The village of Still River, Massachusetts, is named for the oxbow of the Nashua River at the bottom of the hill on which it sits. It is one of the few corners left in central Massachusetts which looks more or less like it did two centuries ago.
The lazy little Still River itself meanders through swampy bottom land. I used to fish it often as a boy and even the fish were old fashioned New England Yankees: the bony pickerel, the delicious yellow perch and the hornedpout. The cold feeder streams still hold pretty little squaretail (really a dwarfed, landlocked Atlantic Char), New England’s only native trout.
Central Massachusetts once consisted of little farms and orchards grouped around village centers, where one could see all the way to the horizon. But our rocky soil does not lend itself to farming as well as the soil of the Midwest, where they say a man can plow all day without hitting a rock (here, rocks are the main crop), and our swift little rivers provided ideal spots for building factories. Today, the landscape of central Massachusetts is dense little factory towns and thickly wooded hills on whose sides you can still find the ruins of abandoned farms.
When I lived in Wisconsin it took me a while to get used to being able to see miles in all directions. I mentioned this to a friend who replied “I’m from North Dakota; Wisconsin gives me claustrophobia.”
A lady I know once gave a ride to a friend visiting from Kansas. She zipped through the wooded hills along the windy roads, as her friend squirmed and sweated in the passenger seat until he finally shouted “Slow down! The curves! How can you see where you are going?” She replied: “I just assume the road is still going to be there when I come around the bend.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s first literary fools, lived here briefly as a boy while his father William was the popular pastor of the Congregationalist church a couple of miles down the road. Emerson later funded some of his Transcendentalist friends in their effort to start a self-sufficient vegan commune here on the Willard farm called Fruitlands, where they would get in touch with the natural rhythms of life by bathing in cold spring water, eschewing artificial lights, drinking no milk, tea, coffee or alcohol, and avoiding the exploitation of farm animals by doing all the plowing themselves. Needless to say they starved and the experiment failed after seven months.
Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic American novel Little Women, was a member of the Fruitlands commune, though she was just a little girl at the time. Issac Hecker was also a member of the commune. After it’s collapse he converted to Roman Catholicism, was ordained to the priesthood, and founded a religious order called the Paulists.
In the twentieth century another, much less charming priest left his mark on Still River. Benedict Center began as a Catholic student’s club at Harvard University. As a student at Harvard, Avery Dulles, later a renowned Jesuit theologian and Cardinal, was one of the founding members: if only he had stayed on! Benedict Center fell under the influence of the Jesuit priest Leonard Feeney. Feeney was by all accounts a brilliant man, but he was also a Catholic triumphalist, conspiracy theorist, and vicious anti-Semite. He would harangue against Jews and Masons in public speeches on Boston Common. Feeney made enemies, and not just among the Protestants and Jews: Bobby Kennedy, then a student at Harvard, tried to get Cardinal Cushing to throw Feeney out of Boston; Evelyn Waugh called Feeney a bigot to his face during a tour of America and later wrote that what Feeney really needed was an exorcist.
In 1953 Fr. Feeney was excommunicated by the Vatican, ironically, because he insisted on the narrowest possible interpretation of the theological dictum Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, and local Catholics get a kick out the fact to this day. Some of his followers started a group of monks and nuns known as The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Most of them eventually reconciled with the Church, and some of them elected to join the Benedictine order and found a Benedictine Monastery a stone’s throw from the site of Fruitlands.
God, it seems, brings good out of the stickiest of human situations. The Benedictines of Still River are kind and gentle souls. Unlike the vegan Utopians of Fruitlands, the Benedictines do manage to support themselves (and they make the best meatloaf I’ve ever had), and their careful stewardship of the land now helps preserve the rural character of Still River.
Update: See this blog which quotes at length from Avery Dulles’ moving account of his early acquaintance with Leonard Feeney and Benedict Center. It seems Dulles’ original article is no longer carried by America Magazine where it was first published. Reading the account I wonder if Feeney might have been bi-polar.
For an obituary of Avery Dulles, himself an interesting character, go here.