Chapel_1977 The brief version! Imagine what the long version would be like…lengthy and very personal.
In the summer of 1977 I turned 38. My son, Matt, was 8 and Paul was 4. It was our last summer as a family on Star Island. My wife, Bonnie, was to leave me within the year to marry Gill Hart. Gill and his wife Connie were also on the island. It was a difficult time for me.
Bonnie and I, Gill and Connie, and from 4 to 8 other couples (it varied over the relevant years) were part of “the couples group” in our Unitarian “Fellowship” ( some members did not like the word “church”) in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. We were a close knit group due to weekly (or was it monthly?) “consciousness raising” sessions and, especially, group weekends. We would rent a summer camp facility (camp Madison Felicia in Putnam Valley, only an hour or so from Hastings, was our favorite) and then go up on Friday night and stay till Sunday afternoon. Everyone had a job (planning, buying, cooking, finances etc.) and mine was always taking care of the children. I loved it, though it meant getting up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and Sunday after late nights. We did this 6 or 7 times a year during the fall and spring and through this experience became a strong community, including all our children. Strong friendships were formed, and some difficult, but tolerant, relationships as well. Three marriages later occurred between members from the couples in the original group. Another story another time. I mention it here because these relationships, in all their complexity, came into the chapel service with us.
Several couples, I think Sarita and Bill Updike were among the first, had begun attending “RE Week” at the hotel/conference center on Star Island, 10 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean from Portsmouth, NH. “RE” stood for “Religious Education” and the conference focused on supporting and strengthening the related programs for children in Unitarian Churches. Along with RE directors who had full time jobs with large Unitarian churches, were many parents who volunteered to teach on Sundays. Soon many of the couples in our couples group were attending RE Week. Since getting accepted at RE week was somewhat dependent on being involved in the RE program at your local church, our church soon had a very strong RE program, with many willing volunteers.
Star is one of four islands in the “Isle of Shoals”. It is a small island, probably a little over a mile in its longest dimension and less than a half mile wide. Though over half the island is a barren rocky area leading to a cliff covered coast facing out in the Atlantic, the remaining part is sheltered from the wind and consists of a large old wooden hotel and associated buildings surrounding a wide grassy area and a dock reaching out into a protected harbor formed by connecting the islands together with huge stone breakwaters. Wikipedia has an interesting writeup of Star Island.
For many of us Star Island was an almost dream-like magical place. The island is strikingly beautiful, and rich in history reaching back to early 17th century. Our week long stay created a sense of community and friendship that permeated day to day life. I think the experience was reinforced by the physical separation from the mainland and the near dearth of communications. This was well before cell phones and wireless laptops. The only phone available to conferees was in the hotel lobby and often required signing up ahead of time to be assured that a call could be made. I could, and may, write pages about my many memorable, and usually wonderful, experiences on Star Island… right up to my 3-day visit this year (2012)
Sarita and Bill Updike had separated and Sarita was then living with Arlin Roy, a Unitarian Minister and therapist she had met on Star Island. Sarita and Arlin later married and have been among my best friends for over 30 years. Due to a lean financial period our church had reduced the minister to half-time and instituted “Program Groups”, made up of members of the church, to plan and give the Sunday services when the minister did not lead the service. Sarita and I had been in the same initial program group and had worked on a number of programs together. I believe we shared a mutual respect for each other’s relevant abilities and an awareness that each of was somewhat flamboyant and idiosyncratic ( I think Sarita was more the former and I more the latter), but, for whatever the reason, we worked well together.
Sarita and I had volunteered to plan and lead a chapel service on Wednesday night during RE week. I think it was Sarita’s idea. Each night during the week long conference had a unique character. Wednesday night was special because by that time we had been on the Island since Saturday, 4 days, and the sense of community had grown strong. By Thursday we were all more aware that the end was coming, and that added its own poignancy and intensity.. but Wednesday was still mid-stream, in the middle of a week of wonder, joy, and occasional strong emotions.
One of my hobbies was singing and I had been singing with the New York City Pinewood Folk Music club for a number of years, and had attended many weekends of singing camps, and numerous small gatherings. In the process I had learned many songs, and “rounds” ( those repeating, overlapping cannons like “row, row, your boat””) and I was able to use some of my favorites in the service. Sarita’s flare for the dramatic came to full bloom in her preparation and presentation of the “Betty Moody” part of the service.
