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.
Interior of North Dartmouth Meetinghouse (originally built in 1849, reconstructed in 2001), located on the campus of Woolman Hill Quaker retreat center in Deerfield, Mass.
The Yarmouth Preparative Meeting community was established by the Wing family, who were originally members of East Sandwich Meeting, in the late 1600s. The current Yarmouth Meetinghouse in South Yarmouth, Mass., was built in 1809 and is now designated as a Historical Commission Building. Today, the meeting is part of Sandwich Monthly Meeting.
The door to Uxbridge Meetinghouse (built in 1770) in Uxbridge, Mass., is opened with a six-inch brass key. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the worship group participates in the maintenance, the Quaker Meeting House Association has ultimate responsibility for the care of the building.
Quakers in New Bedford, Mass., began meeting in the 1690s as part of the original Dartmouth and Apponegansett Quakers. The first meetinghouse was built in 1758, and it became a monthly meeting in 1792. When the current New Bedford Meetinghouse was built in 1821–22, there were 700 members and separate doors for men and women to enter the meetingroom, though these are no longer used for that purpose by present-day members.
Stairs leading to Northampton Meeting on the second floor of a building in downtown Northampton, Mass. The meeting began as a worship group in 1991, and was approved as a monthly meeting in 1994. In 2001, they purchased the parts of the second-floor space they use today.
There were two prior meetinghouses in Mattapoisett, Mass., before the present one was built in 1827. The winching system used in the meetinghouse is a common feature in these old buildings. A mechanical series of ropes, pulleys, wheels, and counterweights raise and lower the partitions in the meetingroom used to divide the room into separate spaces for men’s and women’s business meetings.
Allen’s Neck Meetinghouse (originally built in 1758, rebuilt in 1873) in Dartmouth,, Mass. Allen’s Neck Meeting is one of only two programmed meetings in Massachusetts. The community is considering the future of their worship: remain programmed, become unprogrammed, or some combination of both. Recently they moved their benches into an inward-facing arrangement rather than front-facing.
The current Apponegansett Meetinghouse (built in 1790) is the second one constructed on the site in South Dartmouth, Mass. The original meetinghouse was built in 1699, but the community outgrew it. Records indicate that 2,000 Quakers were in attendance at the opening of the second building. Today the meetinghouse is under the care of Dartmouth Meeting (also known as Smith Neck Meeting).
Beacon Hill meetingroom is located on the ground floor of Beacon Hill Friends House, a five-story brick building designed by Charles Bullfinch and built in 1805–06 in Boston, Mass. A group of Quakers acquired the building and turned it into a residential house. The first residents occupied the building and the first meeting for worship took place in 1957.
In the early 1990s, the last few remaining members of North Dartmouth Meeting, which was located in Dartmouth, Mass., offered their meetinghouse to Woolman Hill Quaker retreat center in Deerfield, Mass. In 1996, the meetinghouse was disassembled, loaded onto two trucks, and moved. Reconstruction began in 2001. The old meetinghouse now has new life as it’s used for mid-week worship and available to the groups and individuals who come to Woolman Hill.
By the time Worcester Meeting acquired this meetinghouse in the 1970s, they had already outgrown two buildings in Worcester, Mass. For this third space, the meeting purchased a Victorian-style house. The meetingroom was created by removing a wall between two rooms on the first floor. The moveable blue chairs allow for a very versatile space, with different arrangements depending on the event. During meeting for worship, the chairs are arranged in concentric circles.
The Mount Toby Meetinghouse in Leverett, Mass., was designed and built in 1964, located on 112 acres donated by a member. The Mount Toby Meeting community worked closely with the architect to design the building for “functional simplicity.”
The Adams Meetinghouse was home to East Hoosuck Meeting. Quaker settlers from Smithfield, R.I., and Dartmouth, Mass., settled in the area in 1769, and the meetinghouse was built in 1782. About 40 years later, they began to move west for better farmland. The last meeting for worship was held in 1842. Subsequently, the meetinghouse was deeded to the town of Adams, Mass., which maintains the building today.
Smith Neck Meetinghouse in South Dartmouth, Mass., was built in 1818, but Quaker settlers in the Smith Neck area of Dartmouth had begun to meet in homes about 1768. Smith Neck Meeting conducts business under the formal name of Dartmouth Meeting, which was originated in 1699. As a programmed meeting influenced by the nineteenth-century evangelical Quaker Joseph John Gurney, their service is led by a part-time pastor and the benches look more like pews.
The building used by Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.) was acquired by the meeting in the 1930s. Later that decade, the meetinghouse addition was designed and built. The house and meetinghouse are both brick and designed in the Georgian style that is identified by symmetrical composition.
Friends Meeting at Cambridge. The original house, adjoining the meetinghouse, has offices, rooms upstairs for residents, a kitchen, a library, the Friends Room, and a room used for mid-week worship.
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.
Jean Schnell is a lifelong Quaker with roots in Valley Meeting in Wayne, Pa. She is now a member of Framingham (Mass.) Meeting. She is a retired nurse and health coach. She loves the contemplative process of viewing the world through a camera with delight, awe, and joy. Her photographs of meetinghouses can be found at JeanSchnell.com.