LAURA PHILION – COPY & DIGITAL EDITOR
When the Quakers bought a house at 28 Ames last year, they already had people willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work, Deborah First said.
The Quakers, formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, have had a presence at Chautauqua since the 19th century. Ted and Deborah First, who have been year-round Chautauquans for 25 years and Quakers for 43, jumped at the chance to “spread the joy” and establish a denominational house for the Friends.
“For 40 years, people have asked, ‘Why don’t you have a house?’ ” Deborah First said.
After the Meeting for Worship (the Quaker Sunday service) could no longer be held in the CLSC Octagon after 2017, the Friends leaned on other denominations for support, holding meetings in the Unitarian Universalist House instead.
“(Everyone) was wonderfully accommodating,” Deborah First remembered.
But a Sunday service, for Quakers, means an unprogrammed worship — an extended period of silence in which each Friend can listen for the “still small voice” or Inner Light. It’s not easy to worship in silence amid the hustle and bustle of other programming. The Quakers were still looking for a place of their own.
With the help of anonymous donors in early 2020, that place materialized — and it was time to get to work.
“We formed a committee — that’s what Quakers do,” Deborah First said.
The steering committee oversaw the expansion of the living room and the restoration of the 1911 property. Ted First said it was important to preserve the character and original features of the house, such as the staircase and hardwood floors.
“We’ve had a wonderful building year,” he said.
In addition to making the house fit the needs of Meeting for Worship, the committee decided to rent four of the five bedrooms upstairs. Each is listed under Accommodations on chq.org, and Deborah First said she is excited to welcome visitors who want to learn more about the intersection of Chautauqua and Quakerism.
“We now have space to introduce guests to Chautauqua,” she said.
“We’re an open door,” added Ted First. “Before, we didn’t even have a door.”
With the community in mind, the committee also addressed concerns about COVID-19 safety and accessibility.
“COVID-19 is everyone’s problem,” Deborah First said. “Consequently, our goal was to see what the most essential conditions for guests were.”
The house at 28 Ames is small, and there was initially no way to safely distance. But with the relaxation of New York State regulations, Quaker House is now able to accept fully vaccinated guests. If someone is unvaccinated against COVID-19, they must both wear a mask and alert others inside before entering the premises.
“We have to get through the summer making sure the vulnerable are protected,” Deborah First said.
Housing guests is just the beginning of the Friends’ expansive vision for their new denominational house — they plan to host events in the new space as well.
“(We want) programs, open houses, potlucks, events for children,” said Sharon Castle, another member of the committee and lifelong Quaker.
Currently, Quaker House is also hosting a Friend-in-Residence for the summer: Emily Provance, a traveling minister among the Friends. This season, she is facilitating weekly worship sharing at 5 p.m. each Thursday at the Quaker House. It’s a chance, said Provance, to “share how things strike us emotionally during the course of the week,” and to provide a Quaker perspective on Chautauqua’s weekly programming.
Finally, the new denominational house has been planned to provide accessibility of all kinds. Though there is no elevator, a new ramp is connected to the porch, and an accessible full bathroom has been installed on the first floor. To welcome those of all ages, there are books for children, teens and adults in each guest room, and the committee kept the full kitchen downstairs (although meals are not provided). Additionally, the garden facing Ames is intentionally populated with native plants.
“The house is welcoming in every way,” Deborah First said.
Last Sunday morning, Chautauqua’s Religious Society of Friends held their first Meeting for Worship in Quaker House. Worship began with singing; Friends leafed through Quaker hymnals and each suggested hymns to sing.
The hymnals had traditionals like “Amazing Grace” alongside quirky Quaker staples like “George Fox,” a folk song by Sydney Carter and “Lean On Me,” by late soul artist Bill Withers. The first hymn sung was “Morning Has Broken.”
At that Meeting on Sunday, participants were a patchwork representation of Chautauqua. Some were “birthright” Quakers, others “convinced.” Some weren’t Friends, but enjoyed the unprogrammed silence. There were Friends who were lifelong Chautauquans, and Friends whose home meetings were as far away as Indiana, North Carolina and New York City.
“It just came together,” Castle said, “and it’s a good thing that it did.”