To walk where the young Henry James once walkedthat is what you can do if you are lucky enough to visit Linwood, a spiritual center near Rhinebeck, N.Y. The mid-19th-century owner of the property was Augustus James, Henry’s uncle. During his boyhood, Henry used to spend some of his summers there and, walking along the bluff overlooking the Hudson River far below, would surely have been struck by the magnificence of that view of one of the world’s most important waterways. It is deep enough to be navigable for oceangoing vessels, and on visits to celebrate Mass for weekend retreatants, I often see tankers passing. Looking across the great expanse of water to the tree-covered hills on the other shore, one can sense the prehistoric origins of those surroundings even while hearing the very contemporary sound of Amtrak trains far below along the shore.
Since the early 1960’s, the property has been owned by the Sisters of St. Ursula, who are now celebrating their 100th year in the United States. How, you might ask, were they so fortunate as to acquire it? At the time, they were in charge of a school across the river in Kingston. A local diocesan priest who knew them well also knew Linwood’s owner at the time, the heir of a wealthy brewer named Jacob Ruppert. The owner, Jacob’s nephew, wondered what would become of Linwood after his death. The priest suggested the sisters as recipients, and the donation was made.
The original Augustus James house was already long gone, replaced by a handsome Victorian mansion. A framed photograph of it hangs in one of the retreat house’s rooms; the young priest in his cassock and the donor can be seen standing in front of the house. The mansion’s frame structure made it a fire hazard, so it had to be replaced by a modern structure. But the old hand-pump well a few yards away and the enormous beech and oak trees throughout the grounds are signs that much of Linwood’s past has been retainedincluding what was once the butler’s house a 10-minute walk from the main building: a small gem of late 19th-century architecture.
The adult Henry James spent a great deal of his life in England and, as a celebrated writer, moved in a fashionable world of London dinner parties and sojourns in country houses. The world of the sisters is very different. They live simply, working (and praying) hard at various apostolic tasks that include serving as retreat directors and providers of hospitality for the many groups and individuals who come during the year. In addition, one of the sisters is an environmentalist. She devotes time to advocacy efforts for the preservation of the Hudson River itself, seriously damaged over the past decades by industrial polluters, notably Westinghouse. Among the most active members of the community, though, is an octogenarian, Sr. Eleanora Murphya friend of long standing who taught with me at the Nativity Mission School in lower Manhattan 20 years ago.
When the weather is clear, visitors like myself often sit on one of the stone benches at edge of the bluff to watch the sun go down behind the hills across the river. Given the primordial aspect of the glacier-created surroundings and the width of the river at that point, the creation stories in Genesis easily come to mind. And the remembrance of the many eyes that have gazed out over the same scene down through the centuriesthe Algonquin who once moved along the banks, followed by settlers and those like Augustus James and others who became owners of Linwoodthis remembrance of long-vanished eyes acts can act as a reminder of the transiency of human life. It is a transiency, however, that is balanced by the awareness of the loving Creator who remains present through all eternity, an awareness made all the more immediate in Linwood’s atmosphere of prayer and recollection.