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 food.com. 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.