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Chapel honoring women built stone by stone

A key feature of the GilChrist Retreat Center is the Stone Chapel, which is the subject of the second chapter of Molly Vass-Lehman’s book GilChrist: A Place to Remember.

This intimate, circular building sprang from Vass-Lehman’s desire “to build an altar to mothers and to feminine energy” and from her prayers for “somebody to show me just a little bit about stonework.”

That somebody turned out to be Molly Sullivan of South Bend, Indiana. “She came to GilChrist and introduced herself saying that some women … had sent her because I needed help with some stonework and said that she’d been a stone mason,” Vass-Lehman recalls. “I told her, ‘I’d like to have a mother’s chapel,’ and she said, ‘I’ll help you build it.’”

But Vass-Lehman was hesitant. “I told her, ‘It’s not going to happen right now. We have a golf cart, but there’s no electricity (in the field where she wanted to build the chapel) and there’s no water.’ The next thing I know, we’re going to Menard’s to buy five-gallon jugs to haul water so we can mix mortar.”

Vass-Lehman says of Sullivan, “She lived on the margins of life and also helped people on the margins of life. Her car would break down every two to three weeks, but she got me started and sent friends to help.”

The first helper was Carolyn Kelly, who announced her presence with the words, “Molly Sullivan sent me.”

The Stone Chapel was constructed largely by women. Also involved were Vass-Lehman’s husband, Rob, who mixed mortar by hand each morning before going to his office at the Fetzer Institute; one of the masons who laid bricks for GilChrist’s eight hermitages and who built the roof; and Amish carpenters who crafted the wooden door. “It was something magical that was meant to happen,” Vass-Lehman says.

On Sullivan’s last day at the Stone Chapel, six months before she died of cancer, she carved a Celtic cross on one of the stones. That marking would be the first of many items left at the chapel, mostly by women. “There’s unsent messages stuffed there,” says Vass-Lehman. “There’s even wedding rings on some of the top stones from women who were divorced.”

 “Working alone while on sabbatical, I could lay nine stones in a whole day,” she says. “And it was the hottest summer in 24 years. I was out in the middle of this field with my white overalls and a big white hat to ward off mosquitoes.”

Indeed, many of the early visitors to GilChrist were women, including clients from Vass-Lehman’s private counseling practice. “Not only did they come, (but) they wanted to stay in our little hermitages,” she says. “Then they wanted more people to come. Women’s groups were coming out, and we would just walk the land.” Of the journals that reside in each of the hermitages, Lehman says, “People put everything in them. They put poems, drawings, objects of nature. They told stories. They created songs and put the lyrics in. They poured their hearts out

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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