Chautauqua: Haven for Learning and Culture

My husband and I have become evangelists—for the Chautauqua Institution, a unique and wonderful community in the westernmost county of New York, between Buffalo and Erie, Pa.

It’s a combination of college campus, music festival, writers’ workshop,  arts enclave and summer resort, with a little more than a hint of the religious movement that gave it its start 143 years ago. One person we met called it “summer camp for the adult brain.”

And it’s nestled into a picturesque small town chock full of Victorian-era houses, gardens galore and quiet streets. Walking and biking are the primary means of transport (though shuttle buses are available).

Training for Sunday School teachers

Originally called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, the institution was created in 1874 as a two-week program for Methodist Sunday School teachers. The assembly took place following a revivalist “camp meeting” held annually on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Founders John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller thought religion teachers needed more than revivalist spirit. They brought in speakers on a variety of academic subjects and provided music, art and physical education opportunities. It wasn’t long before the assembly totally eclipsed the revival meeting.

The Chautauqua idea caught on quickly, attracting the general public as well as religious educators. Soon there were numerous “daughter Chautauquas” and traveling Chautauquas throughout the country.

The founders’ vision still drives the institution, which now has a nine-week season every summer, from the end of June to the end of August.

Every week has a theme, and every weekday morning there is a lecture from a nationally known speaker on that theme. Every weekday afternoon there’s a lecture on a related theme in the “interfaith” lecture series. And every evening, six days of the week, there is fabulous entertainment: from the resident Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, from the music school’s orchestra, from the opera program or resident ballet company, or from top-notch visiting artists.

In between there are more lectures, book reviews, movies, discussion groups, recitals, art exhibits, nature walks and other activities – more than any one person can do.

For an additional fee there are three productions by the resident theater company and  a whole catalog of “special studies courses” on a wide variety of topics. There’s a golf course, tennis courts and indoor pool, and a lake with small beaches and boat docks. There are reasonably priced day camp programs for children from 3 to 16.

Religious life at Chautauqua

In deference to its history, Chautauqua provides many avenues for religious expression, including daily Protestant services with visiting clergy in the large amphitheater and a Sunday evening “sacred song service.”

Quite early in Chautauqua’s history, various Protestant denominations began operating guest houses so their congregants could stay at Chautauqua for a reasonable fee. Catholics and Jews weren’t particularly welcome in the early days, but now both groups have residences among the “denominational houses” on the grounds – and a Muslim house is in the discussion phase.

The newest of the denominational houses is the Everett Jewish Life Center, which opened in 2009. My husband and I started staying there for a week at a time in 2014. Last year we learned that they were looking for a new “host couple” and we jumped at the opportunity.

This year we spent 10 weeks at Chautauqua. Our duties included welcoming the guests to the Everett Center’s five guest rooms, shopping for food, preparing and cleaning up from breakfast, helping set up seats for the weekly films and speakers, and general trouble-shooting. Others handled the cleaning and maintenance and the programming.

In return, we got to enjoy almost everything Chautauqua had to offer. We heard incredible speakers, including Dahlia Lithwick, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Lewis Black, Jacques Pepin, E.J. Dionne, Bill Moyers and Stella Rimington, the former head of British intelligence and the model for Judi Dench’s “M”.

We saw fabulous entertainers, including Jay Leno, the Capitol Steps, Garrison Keillor, Sheryl Crow and the Beach Boys.

Visitors can stay at one of the 15 denominational houses with  guest rooms, the beautiful Victorian Athenaeum Hotel or at a rental house, apartment or room. There are also less expensive hotels and cabin communities a few miles away.

A word to the wise: The denominational houses get booked up fast! The Everett center has only a few openings left for 2018. The United Methodist House starts taking reservations October 1 and continues until the rooms are filled. The Catholic House has a lottery: get your application in between November 1 and November 30 and they’ll let you know soon afterwards if you’re “in.”

All of the denominational houses welcome people of all faiths, though some give preferences to church members; some allow you to become an official member of the tribe by paying a small membership fee.

Like any good evangelist, I’m willing to “testify” for Chautauqua! If you have any questions about the program or about the Everett Jewish Life Center, please contact me.

The recipe below is for one of the breakfast casseroles I served to our guests at the Everett center. I got it from It would be a great brunch or potluck dish. Be sure to plan ahead, because the recipe calls for the dish to sit overnight in the refrigerator. You can probably get by with letting it sit just a few hours, but I don’t recommend baking it right after you mix it up; the bread needs a chance to soak up the eggs and milk.


Historic Chautauqua is thriving (and sour cream banana bread)

After returning from Northern Ireland, which I wrote about last week, we spent a week at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY (in the very southwestern corner of the state).

A friend who has been going there for the past five years said it was “a magical place,” and she was right! The Chautauqua brochure describes it as “a festival for the mind, body and spirit.” We came home jazzed up intellectually but completely relaxed–a rare combination.

Many long-time Chautauquans (we were a distinct minority as newbies) asked how we’d heard about the place. I learned about it in high school American history class, and had always been curious.

