"You did not choose me, but I chose you."
– John 15:16
Our History in Cambridge in 8 Images
Nov 12, 1870
SSJE Brothers in Boston
Four years after the three founders of SSJE – Richard Meux Benson, Charles Chapman Grafton, and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill – first professed vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience on the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist, SSJE Brothers arrive in Boston on Saturday, November 12th, 1870. For a decade they ministered out of the Church of the Advent in Beacon Hill. In 1883, they established a mission house at the Church of Saint John, Bowdoin Street.
Jan 7, 1913
On January 7, 1913, Spence Burton wrote the first entry in a diary and service register that would record the earliest years of the Society in Cambridge. After forty years at Bowdoin Street, the Brothers rented rooms in Quincy Chambers, hoping "to focus [students'] spiritual life in Cambridge...So we planned to have an “office” in Cambridge where men would know that we would be found regularly on certain days during the week."
An "Oratory" in Cambridge
In 1914 the American congregation gained independence from the English congregation, and young men began to approach the community, looking to be admitted as novices. In 1915, “Mrs. Jack,” as she was known to her contemporaries (Isabella Stewart Gardener to us), gifted to the community a large sum of money, which the Society used to purchase a parcel of land she’d been eyeing along Memorial Drive. It was, at the time, an inauspicious address, housing as it did the MBTA car sheds, a dust heap, and the outbuildings of the Harvard Press. A small wooden building was erected quickly on the site. Two steps up from the ground stood a door, topped with a plain wood cross. The door opened into just two rooms, a living space for Brothers and a chapel space for services. The Boston Herald reported: “Tiny Building Near Brattle Square is First Structure of Group Designed to House New Episcopal Activities Among Harvard Students.”
Apr 1, 1928
Saint Francis House
From two Brothers in an office in Harvard housing, to a couple of Brothers in a tiny shack on a dust heap, the Society continued to swell with new members. The Society soon realized, as one newspaper put it, that “A permanent place had to be found for them.” For five years, services continued in the small frame building at one end of the lot, while construction teams began work on “Saint Francis House” at the other end of the lot. In 1928, the Guesthouse was complete and a large crowded gather with the Bishop, the Brothers, the Superior, and Cram before the l-shaped “Saint Francis’ House,” to bless it.
Ralph Adams Cram, already an American architect of some renown, also happened to be a member of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist on Bowdin Street. He was selected to design the new monastery buildings of SSJE. “Like others of Mr. Cram’s great buildings,” The Churchman Abroad explained, “it must grow slowly, the most needed parts must be erected first, so he drew the whole plan than worked out details for the guest house, for there novices and a few professed member s of the Society could be in residence until funds came for the erection of the monastery." In fact, Cram's original design was only ever finished in part, with two of four wings on the Monastery side being left open.
Aug 15, 1936
Laying the Cornerstone
When the Great Depression first hit and many banks and companies failed, most building projects in the nation came to an abrupt halt. But hope persisted among the members of the Society that a way forward would be found. Burton and Cram continued to work on the plans for the new monastic complex, with Cram finishing his first sketch of the proposed buildings in 1929. Work began on the new buildings in 1936, with Burton and Cram laying the cornerstone for the new chapel in a public ceremony on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin on August 15. Local construction companies were used, and the project provided jobs for many stone cutters, brick layers, electricians, plumbers, and artisans in a time when unemployment was still extremely high.
Adorning the Chapel
The chapel was designed along monastic lines in the Romanesque or Norman style, with a monastic choir, arches, and an apse containing the high altar. It was constructed of granite from a local quarry in Quincy, with Indiana limestone for the pillars and arches. For the floor of the choir and sanctuary, marble from Tennessee as well as from Belgium, France, and Italy was used. Cram, who would often reuse materials in his designs, obtained large beams that had once been part of a wooden bridge over the local Mystic River that had recently been pulled down. These beams were used in the roof of the chapel, as well as the roof of the new refectory in the Monastery wing. Construction was finished within a year, but no money had been put aside for outfitting. Later in the chapel, a baldacchino was added over the high altar, as well as stained glass from the studio of Boston artisan Charles J. Connick, funded by donations from friends of the Society in New York City. Gifts from across the nation provided furnishings for the Brothers’ cells, the kitchen, and the laundry room.
Sep 17, 2011
Renovation of the Monastery
Seventy-five years after the Chapel and Monastery buildings were begun, the community realized that these historic structures were in drastic need of repair and renovation. The Society launched a capital campaign, STONE & Light, to address these needs. The renovations were completed in 2011. On September 17, 2011, we hosted a festival eucharist giving thanks to God for the successful completion of this work, our joyful return home, and the hope we feel in contemplating the Society's future.