My husband and I were lucky enough to be driving around New England on a recent summer weekend when we spotted the Cathedral of the Pines on a map. We drove an extra hour to Rindge, New Hampshire, to see this 200-acre outdoor worship space founded in 1945 in response to World War II, for “all faiths, one family, one earth.” I love a cathedral. And the idea of a plein-air cathedral struck me as inspired and inspiring.
I was curious to see how this memorial and sanctuary wove together the threads of war and peace and patriotism and interfaith understanding, a complex set of themes not always found together. My father, 89, is a Word War II veteran and a part of that “greatest generation,” and we had just spent the Fourth of July with my interfaith parents, outside Boston. The soundtrack to my childhood is my father playing Sousa marches and “Grand Old Flag” on the piano (along with American songbook standards, hymns, and Bach). Perhaps this is why I always feel very American, somehow, in New England.
We discovered that the Cathedral of the Pines was founded in 1946 by Douglas and Sibyl Sloane, a couple who lost their only son when the plane he piloted was shot down in 1944 over Germany. Lieutenant Sanderson Sloane had planned to build a home with his wife on the hilltop. After his death, his parents created the outdoor Cathedral there instead.
Approaching the site, a crest of tall pines comes into view, clustered around a single bell tower built from local field stones. The tower, with English and Flemish carillon bells chiming on the hour and four bas-relief bronze plaques designed by Norman Rockwell, was built as a memorial tribute to all American women who sacrificed their lives for their country. The four panels depict women in combat forces, civilian women who supported the troops (a war correspondent, a USO entertainer, a nun, a Salvation Army officer, and Rosie the Riveter), nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and a pioneer woman. Dedicated in 1967, it is the first national monument to women lost in conflict.
Beyond the tower, on a ridge looking across the valley to Mount Monadnock, simple wood benches in an outdoor amphitheater face a stone altar constructed in 1946. This Altar of Nations incorporates stones from all 50 states, soil from Jerusalem, and stones contributed by every President starting with Harry Truman. In 1957, Congress recognized the Altar as a National Memorial to all American war dead.
A simple cross rises permanently from the altar. However, other religious symbols including a star of David, and the Muslim crescent moon and star, are positioned beside the cross for interfaith celebrations. And when the amphitheater is used for a Jewish service, for instance, an antique Sephardic wooden ark containing the Torah blocks the cross from view.
At other times, that ark is protected from the elements in a small indoor all-faiths chapel adorned with a string of flags displaying the symbols of Baha’i, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu and many other religions. Beyond the outdoor altar, paths meandering down the hillside take visitors through a Zen garden and smaller outdoor chapels and memorials with lush plantings and a waterfall, as well as inspirational and Biblical inscriptions in English and Hebrew. Weddings, baptisms, and bar mitzvahs take place in the amphitheater and in the various gardens and chapels.
The Sloanes, according to a brochure, created intended that Cathedral be “not a church, meeting house, temple or synagogue,” but rather “all of these depending on what may be happening there.” The Cathedral facilitates the celebration of the common elements shared by so many religions–healing grief and striving for peace through meditation in nature, singing together, and cultivating mutual understanding–as well as the particular rituals that make each religion unique and rooted in specific cultures.
This summer, events at the Cathedral include a lecture on Islamic art, a drum circle for the solstice, services by Congregational, Polish Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, and Baha’i groups, a Blessing of the Animals in the outdoor Saint Francis chapel, an annual Blessing of the Bikes for the motorcycle community, many concerts, and an interfaith service, as well as an annual renewal of wedding vows for all, by a New Hampshire Justice of the Peace.
Douglas Sloane called the Cathedral that he and his wife built “A place where all may come and worship, each in their own way.” While the site retains roots in Christianity–the use of the word cathedral, the primacy of the cross–the family who created this space in the 1940s were visionaries unusual in their time, early interfaith activists, and their legacy benefits all of us. Now run by a non-profit relying on donations, the mission of the Cathedral of the Pines organization is to “honor service to the nation by promoting peace, interfaith understanding, and respect for the natural environment.” In creating this space, one family of idealists turned the terrible personal loss of war into an opportunity for all of us to experience peace and interfaith sprituality on a New Hampshire hilltop.