By Heidi Shott
Maine has a gift for unusual arrangements. My son Martin attends one of Maine’s private high schools that serve as de facto public schools. Founded in 1801, Lincoln Academy has educated our community’s kids well enough for more than 200 years – well enough that our towns never got around to building a public school. I understand New Hampshire and Vermont still each have a few of these academies, but Maine communities told tight to the ten or so “private schools that serve the public trust.” Compared to secondary education in the rest of the United States, it’s an odd way of doing things but it’s our way and in all ways – statutes, tuition agreements, public accountability – we’ve learned to compensate for the irregular practice of private schools acting like public schools.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maine is home to its own unusual arrangement. Late in the nineteenth century, faithful Episcopalians who steamed up the coast of Maine to escape the heat of Washington, Philadelphia and New York brought their church-going ways with them. These rusticators were the ones who turned “summer” into a verb. And over a 30 year period, from 1885 to 1915, many of Maine’s 18 summer chapels were built and consecrated. Some were built on islands like St. Cuthbert’s on McMahan off the coast of the shipbuilding city of Bath, others like St. James’, Prouts Neck – founded by Winslow Homer’s family – were built in the midst of summer enclaves. Chapels needed to be close at hand; before automobiles, going to church meant walking there.
Today few extended families, no matter how wealthy, come to spend the entire summer. Still, these independent summer chapels continue to draw generations of the same families back to mark life's milestones: weddings and baptisms, memorial services and lovely, unremarkable Sunday mornings. The connections remain for those families who have worshipped and celebrated together in places of great natural beauty.
Each July the Bishop of Maine hosts a day for representatives of the summer chapels to share the life and joys and challenges with the Bishop and one another at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland. Late last month, about 40 people gathered from Trinity, York Harbor, in the far southwest corner to Redeemer, Sorrento, located way Downeast which is how old-time sailors described the easy downwind sail to the easternmost the stretch of coast. In the winter they live in Pennsylvania or Texas or D.C. or Boston. But it’s at their summer chapels on the coast of Maine where they are married, baptize their babies, and commit their parents’ remains to the columbarium or over the rail of the boat.
In the morning the conversation covered suggestions for organs that survive in unheated buildings through the cold winter and how to defeat the mice that like to nest inside them, how to fund capital improvements for leaky roofs and deteriorating stained glass.
They compared notes on how various chapels host clergy: one priest for the whole summer; a July guy and an August guy; or a new priest each week. The bishop covered his plan to make visitations to each chapel over the next few years, made easier with no Lambeth or General Convention cutting into summer Sundays.
The summer people – who are extremely generous in their support of ministry in Maine - heard from our Hispanic missioner about Portland’s Spanish-language congregation that offers a tight-knit Christian community to many newly-arrived immigrants. They listened to a priest share news of our newest Jubilee neighborhood center located in a struggling former mill town and from the volunteer director of St. Elizabeth’s Essentials Pantry that serves more than 300 households each Tuesday morning with the necessities of life that aren’t covered by food stamps.
The retired cathedral dean who has served for 17 summers at St. Ann’s in Kennebunkport recounted the how the elder President Bush recently skydived onto the chapel lawn to celebrate his 85th birthday. While waiting Mrs. Bush apparently quipped to the warden, “Well, if something goes wrong, at least we won’t have to take him far.”
After noonday prayer, we retreated to the undercroft for lunch. At the end of the buffet line, I looked up to see the only seat remaining among the many tables was next to Bishop Steve Lane. Having worked for bishops for 11 years, I’ve come to understand that no one presumes to sit right next to the bishop at events like this. People might sit at his or her table or nearby, but usually only late-arrivers take the last seat beside the Ordinary. And, because I tend to cut arrival times close, I often end up sitting next to the boss.
At this year’s summer chapel meeting, Bishop Steve’s second, he tried something new. He invited the wardens and clergy from a few year-round congregations located near summer chapels that tend to bleed off some winter residents to the summer chapels. The people from St. Columba’s in Boothbay Harbor, a year-round congregation, were chatting with the bishop. As I sat down with my plate, St. Columba’s interim priest was shaking her head, “The summer chapels aren’t parishes or missions of the diocese, but they are Episcopal. So what ARE they? What is their formal relationship to us?”
Bishop Steve explained how each chapel is variously organized – some are incorporated, others are held in private trust, others are loosely organized and ecumenical with a love and custom for prayerbook liturgy. “Essentially they are part of our diocese by the strength of our relationships,” he said, gesturing around the room.
And, as he spoke, it dawned upon me that we have our own Anglican Communion right here. We’re drawn together by our history, our love of place and common prayer, our commitment to ministry and community, and by our enduring relationships that transcend the tenure of bishops and wardens. The Diocese of Maine and the 18 summer chapels of the Episcopal persuasion that grace our rocky shores don’t need a formal covenant to prescribe how and under what circumstances we are related to one another.
We have an Anglican Communion right here within our borders. It’s an unusual arrangement to be sure, but we seem to have a gift for that and I hope we can learn how to share it.
Heidi Shott is canon for communications and social justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.