The Sound of Silence

From charities and hospitals to colleges, private schools and places of worship, Quakerism’s mark on the Main Line is as unmistakable as it is immeasurable. Why, then, is it so often misunderstood?

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In this region, there are about 9,000 Quakers affiliated with 104 monthly meetings—80 of them active. Haverford Quarterly Meeting, Old Haverford Friends Meeting, Radnor Monthy Meeting, Valley Friends Meeting in Wayne, Merion Friends Meeting and Newtown Square Meeting are all members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which is part of the national Friends General Conference. There are also meetings in Media, Springfield, Swarthmore, West Chester, Westtown, Willistown Township, Phoenixville, Downingtown, Coatesville, Kennett Square, Birmingham Township and other surrounding areas. In education circles, Haverford College was founded as a Quaker institution. In fact, its students and faculty worshipped at Haverford Friends Meeting every Thursday morning until 1957.

Of the local monthly meetings, the granddaddy is Merion Friends. The oldest in Pennsylvania, it’s at the intersection of Montgomery Avenue and Meetinghouse Lane in Merion Station—also known as God’s Corner. The Jewish Center and the McCauley Convent are neighbors.

The meetinghouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a $300,000 capital preservation campaign is well underway. Another $55,000 is needed to finish the restoration and stabilization of a structure that’s gone virtually unaltered since 1829.

Merion is one of a few meetinghouses that survive from the 17th century. It’s also one of the country’s earliest existing examples of Quaker architecture. Its construction began in 1695, and it was completed by 1715.

Merion’s T-shaped cruciform plan may be unprecedented in meetinghouse design. There’s also evidence of the Welsh building tradition in its stone construction, steeply pitched roof with angled cruck timbers (wood likely grown in the 1500s), and remnants of original leaded casement windows, pent eaves and doorway hoods.

It’s documented that Penn spoke at Merion, which was also an early public school for the meeting’s children and local American Indians. Its history is also tied to support for slaves en route to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a portion of which followed the old Philadelphia and Columbia rail line along Montgomery Avenue in front of the meetinghouse.

Merion’s restoration was an 11-year project in the making—a typical Quaker waiting period. For any Quaker meeting decision, all have to be in agreement. If there’s one dissenter, there’s no decision.

Original estimates for the work totaled $1.2 million, but Quakers are a thrifty bunch. Merion Meeting was awarded $127,000 from Partners for Sacred Places, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and others. There was also a $5,000 gift from Friends’ Central School, and an undisclosed memorial gift after the death of Merion Friend Ann S. Hartzell.

The first phase addressed the structural repair and reinforcement of the meetinghouse’s timber roof frame, reversing the direction its weight was pulling the building. Remaining restoration and stabilization is in store for the chimney, floor, and the electrical, fire and security systems, plus stone pointing, termite treatment and wood repair. The front door will be rebuilt, handicap access added, and water runoff better controlled.

“When we’re done spending, you won’t be able to tell we’ve spent any money,” says Ross Mitchell, a Merion Friend. “Our goal is the preservation of this building for future generations.”

These days, membership at Merion Meeting is down to about 90 Friends. Locally, outreach is subtle and informative in its efforts to educate and entice outsiders. Haverford Friends hosts its “Quaker Quest,” a series of discussions and presentations to introduce others to the faith that has already made an impact in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere, the world’s largest concentration of Quakers is in Kenya, of all places.

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