Living behind the grille
I used to stop by now and then after work to listen to the Sisters sing the Office. The Office, a flowing combination of psalms, prayers, and inner celebration chanted by women answering a call of the "still small voice," was a transcendental experience. Visitors were welcome to sit and listen or join in and chant in harmony from the small visitor's chapel on the other side of the mahogany lattice grille through which you could watch the Sisters rise and kneel in their stalls. Nothing was asked of you. No one bothered you. There was no sense of separation. The grille did not divide us; it joined us.
They came to the city in 1893 when the area was a reclusive forest leading down a high ridge to the Brandywine river. Within a decade or two they were surrounded by the large colonial homes that bragged of their owner's prosperity and sat on opposite sides of Bancroft parkway.
In 1993, one hundred years after the sisters arrived, needing more space and far more quiet, the Sisters moved to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. I had only visited them a dozen times or so and didn't realize how much I would miss the peaceful oasis in the midst of a harried life. But the loss, nameless and poignant, still lingers.
The Sisters had hoped that the property of their century-old granite convent would be converted into a museum or a retirement home but the developer claimed that renovations on two million dollar deal would be too costly. Everything but sections of the nine-foot stone wall was demolished to make room for multiple upscale semi-detached homes.
The Sisters were disappointed that the convent would be destroyed but are at peace with what they can't control. They've had a long history of decisions outside of their control since their founding in France in the town of Annecy in 1610 by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jeanne de Chantal. As the 1993 demolition began, in silence, in peace, they packed their French 16th century religious books and made their way to Massachusetts.
I frequently drive by what remains of the monastery walls and consider that our city lost an anchor of peace when they left. The double-score quarter of a million dollar multiple homes that are now sandwiched together and squeezed within the confines of the wall still look like an afterthought. A mistake. An original gate door from the monastery was salvaged and stands unmoveable on the south side of the property next to a modern light-grained gate door without a window.
The score of cloistered nuns vowed to silence and a physical withdrawing from the world invited the very same world to visit them while the current residents, without a single song in their heart or on their lips added a windowless wooden gate that does not open, does not move, is merely decorative, and only serves the purpose of keeping the world at bay. I wonder on moonless nights if the new residents behind the wall hear eerie cloister voices of the nuns who have passed on, some to Massachusettes, others to their Bridegroom.
A transcendental singing into the night.