It happened that Sarita and I, and some other friends, were in a music workshop with Prue Berry that week and that group became the core of the singers in our service. In the group were Prue, Zoe Hart (Gill’s daughter), Connie Hart (her mother), Sarita, Debbie Ellis and me. I don’t recall whether Doris Staubi (another member of our couples group) was in the workshop, but I believe she sang with us in the service. In the first segment on the recording you can hear me doing last minute organizing, assigning singers to groups for the rounds, and I think Doris was mentioned. Prue was a talented, and I think brilliant, musician, and a wonderful workshop leader. The workshop had bonded and that spirit flowed into the chapel with us. I could write another article on the workshop’s repeated daily, chanting of “Witchi-Tai-Tai”, sometimes for more than five minutes, and the fact that we pretended (or feared, or believed) that it somehow invoked the powerful storm that hit the island on Thursday. [ Note: this was all many years ago and I trust that readers will forgive me if I accidentally combine events from other weeks ]
Sarita and I had been working on the chapel service for months and serendipity and Star Island magic added what felt like a blessing far beyond our normal reach. The recording speaks for itself about most of this though ‘”you had to be there” is probably an important component. I believe the monster story, read by a friend whose name I have forgotten, was written in the 2nd grade class of my son, Matthew. Saritas’s “Betty Moody” presentation was based on a true historical event that occurred on the island during its early history. Betty Moody was forced to hide in the rocks with her baby when the island was raided by mainland Indians. Betty Moody’s cave is a well known place out in the rocky area and I visited it with a group of children, including my grandson, Owen, this summer. In trying to keep the baby quiet while the Indians were nearby, the baby was accidentally smothered. It was all very long ago.. but haunts the island still.
The chapel on Star Island is a small stone building on top of the highest peak. It has no electricity and has seating for around 100, if packed in. The tradition is for those who will attend an evening service to gather on the large porch stretching the entire length of the hotel facing the protected harbor. They wait there till the chapel bell rings, and then walk up the long hilly path carrying candle lit lanterns distributed by Pelicans (another story.. these were the college age kids who staffed the island during the summer). As they enter the chapel they hang their lanterns on the metal bars on the walls for this purpose. If you listen closely during the first song in the recording you can hear the tinkle of the lantern glass as they are hung. The result is that the chapel goes from an empty, ghost like, shell with only an occasional flashlight, to a well lit, full, vibrant, experience of community. Even ringing the chapel bell by pulling the long rope in the bell tower (and the process of keeping the bell swinging back and forth) feels like a holy experience to me.. and I did it this year, again. I have more stories about that.. but not now.
The RE conference was usually held in mid-July. The weeks were often wonderfully warm and sometimes just plain hot. Drinking water was brought out by ferry and shower water was rationed depending on the rainfall. RE Week in 1977 was a fairly warm week and the chapel that night was somewhat warm, humid, and, as I remember it, close.
Though I want the recording to tell its story, rather than my trying to embellish it, I do want to comment on one particular piece of the magic. The chapel services were held every night, Saturday through Friday, and were usually well attended, though certainly not by 100% of the conferees. More often than not, few, or no, children attended. Because this was RE week there were a lot of families attending the conference. The parents of children in their local church’s RE program often volunteered to teach RE in their church, and they came as a family to this conference. Almost everyone I mentioned above had at least one child on the island that week. Many of these children went on to become Pelicans in their college years. I have always been especially appreciative of children, and was on the children’s staff one year at RE week. Being with so many children added to my joy during these weeks.
Sarita and I decided (we probably had help from Prué’s workshop) to include the teenagers in our service. We invited them to come to the service and to participate in the “Betty Moody” part. At least 5 or 6 ( I have no idea how many) came, including Prue’s daughters. They sat in the big hollowed out stone windows of the chapel – somewhat fairy-like (or angelic) presences looking over the adults in the pews. I believe they pushed the “hauntingness” ( I still don’t have a name for it ) level up a few more notches. The other words that come to mind regarding their presence are poignancy, beauty, intensity and love. Their job, when the time came late in Sarita’s “Betty Moody” presentation, was to chant, moan, intone, sing..or whatever… “Betty Moody” at irregular intervals, without plan or pattern, during that appropriate portion of the story. They did! I believe it had a strong impact. For some attenders the “Betty Moody” part of the service was “too much”, too strong, too over-the-top, for others it was a powerful delight they would remember for years. It certainly was, and still is, that for me.
When the chapel service ends, the attenders pick up their lanterns and file out of the chapel, back down the hill to the hotel porch. Our final song covered their exit and the tinkling of the lanterns can again be heard. Both when the lanterns are coming into the chapel and when they are being carried out they cast lights, and shadows, on the ceiling of the chapel. It is a glowing, dynamic, magical, (haunting) mosaic of moving images that is yet more of “Star Island Magic”.
One last piece of this story. These were the days of cassette recorders. I had set one up to record the service. After it was over I found that my recording had failed. I don’t remember why. Though I was disappointed, I let it go. The magic had happened. That was what mattered, not that I had a record of it. At that point Arlin Roy mentioned that he too had set up a cassette recorder. His was in the flower arrangement in the center of the alter. His had worked.. .and hence, this recording.
Harry Baya Oct 5, 2012