about the House. He was on the Board and would introduce me. It seemed a good fit for me, as I had been Prior of Mount Calvary in Santa Barbara for nine years and Guestmaster there for two years before, so I knew the retreat business pretty well.

Jim introduced me to the Board President, Frances Reese, known to all as Franny. Franny was a legend in her own time, a tireless worker for Episcopal Church and environmental causes, and a member of one of the old-line New York families, with deep roots in Dutchess County and in New York City. I was elected to the Board of Trustees in May, 2002. In the fall Franny drafted me to work on a subcommittee with the excellent Barton Jones, of the Church Pension Fund. We did our work, made our report the next Spring, the issues were resolved, and I went on vacation.

I was in Sevilla. I had wandered over to the local internet cafe and was checking e-mail, and learned to my horror that Franny had been killed in a terrible automobile accident. This was a real crisis for the House, as Franny had led the efforts which had reorganized the House's ministry and governance and had begun to put it on a secure administrative footing. We were devastated.

To my surprise, the Board asked me to be the new President. I was elected in December, 2003, and have served as President since. It has been wonderful, with many interesting challenges, and with some complex and difficult decisions to make. It has been my joy to work with a wonderful group of Board members and with a terrific staff, headed by the marvelous Judi Counts. When I moved back to the Monastery last fall, I asked the Board if they wanted me to continue as President, since I would no longer be close by, and they asked me to stay, and re-elected me last October.

I would like to encourage all the readers of my blog to become acquainted with the House of the Redeemer. It is one of the great places.