Good Afternoon, Creator Family -
After a delightful lunch and fellowship together this past Sunday, I’m ready for a trip to the mountains! How about you? I know many are registered to attend this year’s parish retreat at Shrine Mont, but perhaps you are still on the fence or have dismissed the opportunity. I just want you to know it’s not too late to join us.
Our diocese is fond of calling this beautiful and historic camp and conference center the site of its only “Cathedral,” which I guess it truly is. Without walls or roof–the only “vaulted ceiling” the tree canopy and blue skies above–the shrine there is a magnificent place. It’s a holy place, but a place of life and true living, including a bit of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ ecclesial humor. For instance, on the way up the hill to the Shrine, you can stop by and sit in a small stone seat, affectionately referred to as the “bishop’s seat,” or the “cathedra.” It is the cathedra that officially makes a church location into a cathedral. That is, as we know, a cathedral is the central church of a diocese and the seat of the diocesan bishop. It is specifically the church in which the ‘seat’–cathedra–of the bishop is located. No cathedra, no cathedral! So, in the Latin tradition, a basilica is not a cathedral because there is no cathedra. This is why in every parish church there is a “bishop’s chair” (at Creator it is the high-backed chair on the left with the bishop’s miter (hat) carved on it) so that when the bishop comes and sits in it, the host parish is officially the Cathedral of the Diocese at that moment! Pretty cool, huh?
Now that we have our historical interest piqued, perhaps you would like a little more on the place. Old-comers and newcomers alike will appreciate the rich history and significance of all the pilgrimage and prayer Shrine Mont has seen over the years. The large historic hotel, also called the “Virginia House,” is the largest wooden structure in Virginia and is on the National Historic Register. It was built in 1870 and it houses a memorabilia room along with several books and pamphlets on the history. The wonderful book and gift shop has a few more. It is also a conference center open to the public, as the web site describes: “Shrine Mont is a conference and retreat center located in Orkney Springs, a community in western Shenandoah County, Virginia. With accommodations for up to 550 people, we offer groups as well as individuals fun things to do, beautiful places to explore and abundant hospitality.” But there is so much more!
The current structure is the renovated original building, the famous Orkney Spring Hotel of the Victorian era and early 20th C. Long before that, Orkney Springs was an area once populated by the Senedo tribe, the indigenous people who vanished mysteriously six centuries before Europeans landed in the new world. Gradually the area was populated by white settlers in the mid-1700s. Once discovered and well regarded for the “medicinal waters” of the mountain springs, Orkney and the area around it grew rapidly. By the mid-1800s several hotels were built, including the Orkney Springs Hotel, which was started in the 1850s. In the late 1800s, Episcopal Church services were held in the hotel, often by the Sixth Bishop of Virginia, Robert Atkinson +Gibson.
The transition from a secular “society” spa at the final stop on rail lines out of DC and Baltimore to a sanctified holy site came with a few early “church fathers” of our diocese–along with their wives and families. In the 1920s The Rev. Edmund Lee Woodward+, a priest of the Diocese, with his wife purchased land at Orkney Springs and built a log cabin (named Gibson Cottage located just above the Shrine) and took up permanent residence. The Woodwards went on to clear much of the land and, stone by stone, personally to build the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration. At the consecration of the Shrine in 1925, Rev. Woodward+ presented Bishop Henry St. George +Tucker with a deed of donation to the Shrine and surrounding land, and the Diocesan Cathedral was born. The Woodwards went on to build many other buildings at “Shrine Mont” where Rev. Woodward+ served as Rector until his death in 1948.
In 1979, the Diocese of Virginia purchased the Orkney Springs Hotel including the Maryland and Virginia houses as well as 1000 acres of land, completing the “Shrine Mont” as we know it today. And our Creator Family has quite a history there as well, as we have attended many, many years, enjoying fellowship with Creator folk and extended family–hosting reunions, celebrating anniversaries and Father’s Day, introducing new friends and new babies to the wonder and magic of our “holy hill” as we pass on our treasure to the next generation. It is a secret and a blessing that is simply too wonderful not to share. So much history is held by those stones; so much hope grows in the wood and flowers surrounding the Shrine; so much faith and prayer flow as the mountain springs–Shrine Mont is truly a place apart.
Still, it is not the simple beauty of the mountain or the radical change of place which enlightens our hearts and elevates our minds; it is the labor and devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ that made and makes Shrine Mont possible. I pray you can be with us this Sunday on the Holy Mountain. But if not, consider the devotion of Rev. Woodward+ and all those who dedicated their lives and efforts to Christ, and pray for us all to be so empowered by God.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†