Money woes shake serenity at Peace Abbey

Multifaith retreat in Sherborn seeks to cover $400,000 debt

Email|Print| Text size + By Alex I. Oster
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2007

Peace does not always pay.

Overburdened by interest payments on mortgages, some taken to pay for memorial statues of Gandhi and a notable runaway cow, the multifaith Peace Abbey retreat in Sherborn may be forced to sell its property and move elsewhere, perhaps as early as the end of this year.

The abbey has been searching since March for a like-minded organization or individual to provide an interest-free loan to cover its debt of about $400,000.

Two organizations have made what the Peace Abbey's founder, Lewis Randa, described as serious inquiries into taking on the debt, but so far neither has made a firm commitment. "They loved what was here, but they haven't come back," Dot Walsh, an abbey peace chaplain, said.

Established in 1988, the abbey provides guests with rooms and areas for prayer. It also supports peace efforts, animal-rights causes, and conscientious objectors. Six staffers, in terns from local theological schools, and volunteers help keep the Peace Abbey running.

Less than a quarter-mile from Sherborn's Town Hall, the abbey's three buildings, set on 3 acres, make for a prominent landmark on Route 27, which runs through the heart of town. The abbey, its statues, and its assortment of 1960s-era VW buses may seem out of place in rural, prosperous Sherborn. More fitting is the barn, where the abbey keeps a cow, a pair of ponies, and a goat, among other animals.

Randa estimates that thousands of people visit the abbey each year, some staying in its guest house for $80 to $90 a night. They are invited to use the vegetarian-only kitchen and relax in the meditation room.

The abbey has attracted many famous people to its doors over the years. Mother Teresa was at its founding. Muhammad Ali and Maya Angelou have also visited the retreat. In 1992, Yoko Ono made a $40,000 donation to the abbey in honor of John Lennon - $1,000 for each year of his life.

The abbey has also attracted headlines. Earlier this year, Randa was arrested with four others after blocking one lane of Route 27 in Sherborn as part of a protest against the Iraq war.

In 2004, Camilo Mejia, an Iraq war veteran, sought sanctuary at the Peace Abbey while he tried to gain conscientious objector status. He held a news conference at the abbey before turning himself in at Hanscom Air Force Base, where he was arrested for being AWOL.

Some of the organization's financial woes stem from the fact that, save for a link to donate on its website, the abbey does not actively solicit contributions. "When we ask somebody to help us, we are directly competing with other nonprofits," Randa said. "There's nothing violent about fund-raising, but there's something more nonviolent about not fund-raising."

About 350 people have donated a total of $40,000 to the abbey over the past year, according to Randa, far short of the amount needed to cover even the $50,000 interest on its mortgages.

"Sherborn is a great place to be," Randa said. "Unfortunately, Sherbornites do not support the Peace Abbey."

Howie Willard, a member of the Peace Abbey's board, said that the dearth of local support has to do with a lack of local knowledge about it. "The Peace Abbey is known the world over . . . but you go next door to Franklin, and people ask, 'Where is that? I've never heard of it.' "

Despite its money problems, the organization has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its memorials, all commissioned without advance fund-raising.

"Any reasonable CEO or director of an institution, you do fund-raising," said Dan Dick, another peace chaplain at the abbey, offering a contrast to Randa's philosophy. "Here's the new statue, here's the new monument pledge. You get your name on a brick. He doesn't do it that way. He has the vision, implements it, and then the support follows."

The pacifist memorial with the statue of Gandhi is the abbey's most visible monument for passersby on Route 27. For a time, Randa considered selling the statue and memorial for $400,000 as a way to pay off the abbey's debt.

But in July, a 17-year-old Indian-American high school student started a foundation to raise money to buy the statue and keep it at the property in perpetuity. Though the teen has been able to raise only about $3,000 toward her $218,000 goal, Randa said, "Any person that believes that strongly about that statue of Gandhi touches us so deeply that we would never, ever allow it to be moved."

Randa also considered selling the abbey's statue of Emily, a cow that escaped from a Hopkinton slaughterhouse in 1995 and found refuge at the abbey, where she lived until her death in 2003. The organization received a single donation of $135,000 this year to ensure that the statue will be kept where it stands, over Emily's burial place. The memorial also urges visitors to stop eating meat, if only for a day.

Even if the abbey is forced to close its doors in Sherborn, the memorials will remain on the property in trust, according to Randa. He said the proceeds from the sale of the rest of the abbey's property could finance a move to Cambridge or Boston.

Randa was discharged from the National Guard as a conscientious objector in 1971.

As part of his alternative service as a conscientious objector, Randa established the Life Experience School, a nonprofit organization that owns the buildings and land that make up the abbey. Founded as a school for special-needs children, it receives funding from the state Department of Mental Retardation for the education of its students, all of whom are now adults. The school itself is solvent, Randa said. Wiping out the abbey's debt would take a burden off the school, which no longer receives public education funds from local towns because of the age of its students.

Though the school originally taught classes in Sherborn, instruction has since been moved to a building in Millis.

"The Peace Abbey represents the good side of Sherborn and it would be a shame to see them go," Selectman Christopher Peck said.

"It's a shame that the abbey's in trouble, but is it surprising? No," said board member Willard. He recalled that he once asked Randa how the Peace Abbey got by.

His reply? "Miracles, usually."

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