I began thinking about escaping and two different songs came to me, the Four Coins singing, Shangra La and the Three Dog Night singing Shambala. Both songs describing mystical places, both songs describing Utopias, places of peace and tranquility. Places where the beauty of nature and the power of knowledge blend into a spiritual energy. I have great news for all of you. I have found this place and it’s less than 3 hours from here.
You may ask where can I find this Utopia? That is simple enough – drive north on route 79 and turn right on route 90, cross over the border to New York and follow the signs to the Chautauqua Institution.
I’m going to tell you about Chautauqua. I’m going to tell you how the institution was founded, the mission of the institution and how Chautauqua still lives on in 2014.
I made my first visit to Chautauqua Institution a mere 5 years ago. Yes, I had heard about it many times but never really “got it”. In preparation for my first visit I did check out their official website, but still just couldn’t understand what exactly it was. Do I need a ticket? Can I only go for the morning, for the evening? For the week? Is there a gate? AND WHAT EXACTLY IS IT??? Is it for a place of knowledge, a place of recreation, a place for the arts, a religious institution, a historical location? What is it?
And then it happened, I walked onto the property. Walking through the gate I suddenly felt a peace that truly “passes understanding”. A feeling of walking into a time machine and being transported back to the 1800’s. I put my feet on “red brick road” and followed it past beautiful Victorian homes with lovely porches. Each porch was adorned with gladiolas (which I later found out is the “welcoming flower” of Chautauqua). The path led me to the heart of Chautauqua. A beautiful green park filled with people walking, children playing, musicians sharing their art… I truly believed that I had stumbled into Utopia and wondered how this magical place came into being.
The Chautauqua Institution was actually founded in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua. Two gentlemen, an Ohioan Industrialist Lewis Miller and a Methodist Bishop, John Heyl Vincent were looking for a location for an educational retreat for Sunday School Teachers. The location was perfect – in the words of Lewis Miller “a setting with open air and the deep woods and the mystical ways of nature.” They felt the aromas of the forest and the tunes of the songbirds provided a perfect setting. The location also made it ideal for travel. The property was only a short steam boat ride from the very busy Mayville, NY train station. In 1874 the educational program lasted for 2 weeks.
As special feature for the first gathering was an area known as “Palestine Park”. In the summer of 1875 Palestine Park became a permanent fixture. The location of the park is very near the boat dock. With a scale of 1.75 feet per mile depicts the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea with Chautauqua Lake symbolizing the Mediterranean Sea. A large mound of stones represent Mount Hermon and small hills represent many biblical cities and landmarks. If the Sunday School teachers visiting Chautauqua are anything like me, seeing this depiction helps to understand the places where Jesus walked and taught.
In 1876 the Amphitheater was added to the property. The original ampithteater could seat 4,000 people on benches and was an open air facility. It was set into a natural ravine which made the area ideal for visual site lines. In 1889 the Amphitheater took on a more permanent structure and in 1907 the 5,640 piped Massey Organ was installed in the amphitheater. The Amphitheater is under a renovation right now, but still exists on the same place. The Massey Organ is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world.
What is the mission of this institution? In the center of the park known as Bestor Plaza there is a fountain adorned by four pillars. These four pillars beautiful display the mission of the Chautauqua Institution. Each pillar contains a word: Religion, Education, Arts & Recreation. These were the pillars on which the Institution was founded in 1874 and the mission has continued every summer since.
Chautauqua Institution is now a 9 week program. There is a gate fee and you can buy passes for the morning, afternoon, evening, day, week or season. Sundays are no charge. Each week of the season has a theme. This year’s themes are: Roger Rosenblatt and Friends (Roger is an American Writer, and essayist for Time Magazine & News Editor for PBS), Feeding a Hungry Planet, The Ethics of Privacy, The Emerging Citizenship: The Egyptian Experience, The American West, Brazil: Rising Superpower, A Week with Ken Burns: Historian, Documentarian and American Conscience, Chautauqua’s Global Public Square, Health Care from Bench to Bedside.
Each week includes religious experiences which reflect the 16 denominations which have a presence in Chautauqua, a morning lecture reflecting the weekly theme, a lunchtime lecture, an afternoon Interfaith lecture which is sponsored by the department of Religion and evening entertainment ranging from the Chautauqua Symphony, to the Chautauqua Ballet & Opera to popular entertainment such as Bill Cosby or the Beach Boys. There are daily opportunities for biking, hiking, swimming and boating. During the 9 week season Chautauqua hosts about 100,000 visitors.
Shangra-la, Shambala, Chautauqua – places to go find peace, knowledge and everlasting youth. How lucky we are that one of these magical places is just a short distance away.
The 16 denominations at Chautauqua include the Baha’i Faith, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Science, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal, Chabad-Lubavitch Community (Orthodox Jewish), Hebrew Congregation (Reform Jewish), Lutheran, Metropolitan Community Fellowship, Presbyterian, the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), United Church of Christ (UCC), United Methodist, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship(UU) and Unity. Eleven of these denominations have Denominational Houses on the grounds.