May 7, 2012 – Just a mile outside Philadelphia city limits on Huntingdon Pike sits the tiny village of Bryn Athyn.
With schools – elementary through college – museums, a library, places for social gatherings and housing developments this lovely area is practically self-sufficient. It’s also home to the Cairnwood Estate and the Academy of the New Church.
The area began to expand about 150 years ago when the Academy of the New Church, or the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, was built here. It was a project sponsored by the Pitcairn family, who also built their home on the same grounds, which they named Cairnwood. Legend claims the Pitcairn’s intermarried to keep the wealth in the family, causing all kinds of rumors to circulate among the youngsters in the area. As teenagers, we’d drive up to the estates and walk around in the dark petrified that we’d run into someone with two heads or four arms.
Once I finally made my way into adulthood, the fascination of the estates remained with me, but I was a much more logical about those who lived there, and realized how silly I was to believe such nonsense. I was drawn to the history and beauty of the properties, and often wanted to peek inside one of the cathedrals to see for myself what lurked behind the stone walls.
When my son was a young child, we’d drive past the estates often since the main road provided a direct route to his pediatrician’s office. When he saw the cathedral sitting back on the hill in all of its majesty, he’d sometimes ask if Sleeping Beauty lived there.
About seven years ago, I finally got my peek the inside when my friend Sandy, a member of the Swedenborg religion practiced at the Academy of the New Church, was married there. Stepping inside seemed almost forbidden, although it was only my crazy imagination and memories of youth making me feel that way, and not the vibration of the place or its friendly people. It gave one the feeling of being in a medieval castle rather than a church, since it stone walls lacked religious icons such as crosses or statues. The wedding ceremony was unique and lovely, and I’d never seen Sandy happier.
Sadly, I visited the cathedral again last summer for Sandy’s funeral. Although we thought she had beaten it, she succumbed to cancer at her home in Chicago at the age of 46. Her husband was thoughtful enough to hold a special memorial service in Bryn Athyn so many of her friends and family – those who couldn’t make it to Illinois – could pay their respects.
It’s been almost a year now, and I think of Sandy every time I pass this beautiful and special area that sits only minutes outside of Northeast Philadelphia. I think about her husband and her young son, and how they are getting on without her. Most of all, I think about how happy she was on her wedding day – when I visited the cathedral for the first time – and I’m glad she got to spend the remaining years of her time on earth happy and content with her husband and baby boy.
Rest in peace, dear friend, and I know that somewhere some part of you is laughing and thinking about “packin’ the yams…”