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A meditation session was underway in the Quaker Meeting room yesterday at The Peace Abbey in Sherborn. Contributions had been keeping pace with the abbey’s costs until 2004.
A meditation session was underway in the Quaker Meeting room yesterday at The Peace Abbey in Sherborn. Contributions had been keeping pace with the abbey’s costs until 2004. (Tom Herde/ Globe Staff)

Era of war pinches a place devoted to peace

SHERBORN -- The Peace Abbey, born of a pacifist's dream 19 years ago, has brought the inner hum of meditation and the occasionally harsh spotlight of international attention to this small, affluent town.

It is a place where a conspicuous bronze statue of Gandhi and a memorial to a runaway cow have prompted double-takes from motorists and passersby. It is also a multifaith retreat that Mother Teresa has visited, as have Muhammad Ali, the poet Maya Angelou, nuns of the Dalai Lama , and thousands of people seeking spiritual refreshment.

But now, the abbey has been put on the selling block for $5.5 million. Its director, Lewis Randa, cites a plummeting drop in donations that he links to the abbey's visible protests against the Iraq war.

Randa, who was discharged from the Army National Guard as a conscientious objector in 1971, wants to sell the abbey's two buildings and 3 acres to what he calls a "guardian angel," a benefactor or foundation that would allow the abbey to continue its work. But if no such buyer is found by mid year, he said, even commercial buyers will be considered.

"My biggest fear, and I can envision it, is that the memorials will be bulldozed, and it would become a parking lot for whatever offices would go in that front building," Randa said.

In any event, Randa added, "we will be forced within the next four or five months to sell this property."

The reason, Randa said, is more than $350,000 in debt that the Peace Abbey has incurred in the past four years for the cow statue and other expenses. The bronze statue, which is part of a small plaza dedicated to animal rights, is dedicated to a runaway bovine named Emily that escaped a Hopkinton slaughterhouse in 1995 and found refuge at the abbey for eight years. The ensemble, under which Emily is buried, cost $160,000.

Randa said Emily had a spiritual quality that profoundly affected his life and reminded him of the sacred cows of Hinduism. He has no regrets about erecting the memorial. But the abbey's financial crisis has become so acute, Randa said, that he and his wife borrowed $60,000 last year from their home equity to make up part of the shortfall.

The deficit has other potential victims, said Randa, who also is director of a special-needs school in Millis that holds title to the Peace Abbey property. Randa is concerned that state funding for the Life Experience School could be withheld if the abbey's debt is not erased by June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

If the abbey were sold, Randa said, the $5.5 million would be set aside in a trust, the interest from which would pay for maintenance and program costs.

"For its entire existence," Randa said, the abbey "has been operating on a wing and a prayer."

Until recent years, those prayers routinely were answered with about $80,000 in annual donations. Yoko Ono once donated $40,000, and a chance encounter at the local post office led to an anonymous contribution of $178,000 to pay for the Gandhi statue. But since 2004, when the abbey harbored a deserter from the Florida National Guard, Randa said, contributions have plunged to less than $30,000 a year.

"Quite frankly, we became very controversial in the eyes of many, and the funding dried up," he said in an interview in the abbey.

"I would hate to see them go," said Selectman Christopher Peck. "I do think they represent the good side of town."

Not all Sherborn residents have felt so kindly. When the Gandhi statue was erected in 1993, next to a town war memorial, some townspeople complained that the sculpture was an affront to the community's veterans.

But now, Peck said, he never hears such criticism. "I haven't heard any negative comments about the statues," Peck said.

Founded by Randa after a visit by Mother Teresa in 1988, the abbey has provided a setting filled with symbols and texts from 12 major faiths, including Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. The abbey organizes workshops on pacifism, conducts weekly meditation services, and even provides an on-site cemetery for the cremated remains of conscientious objectors.

"It's a really great place to go to be connected or to take time out," said Robert Dove, a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. "It reignites the energy of people who go there who work for justice and peace in the world."

Five times a day, a Muslim call to prayer sounds for two minutes from the grounds of the abbey. The tape-recorded call is sung by Yusuf Islam, a convert perhaps better known as the former pop singer Cat Stevens, and can be heard by nearby residents and passersby.

But even in a liberal state like Massachusetts, Randa said, the abbey's antiwar work appears directly tied to an evaporation of large contributions to the institution. Ironically, the number of smaller donations, in the form of $5 and $10 contributions, has increased, according to Randa.

Last week, the abbey received new attention. In Natick District Court, Randa and four other protesters were placed on probation for blocking traffic on the January night when President Bush announced a troop escalation for Iraq. When the Iraq war began in 2003, Randa and 17 others were arrested outside the Army's Natick Labs.

Randa refuses to conduct any fund-raising, a practice that he describes as degrading to the faiths whose teachings can be found on the walls of the Peace Memorial Museum, which uses an ivy-covered brick building that once served as Town Hall, and the Peace Abbey, a five-bedroom stucco mansion that was built in 1917 and includes a chapel and four guest rooms.

If the abbey espoused one faith, Randa said, funding might be easier to procure.

"If we bought into any one of those faith traditions, that faith tradition would look after us," Randa said. "But because we look at them all as equal, we get nothing."

An official for the state Department of Mental Retardation, which oversees funding for special-needs schools, said continued funding for the Life Experience School is not in immediate danger, although the finances will receive scrutiny.

"We're willing to work with Lewis and see what situation we're in, and see if there's a plan to work with," said Larry Tummino, assistant commissioner of field operations for the department.

In Randa's mind, however, the time has come for a new owner.

"If you're walking the walk and you can't pay the bills, it's somebody else's turn," he said.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at