City and Chestnut Hill Friends Officials crowded under a tent in the pouring rain Tuesday morning for a groundbreaking photo op. The officials (from left) included city Councilman Bill Green, Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steur, City Councilperson Cindy Bass, President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gail Harrity, Congressman Chaka Fattah, Executive Director of the Friends Council on Education Irene McHenry, Chestnut Hill Friends New Meetinghouse Campaign Committee co-chair Jon Laudau, and Friends of the Wissahickon Executive Director Maura McCarthy. Meeting member children (from left) John and Isabella Mazzaccaro and Skye and Ani Peterson.

by Barbara Sherf

On Tuesday morning, more than 150 Quakers, area art leaders, city officials and Congressman Chaka Fattah gathered in the 80-year-old Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse to listen to speakers before venturing out into the pouring rain to break ground for a new Friends meetinghouse to open in early 2013.

Jon Laudau, co-chair of the New Meetinghouse Campaign Committee, opened the program by pointing out the need for more space.

Welcome – I guess you can all see why we need a new meetinghouse,” Landau quipped before turning to the numbers the committee has reached after four years of fundraising. “We are nearly at our goal for this $6.3 million project, and it should be noted that two thirds of the funding came from within the Quaker meeting.

But what is really amazing and extraordinary is that $2 million came from outside of the meeting. Because of that support we are within $100,000 of completing the project. Funding for solar and landscaping is still being sought, but we are able to forge ahead.”

The meetinghouse will be comprised of a simple, two-story L-shaped building featuring a Skyspace by light artist James Turrell that will be open to the public year-round.

Gary Steur, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, spoke about the significance of the donated art installation by Turrell, a Quaker and world-renowned artist.

Having a James Turrell in Philadelphia is a very big deal,” Steur said. “The creation of this Skyspace is part of a larger arts and culture story – the story of Philadelphia taking its rightful place on the world stage. It’s not a coincidence that we are breaking ground this week with the Barnes Museum opening. It is a tipping point, and these things become an opportunity for citizens to recognize what they have here in Northwest Philadelphia and the city as a whole.”

Chestnut Hill resident Gail Harrity, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, noted that Turrell is a recipient of the Guggenheim and MacArthur “Genius” fellowships, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters – the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in the United States.

Harrity spoke of her moving experience visiting Turrell’s “Minamidera” or “Backside of the Moon” work in Naoshima, a small island located in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan.

With arms outstretched, I reached blindly in the void to find a rail, a wall, something solid to give ballast,” she recalled. “Very slowly, over a period of several minutes, which felt like several hours, a soft blue light began to emerge. And then slowly, the dim blue light began to brighten and eventually transformed the space with its azure blue glow. The experience is quiet, but powerful. It calls for reflection and can be transformative, changing with the times of day and year. Turrell’s work here will be a stunningly beautiful, meditative place and work of art that will speak to the souls of people of all faiths and backgrounds.”

Harrity went on to talk about the Roden Crater, a dormant volcano at the end of the Painted Desert in Arizona that, she said, “Turrell has shaped into a monumental experience of light and celestial phenomena.”

People go all over the world to see his work, and they will come right here to do the same,” she added.

Congressman Chaka Fattah spoke of the impact Quakers have had on him and his family.

Going back to 1972 and the “No Gang War” campaign at 4th and Arch Streets, Quakers helped my family and other young people to find ways to resolve conflict other than by using violence,” Fattah noted. “For those around the world looking for a moral compass, Quakers have been the standard bearers throughout history.

There will be art lovers who will come to see the Skyspace and that is appropriate. But there are others who will see the remarkable and inspiring work you’ve done over the years for causes that never get headlines but are in fact critical issues that face our country.”

Irene McHenry, executive director of the Friends Council on Education, noted that the Friends Council, Mt. Airy Learning Tree, Northwest Interfaith Hospitality Network and a host of community organizations use the current location at 20 E. Mermaid Lane.

This new Meetinghouse will do much more in and for the community in terms of carrying William Penn’s vision forward,” McHenry said. “I am so happy to finally see this deliberate and intentional move in breaking ground. We know it will be a beacon of light for Quakerism in the City of Philadelphia.”

Maura McCarthy, executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon, talked about the land and the respect that the Quakers have had for it.

When I think about this project, I see how the moral leadership has permeated every aspect of it right down to the landscaping that will draw people into an underutilized portion of the park,” McCarthy noted. “This group has shown great sensitivity to the watershed and the impact of the landscape on the watershed.”

Erdenheim resident Zeta Cross said she was drawn to the groundbreaking by the Turrell Skyspace installation.

I saw an exhibit of his in Los Angeles in the ‘80s, and I’ve never been the same,” Cross said. “It’s about spirituality and light. It was truly an amazing experience.”

After the remarks, Congressman Fattah and four children from the Quaker meeting symbolically launched the building project by putting shovels in the ground on a wooded 1.8 acre-lot below the current meetinghouse.

For more information visit: