New Lebanon, NY: Shakers, Catholics, A Plague of Baby Birds

Sitting on the border between Massachusetts and New York, New Lebanon has inexplicably manicured roadside grass and some interesting history. Ever heard of the Shakers? Of course you have.

A small group of Shakers (a meant-to-be-insulting nickname shortened from “the shaking quakers”) came to America in 1774 fleeing persecution in England, and in 1787 they formed the first Shaker Society, called the New Lebanon Society, in… yes, New Lebanon. The Shakers are pretty interesting in that the two biggest aspects of their culture are so divergent: celibacy and production. They believe in celibacy throughout life, not just until marriage, and men and women barely interact at all. Meanwhile they place a very high value on building, perfection in architecture and efficiency in farming and crafts. It’s almost like they’ve taken this universally human urge to create and just channeled it towards other things? Or something. I think that’s kind of cool. And they really knew how to throw a fun ritual at one time:

The fly in the ointment of course is that while intercourse brings babies, no intercourse brings… I don’t know, death? Growth of the order has depended entirely on conversion and adoption of orphans, and, as you may have suspected, in 2006 there were only four people in the country who claimed to be Shakers. They must be kind of lonely, I wish I had been able to find some of them.

After I passed some beautifully executed plain brick buildings, I almost swerved off the road when I passed the local Catholic church.

I think it was just that I had been seeing so many solid square brick school houses, solid circular brick meeting halls, solid sturdy brick houses, but all of a sudden on the side of the road next to a solid-looking brick cathedral I saw this:

I immediately pulled into the church parking lot to check it out. As I was walking slowly down the sidewalk I stepped over THREE dead baby birds right in front of the church’s entrance, which, when combined with the overcast sky and incongruous shrine, sent creepy stigmata-style chills down my spine. Did a momma bird throw these babies from the nest? Is this a metaphor for something?? I wish I had gone to Sunday School.

The shrine was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, and it was truly striking. Its broken and open structure stood out so sharply against the hyper-ordered surroundings and flat countryside that it felt like I was looking at something naked.

Benches, candles and offerings inside showed regular and recent visits, and there were a ton of old photos, rosaries, flowers and trinkets laying at Mary’s feet.

People had clearly been there that morning, kneeling in the damp cold to say a prayer for their children or light a candle for dead loved ones. After sitting in my car alone for so many hours, the intimacy and personal presence of the shrine was almost overwhelming.

It was built in 1929 after a man named John B. LeFebvre arrived at Church of Immaculate Conception and couldn’t believe how much the surrounding area resembled Lourdes in France, where the original grotto and shrine is located:

I can kind of see what he was thinking! The whole experience was surprising and beautiful, I appreciated happening upon it very much.


One response to “New Lebanon, NY: Shakers, Catholics, A Plague of Baby Birds

  1. huh. Driving through Nasville, TN, you get to see this:

    I promise it’s just some crazy Tennessean lunatic–it’s not government funded or anything. I think.

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