Our Lady's Island Getaway
It was while crossing the short causeway that connects the Connecticut mainland to diminutive Enders Island that I first laid my eyes upon the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption. (The Church commemorates the Assumption Aug. 15.)
The impression was of a sturdy spiritual beacon that has been watching over the boats on Fisher's Island Sound for at least a century — maybe several.
Then I parked my car, approached the structure and read the cornerstone. “For the greater honor and glory of God,” it reads. “2001.”
The chapel is designed in traditional Romanesque style but with unique details. For example, its exterior stones were cut and laid by a master mason, just as they would have been centuries ago. Yet its interior displays new liturgical art crafted by some of the artists who teach at the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art.
(The art institute is a function of St. Edmund's Retreat, the retreat ministry of the Society of St. Edmund. You realize as you're pulling onto the island, thanks to a carved sign marking your arrival, that St. Edmund's Retreat is synonymous with Enders Island: The ministry is the 12-acre island's sole enterprise.)
We noted that the chapel's mason and architect, Dennis Keefe of Boston, carefully selected his stones to match those of the beautiful, turn-of-the-century mansion that serves as the retreat center's main house and dining facility. Scattered among these fieldstones are rocks from Marian shrines throughout the world and from the abbey where St. Edmund, 13th-century archbishop of Canterbury, is buried.
“The building itself is a prayer,” Edmundite Father Tom Hoar, director of St. Edmund's Retreat, told my wife, Mary, and me. “All the art was done by folks who … are people of prayer and exquisite artistic talent, people who are able to bring to the visible world the mystery and wonder of salvation.” Looking around, we could see that he wasn't exaggerating.
We were also quick to pick up on the nautical theme reinforced throughout, complementing the chapel's island setting. As we entered, the Holy Spirit welcomed us from a stained-glass window atop the front doors, descending over the waters of creation and baptism. Straight ahead sat the altar, with a centrally situated tabernacle directly behind. Walking forward toward it, we “navigated” eastward toward the rising sun (symbolic, we were reminded, of the Risen Son).
The picture windows flanking the sanctuary magnify this ancient symbolism. Both clear and delicately tinted with roundel accents, they're positioned to always catch the rising sun — one from the summer solstice onward, the other beginning with the winter solstice. But no one planned a beautiful bonus: As the sun streams through the roundels, it forms crosses of light on the chapel's honey-colored walls. Peering out these windows, we saw that we were only yards from the calm waters of Fisher's Island Sound, which is naturally protected from the open waters of the Atlantic by Fisher's Island, N.Y.
Overhead, the cathedral-like ceiling is reminiscent of the inverted hull of a ship. Its honey-toned beams are cut from Douglas fir and pegged — never nailed — in the medieval manner. Suspended from one beam over the tabernacle is a handblown sanctuary lamp in the shape of a boat. The plaster walls increase the chapel's radiance, as do the oak pews with the symbol of the Society of St. Edmund carved at each end.
Moving to the altar, we learned that the granite table was cut from a larger altar that had been in place when the island served as the Edmundites’ novitiate. The pieces left over have not been wasted. One large slab, for example, serves as the pedestal on which the tabernacle sits; smaller (but equally symbolic) segments are found around the chapel's perimeter.
Alongside the altar sits the chapel's processional cross, a stirring sight in its own right: Mounted in its rough wooden stem is a relic of the True Cross, along with the papal seal of Innocent IX, which testifies to its authenticity.
In stained-glass windows flanking the tabernacle, two angels gaze longingly toward the space in which the Bread of Life is reserved. These windows and all their companions enjoy brilliant blends of cobalts, aquamarines, corals and scarlets. All are the work of Nick Parrendo, a teacher at the St. Michael Institute whose half-century of stained-glass artistry is internationally recognized.
The three tall transept windows on one side take us on a briny spiritual voyage with themes of faith and hope. In the center, Jesus walks on water toward us. In the background is the bark of St. Peter, the symbol of Christ present in the Church. The roundel above Jesus pictures Jonah in the whale; the one below him, Pentecost.
The Stations of the Cross are nothing short of stunning. They're done as medieval manuscript illuminations patterned after the Book of Hours, and the entire Passion unfolds in the settings of Enders Island. The backdrops progress through the cycle of the seasons. In the 14th station, for example, Mary wraps Jesus in the tomb; look closely and you see that the site of the tomb is Enders Islands’ open-faced seaside chapel (located elsewhere on the island) in the winter. The artist behind these images, Jed Gibbons, hand-ground pigments in the time-honored way from semiprecious lapis lazuli, malachite and corals.
Our Lady, Assumed
To the rear of the sanctuary, a small side chapel invites more prayer. At the center is a nearly life-sized carving of the Blessed Mother being assumed heavenward. She wears softly tinted blues and reds, and the backlighting lends the carving a celestial effect.
This side chapel also features two radiant icons — one of Blessed St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus, the other of St. Michael the Archangel. They were crafted by Vladislav Andrejev, another St. Michael Institute teacher, whose work graces churches around the world and who's painted icons for the Holy Father.
Here we also venerated an unforgettable relic — the 800-year-old hand of St. Edmund himself. It's on display in a clear glass reliquary.
Three times a day, the tower bell (cast in Lyons, France, in 1883) rings out the Angelus. Father Hoar told us he very actively encourages people to “pray this prayer for world peace because it's a prayer announcing the Good News of the coming of the Prince of Peace.”
This chapel is clearly the island's new anchor, but it's far from its sole attraction. Following our prayer tour there, we could hardly wait to walk around the lovely, peaceful grounds. Sure enough, we found that the seaside setting helps foster deep and peaceful contemplation.
Connecticut's coast has a number of charming lighthouses. As far as we're concerned, the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption in Mystic outshines them all. From now on, we'll think of it as the Constitution State's true house of light.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
- August 10-16, 2003