An impressive history

Chautauqua got its start in 1874 as an outdoor school for training Methodist Sunday School teachers. Visitors from across the US and Canada–20,000 the first season, in two-week sessions–gathered to hear speakers on the Bible, biblical history, teaching and social issues.

By the early part of the 20th century, the “Chautauqua Movement” had grown to dozens of programs hosted by communities around the country, many of which produced traveling tent shows. The movement provided exposure to culture and education for thousands of Americans.

Today religion, philosophy and social issues are still an important part of the Chautauqua experience, though it is no longer affiliated with a particular church.

The “institution” comprises the entire town. There are private houses, B&Bs, apartments, hotels and more than a dozen “denominational” houses run by churches or faith groups to provide accommodations for their members at reasonable rates. (We stayed at the Everett Jewish Life Center, a bed-and-breakfast that opened six years ago.) Within the community, people travel by foot, bike or free shuttle bus. No one bothers to lock their bikes; many don’t even lock their doors.

Lots of retirees stay for the entire nine-week season.

Education and the arts

Music and the arts are important too. There’s a resident symphony orchestra, opera company, and theatre company, two art galleries and programs in music, art and dance for high school and college students, as well as a “children’s school” and day camp, billed as the country’s oldest.

Every week has themed lectures on social issues. The morning lectures for our week were on “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” and the afternoon lectures were on “Equal Justice for All?” The lectures were top-notch. Here are a few of the nuggets I gleaned from the morning sessions:

  • From Dennis Dimick, editor, and Jim Richardson, photographer, of National Geographic on “The Future of Food”: half of the food in the world is still grown by small farmers. To be sustainable, agriculture needs to rely on small family farms, not industrial farms, and we need to stop paving over farmland.
  • From Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating, and Amy Toensing, National Geographic photographer: At some point in their lives, nearly half the children in the United States will be on food assistance. Today, one in six Americans receives some sort of food assistance. “As a freelancer I know I’m one sickness or accident away from needing help myself,” said Tracie. She also said being your brother’s keeper means more than creating and supporting food banks. We should create public policies that will end the need for food banks.
  • Pamela Ronald, from the University of California at Davis and author (with Raoul Adamchak) of Tomorrow’s Table, spoke in defense ofgenetically engineered crops (a term she much prefers to “genetically modified”), a position many in the generally liberal audience found surprising. Genetically tweaking crops can greatly reduce the need for insecticide, said Ronald, who also favors organic farming.
  • From Barton Seaver, author of For Cod and Country, a cookbook: while the US has more coastline than any other country, we produce only 4 percent of the seafood we consume. He recommended eating domestically farmed seafood and eating lower on the food chain (e.g. more anchovies, sardines, herring, oysters and mussels and less tuna and salmon)
  • From Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota: The world human population will grow until 2050 and then level off. The challenge is to get through that time without causing permanent damage to the planet. His recommendations include a halt to deforestation; delivering more food on less land; producing food with less water and fewer chemicals; using more crops for humans and less for animals and biofuel; and reducing waste.

We enjoyed nightly concerts, nature walks, and book reviews. There were dozens of classes we could register for too (for an extra fee). My husband took a five-session class on sight-singing, and I took a single-session class on knife skills (move over, Julia Child!). On Friday evening we attended a lovely lakeside Jewish service  to welcome the Sabbath, led by a visiting rabbi from Youngstown, Ohio. Afterwards we were startled to hear  a song from the Sabbath service played on the bell tower’s carillon.

Diverse in Culture, Nation, Race

The people we met at Chautauqua were intelligent, inquisitive and eager to learn. They were also very white. Of the thousands of people in residence, we saw less than a dozen black people, a few people of East Asian heritage, one from India or Pakistan and two Arabs (who were there as leaders of an interfaith college program).

Institution administrators realize this is not ideal and are working to address the imbalance. The new director of the Department of Religion (which runs the afternoon lecture series) is the Rev. Dr. Robert Franklin, an African-American.

The guest preacher for the daily inter-denominational Christian services every morning during our week was Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King’s church, and the Ebenezer choir performed at the weekly Sacred Song concert. The institution is planning to open a “Martin Luther King House” similar to the denominational houses.

The ethos of Chautauqua was summed up for me in this verse from a hymn sung in the daily amphitheater service, which enticed me as I was out for a morning bike ride with the glorious sound of the pipe organ (said to be the largest outdoor organ in the country). It’s from Diverse in Culture, Nation, Race by Ruth C. Duck:

God let us be a table spread
With gifts of love and broken bread,
Where all find welcome, grace attends
And enemies arise as friends.

There doesn’t seem to be any particular food associated with Chautauqua. I chose today’s recipe in honor of the Chautauqua Farmers’ Market, held every weekday morning. In addition to fruits and veggies, several vendors sold homemade baked goods.

This recipe is adapted from one I found on It’s very moist and rich-tasting but not too sweet, and it’s excellent with cream cheese.