Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Portsmouth Abbey.

Though it's quite late in the day, this is the date on which the modern Roman calendar remembers Saint Benedict of Nursia; therefore, this seems as good a time as any to share some photos taken during my recent eight-day retreat at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. To begin, here is a glimpse of the well-used font at which the monks of the community (as well as sundry visitors like myself) pause to bless themselves with holy water on their way into choir.

This is the Abbey Church of St. Gregory the Great, the spiritual heart of the monastery as well as its associated boarding school. Like many other buildings on the Portsmouth Abbey campus, the church was designed by Italian-American architect Pietro Belluschi. Though better known for large public structures like New York's Pan Am Building, Belluschi also designed many churches, synagogues and other religious structures; the Abbey Church was the first of sixteen buildings on the Portsmouth campus that Belluschi designed in the same austere yet elegant modern style.

Gleaming in the light of the setting sun, these copper doors welcome visitors to the Abbey Church. The Latin inscription is taken from Ephesians 2:19-22: ". . . you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit."

Here is a view of the interior of the Abbey Church. Though difficult to see in this photo, the crucifix above the altar is incorporated into a wire sculpture by Richard Lippold; I think that the ray-like wires extending from the corpus and descending toward the altar are meant to represent the Holy Spirit.

This is how the Abbey Church looks from the choir where the monks gather for the Divine Office.

Here is the monastery itself, also designed by Pietro Belluschi and currently home to twelve resident monks, most of whom work at Portsmouth Abbey School in one capacity or another.

This is a view from the window of the room that I occupied during my retreat; the two-storey structure at left is the monastery library.

Here I am outside the Abbey Church one evening after Compline; since the monks at Portsmouth customarily don the Benedictine habit when they gather to recite the Divine Office, I wore my Jesuit cassock when praying with them in choir.

The sun sets over Narragansett Bay on a clear evening; as one of the monks pointed out to me, this is one of the few places on the East Coast of the United States where one can see the sunset over water.

Here is another Narragansett Bay sunset, this time with clouds; for me, there is something very captivating and frankly dramatic about the golden oval of the sun at the center of this photo, particularly as it contrasts with the purplish hues of the clouds and the bay.

Here are more clouds over Narragansett Bay; these particular clouds brought welcome rain in the middle of an otherwise dry and hot week.

Here is the Portsmouth Abbey Cemetery, final resting place of the abbey's monks as well as a number of Benedictine Oblates and some lay faculty from the Abbey School.

The Abbey Cemetery includes the grave of Bishop Ansgar Nelson, a monk of Portsmouth who spent fifteen years as a Roman Catholic bishop in Sweden before returning to the monastery. Though Nelson served as Bishop of Stockholm, for some reason his tombstone mentions only his titular see of Dura.

The Portsmouth Abbey Cemetery is also the final resting place of artist Adé Bethune, a Belgian aristocrat who immigrated to the United States as a young woman and worked closely with Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day during the early days of the Catholic Worker. A longtime resident of nearby Newport, Bethune was an Oblate of Portsmouth Abbey. To learn more about Adé Bethune's life and work, check out this tribute by a Benedictine monk who knew her and this weblog featuring some of her art.

Benedictine habits and albs hanging in the monastery sacristy.

This altar sits in the monastery sacristy, just a few steps from the choir seen in the very first photo of this set. Apparently, Bishop Ansgar Nelson said Mass at this altar each day during the years of his retirement at Portsmouth.

This photo was taken in the monastery library; I include it here mainly because I like the way the shape of the windows and the light cast on the table both complement and contrast with the elements found in the preceding photo of the altar in the monastery sacristy.

This elegant bookplate can be found in many of the books in the monastery library. I have had nothing comparable in the three Jesuit communities where I have served as librarian - the best that I can offer is an ink stamp that reads "Jesuit Community Library."

This pile of twenty-year-old back issues of The Tablet made me think of a week-long pilgrimage that I took to the Holy Land as a junior at Georgetown University; earnest piety and a desire to pack light led me to bring no books on that trip other than the Bible, which left me hungry for non-scriptural reading material once I arrived. The pilgrim hostels where I stayed in Tiberias and Jerusalem both happened to have large collections of Tablet back-issues, so I was well-acquainted with the publication by the time I returned to Washington. Thus, when I beheld the simple, straightforward graphics of this old Tablet cover, in my imagination I immediately found myself returning to a long-ago evening in a drafty sitting room overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

This stained-glass window at Portsmouth drew my attention because I'd never before seen Saint Benedict portrayed wearing gauntlets and a cope. The face in this image also reminds me more of traditional representations of Thomas Aquinas than it does of Benedict of Nursia, which makes me wish that I knew more about the history of the window and the artist who created it.

Now this is the image that I typically expect when I think of Saint Benedict, modeled here by a carved wooden statue that sits in a monastery stairwell at Portsmouth.

Finally, stepping away from Portsmouth Abbey, here are some words in support of a local business: if you find yourself in Portsmouth, please visit Custom House Coffee. This is my kind of place - they offer excellent coffee (with free refills), tasty sandwiches and desserts, and a comfortable environment where one can linger for an afternoon in the company of a good book. AMDG.


At 7/12/2012 11:12 PM, Blogger Robin said...

Looks as if you were in wonderful surroundings.

At 7/13/2012 9:21 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Indeed! I took many more photos of the grounds of the school which I didn't include here - 500 acres, beautiful woodlands (and nice beaches too, though I didn't spend much time there because there were a lot of bugs).

At 6/26/2014 2:08 PM, Anonymous Martha said...

My son goes to school at Portsmouth Abbey and the students attend Mass several times a week in the beautiful church. No photo can do justice to the beautiful sculpture above the alter. As a Northwest native I find Belluschi's architecture on the campus wonderfully familiar and I think the students without even realizing it enjoy its welcoming feel.

At 6/26/2014 11:38 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment - I agree on the beauty of the church, and I'm sure that students like your son will always treasure their connection to Portsmouth.


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