Last Shaker Community Maps Out Future Members of the nation's last living Shaker community have arranged to forever protect their land and historic buildings through the sale of conservation and preservation easements to two New England-based land trusts. But at the same time, they say the growing community of lay Shakers represents a new life for their faith. Maine Public Broadcasting's Charlotte Albright reports.
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Last Shaker Community Maps Out Future

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Last Shaker Community Maps Out Future

Last Shaker Community Maps Out Future

Last Shaker Community Maps Out Future

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Members of the nation's last living Shaker community have arranged to forever protect their land and historic buildings through the sale of conservation and preservation easements to two New England-based land trusts. But at the same time, they say the growing community of lay Shakers represents a new life for their faith. Maine Public Broadcasting's Charlotte Albright reports.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In its heyday, the United Society of Believers, commonly known as Shakers, lived and worshiped in 18 American communities. Shakers believe that Jesus could return to Earth as the spirit of an ordinary human being. They also took vows of celibacy and the population that topped 5,000 during the Civil War has dwindled to a handful of people living in Maine. But their faith may now be spreading. Charlotte Albright reports from Maine Public Broadcasting.

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT reporting:

Nearly hidden on Route 26 along scenic Sabbathday Lake is a Currier & Ives postcard of a village, 19 pristine white buildings, apple orchards silhouetted against an open sky and a handful of farm animals nestled in 1,800 now snow-covered acres. It's pretty, but it's a lot to keep up for the last surviving inhabitants, aged 41 to 78. Sister Frances Carr is the village eldress. Sitting on a spartan wooden bench in an underheated parlor, she still holds out hope for new arrivals.

Sister FRANCES CARR (Shaker): You know, people say, `What is going to happen to this community? Are you indeed the last Shakers?' Well, you know, we could be four people today and six tomorrow because we always have applicants.

ALBRIGHT: But in recent years, about six or seven people have tried out Shaker life only to abandon it. It's not that the Shakers are reclusive or deny themselves creature comforts. They love cooking meals in their gourmet kitchen. They rent movies. They travel. But they share everything they own and live celibate lives, and for many novices those are high hurdles.

(Soundbite of activities)

ALBRIGHT: Up to his wrists in flour as he and a few helpers make biscuits for the annual holiday fair, Brother Arnold Hadd says he was reluctant at first to make the commitment when he arrived as a curious young Methodist 27 years ago.

Brother ARNOLD HADD (Shaker): But I wanted to be a friend and I wanted to be around giving as much as I could, and it was in that giving process and being here longer periods of time that I started to realize at how it was answering a lot of my questions and was filling a lot of my needs. And so I was here for a whole summer and it was at that point when it was like, `Well, I don't want to go.'

ALBRIGHT: The next novice who walks in the door may come from a widening circle of visitors, friends and donors spreading out over New England. Sixty of these followers have formed a non-profit group to help the graying foursome pay their bills and maintain their historic property. Dozens of them show up just before Christmas every year to volunteer at the holiday fair, an important source of income for Sister Frances, Brother Arnold, Sister June and Brother Wayne.

Unidentified Woman #1: Watch out. Stand back.

Unidentified Child: Whoa.

Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning. Good morning.

ALBRIGHT: At the stroke of 10 on a cold winter morning, a horde of shivering shoppers wrapped in fleece rushes into a circa 1816 trustees building, brimming with dried herbs, homemade fruitcakes and the iconic oval wooden Shaker boxes that one volunteer sales lady calls early Tupperware. Ken Aril(ph), who leads the non-profit Friends of the Shakers, observes the first moments of chaos as if he could do with a few minutes of quiet. Every Sunday in the summer, he and his wife leave their Rhode Island home at 5:30 in the morning to make it to Shaker meeting in Maine.

Mr. KEN ARIL (Friends of the Shakers): The Shaker faith holds some meaning for me. I'm not sure that I'm completely sure what it is yet even, but it can be very hopeful, it's very basic in some ways, yet quite enlightened, I think.

ALBRIGHT: Aril, an engineer, says he's drawn to the strong work ethic and the pragmatic emphasis on morality. While he is just beginning to explore the theology and history of Shakerism, fellow volunteer Robert King thinks of himself as a lay Shaker. For now, people like him are the new face of Shakerism. King says he, like many others who found this community as summer tourists, try to practice its tenets at home.

Mr. ROBERT KING (Volunteer): Absolutely there's a spiritual community, which is not connected to the physical appearance here. So I give time each day for Shaker meditation. Of course, the Shakers are known for the "Simple Gifts" song, but that's one of 10,000 songs. I've been slowly increasing my repertoire of songs because that's part of the service.

ALBRIGHT: While tape-recording Shaker meetings is forbidden, many laypeople are learning the hymns by listening to CDs. And there's one song that was written especially for visitors, a farewell sung at the worship service before they go back to their homes and families.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We will all go home with you, home to worlds of glory.

ALBRIGHT: When they do go home, Shaker friends and donors want to be sure that this hallowed land will never be bulldozed for a housing development. So they've helped to establish a conservation trust. It's one kind of legacy, the Shakers say. But the larger gift, they hope, will be their 250-year-old faith quietly taking root beyond the borders of their ancient Maine homestead. For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We may never meet in time, but our love endureth.

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