Quaker Meetinghouses as Space and Spirit
When I first became interested in photography in 2005, I took a class in composition. As part of an assignment, I began to photograph the Quaker meeting that I attend. When I shared the pictures with members of my meeting, I had my first direct personal experience of photographs touching a viewer and making them feel something. They illustrated universal feelings shared by others at my meeting and the response to them was very gratifying.
When I reviewed these photographs with my mentor, she said, “These photos do not show enough of ‘old’ to show Quaker meeting. You have more work to do here.” As I thought about “old,” I realized that the words I choose to describe my Quaker experience are: light, simple, centered, peaceful, and quiet. Maybe old, too, but old is not essential to my experience.
I began to methodically photograph New England meetinghouses in 2014. To date, I have photographed in 23 meetinghouses in Massachusetts: old meetinghouses, newer meetinghouses, condo-style meetinghouses. Some are still in use while others are preserved as museums. All have been interesting.
It has become so much more than a photographic project for my mentorship program. It is a true calling and a labor of love. It has been a wow type of personal journey. I had a lot of fun photographing while on this artistic journey. I learned how to shape a collection of photographs in both style and subject as well as how to sift through a large number of photographs to pick a relative few. I learned many technical skills with the camera in order to get the pictures that I wanted, and after all of that, I learned some more! In order to write about my experiences, I needed to relearn a lot of Quaker history as well as discover facts related to meetinghouse locales. I needed to understand more about Quaker beliefs and practices in order to explain them to others. I reexamined my own relationship to my Quaker faith and practice.
I came to a deeper appreciation of the fact that this religious practice, which is oftentimes rooted in very old meetinghouses, is still alive and vibrant. The buildings tell stories of both the past and present meeting communities that have worshiped in them. I found some worship communities that were struggling with small numbers of attenders or with the burdens of preserving very old buildings, but I also found lots of evidence of thriving, active, and growing meeting communities.
In the end, I realized, the meetinghouses are just buildings. The buildings can be centuries old, newer suburban houses that have been transformed into meetinghouses, or just rooms in residences. They can be owned or rented spaces. They can be historically interesting, special to the occupants, beautiful or ugly, well preserved or not. For Quakers, the building itself is not considered to be a sacred edifice. It is what takes place inside the buildings that is sacred. The collective, spiritual, seeking experience makes Quaker meetings unique. A meeting for worship is born in Light, centered in quiet and peace. It is the simple act of expectant waiting. Light, simple, centered, peaceful, and quiet. I hope my photographs reflect this essence.
The photos selected for this piece represent a small portion of the hundreds Jean Schnell captured for her meetinghouse project, during which she visited 23 different meetings in New England. As part of the project, Jean researched the history of Quakers in New England and discovered facts about each meetinghouse or space. View more photos at her website jeanschnell.com.