Members of Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting gather in front of the old meeting house.

by Barbara Sherf

Sitting under sky-high pine trees and playing with the blanket of pine needles under my bare feet, my thoughts wandered to how I came to this place situated between the 82-year-old existing meetinghouse and the soon-to-open new Chestnut Hill Quaker Meetinghouse below the existing building on Mermaid Lane.

My journey began three years ago.

In 2010, when I learned of plans to build a new meetinghouse, I had a conversation with Chestnut Hill Local Editor Pete Mazzacarro about doing a story on the project.

My first story appeared on July 22, 2010. Here is the first paragraph of that story:

“Having outgrown its 79-year-old meetinghouse on Mermaid Lane, the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting is planning to build a new facility as a place “for people of all faiths to gather for contemplation, reflection, or quietly delighting in the beauty of a lovely Skyspace by distinguished artist James Turrell,” according to longtime Meeting member Signe Wilkinson.

I know a bit about art but had not heard of Turrell. I explored the Internet and read everything I could about the man. Then I watched a PBS DVD and read a book on him. He sounded like a kindred spirit, as my husband and I have turned a former art studio into a home complete with lots of skylights and architecturally interesting attributes that play on light and angles.

Raised in Philadelphia and its suburbs, I knew that Pennsylvania founder William Penn was a Quaker, but the more I read the more I realized how little I knew about the impact of the Quaker movement in America.

I was raised a Catholic, but left the church when I saw how my parents were treated following their divorce.

White studying journalism at Temple University, I took a “Variety of Religions” class as an elective. Our assignments were to visit different religious groups during the semester and write reports on them. I remember going to the Buddhist Temple in Mt. Airy, Kenneth Israel synagogue in Elkins Park, and a host of other Christian denominations, but somehow I missed (out) on the Quakers.

After visiting the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting Website (www.quaker.org/chestnuthill) and finding out what to expect, I decided to attend a Quaker Meeting in the summer of 2010.

For the first time in a long time I felt sincerely welcomed in a congregation. I remember later telling the group that “I felt welcomed, but not in a cloying way.” They laughed. Quakers, I have learned, have a good sense of humor.

Several months in, I willingly accepted an invitation to be on the Hospitality Committee. As a foodie and a newbie, I felt it was a good fit. I enjoy helping with the potluck lunches and helping to serve and cleanup and learn more about members of this community.

As someone who does speech coaching with individuals, I was surprised by my shaky voice when I got up to speak for the first time at a meeting in the fall of 2010. I don’t even remember what I said, but several members came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the insight.

In October, 2011, I wrote about the $2.8 million raised to date, and that only $370,000 was needed to complete the project. I wrote the piece as a journalist, but privately I was in awe of this accomplishment and the core group of members who were pursuing all avenues to make the project happen.

The next month I wrote a piece on how the Friends’ new meetinghouse will be a Hill attraction with the Turrell Skyspace being incorporated into the new building. The new meeting will have an opening in the ceiling that one can view clear through to the sky. The dynamics of light in the space will change from sunrise to sunset, and it is expected to be a destination for art lovers to tour.

In January 2012, there was a media tour with architect James Bradberry, complete with drawings and a model of the new meetinghouse.

As the skies opened and rain came pouring down in May of 2012, the Quakers huddled under a simple white tent for a groundbreaking ceremony. Despite the nasty weather, so many Friends’ came that folding doors from the regular meeting room where opened to allow for an overflow audience to listen to remarks and mingle over refreshments after the formal comments.

Over the Labor Day holiday, elders as well as newbies gathered for what was supposed to be the last meeting in the old building. Many reflected on change and the new direction of the meeting before posing for a group photo outside and refreshments served by the hearty (mostly) women who make up the Hospitality Committee.

It turned out that the City of Philadelphia never issued the necessary Certificate of Occupancy for the new building, so another meeting was held this past week, mostly on folding chairs, in the old space that had been nearly emptied on Saturday morning.

The contents were moved into the new building and volunteers got a sneak peak at the new space while workers busily worked on the punch list. Personally, I was in awe at my first impromptu tour given by the gracious Betsy Wallace, who has been attending the meeting since 2005.

“I sat in the new meeting room and it was very serene and quiet. The light was wonderful. I think it will become a real Meeting once the people are here,” said Wallace as she showed off the new kitchen, office and social room. The second floor was closed to visitors.

Wallace, of Wyndmoor, talked about the many scuff marks on the foot rails of the old benches, telling a story of how many Friends and visitors sat in quiet reflection over the years.

Cyane Gresham, of Chestnut Hill is on the Property Committee and was overseeing some final details at the old building around noon on Saturday. She shared her thoughts after the morning move.

“I have mixed feelings. It’s sad to leave but I’ve seen the problems with this old building and it’s kind of like it has to happen. As Quakers it seems we have a hard time with change and this is a big change. I’m just awestruck that the right people were in place to make this happen,” she said, noting that she was reading a book by Alain De Botton titled “The Architecture of Happiness.”

“It’s all about how people feel when they enter a special cathedral in Rome versus walking into the Pathmark up the street here. This (old) building was comfortable and well worn, but there was a persistent odor of mildew, we had a wastewater pipe burst, and it was damp and chilly in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Members will move on. It will be a different meeting, but it will always be the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting.”

During the Labor Day weekend meeting, I got up to speak, telling the group what a peaceful experience I had had the previous week in the woods between the new and the old buildings. After helping to pack the contents of the kitchen contents on Friday night, I wandered down to that space with the blanket of pine needles, and it confirmed for me a belief that whether we (and while I am not a member but a regular attendee I feel part of this community) were in the old or the new building, what really mattered were the friendly faces and belief systems we all shared and treasured.

I think Elizabeth Biddle Yarnall in her booklet “Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting: The Founding Years 1924-1931” summed up the end of that era best:

“Through the years since 1924 individuals and families have come and gone, younger generations have become middle-aged and have had their own children. Some of them have moved away or turned their allegiance elsewhere. But among the present membership of over two hundred there is still a warm affection, a continuing sense that we are “members one of another,” in that which is eternal.”

Writer and personal historian Barbara Sherf lives and writes from Flourtown. She can be reached at 215-233-8022 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com. For more information visit quaker.org/chestnuthill.