Category Archives: religion

Closings, Cancellations, Postponements: A Partial List

COVID-19 has knocked out everything from the NBA to Broadway.

Westport is not immune. Here’s a list of what’s happening, alphabetically. Feel free to add your organization or event in the “Comments” section below.

A Better Chance of Westport: The Dream Event gala is postponed to May 1 (6 p.m., Rolling Hills Country Club, Wilton).

Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: Closed for 2 weeks. No meetings, church events or classes will be held on the property.

Closing a religious institution is very rare.

EarthplaceClosed until further notice. Trails are open.

Maker Faire: The April event is postponed. A new date will be announced.

MoCA WestportThe gallery and all classes are temporarily closed. The April 25 gala is postponed to a later date.

Positive DirectionsOffering teletherapy options for safe, convenient counseling. Call 203-227-7644.

Wakeman Town Farm: Closed for public events until further notice.

WTF? Everything is closed!

Westport Country PlayhouseCanceled: “the Pout-Pout Fish” (March 15); Connecticut Dance School benefit (March 20); Broadway Method Academy gala (March 21). No decision yet to cancel or postpone events after March 21.  

Westport Library: The library is closed. It will reopen at 9 a.m. on Monday, March 16.

Westport Museum for History & Culture: The museum is closed, and all programming has been suspended through March. Exhibitions are available for viewing online.

Westport Weston Family Y: The Y will close at 10 p.m. today, until further notice.

Westport Public Schools, including Staples Players’ “Seussical”:  All public school buildings and activities are closed, until further notice.

Don Sullivan Sails Through Retirement

After retirement, some men drive around looking for things to do. Some drink beer. Some clean out their garage.

Don Sullivan drove for Uber. He brews craft beer. And he’s built 2 boats in his garage — the latest a 20-foot yawl.

All in the past 3 years.

He and his wife Dawn have lived in Westport for 41 years. They raised 3 children here. She was very active in Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, He says he was “somewhat” involved.

Don and Dawn Sullivan, in 2005.

After a career spent selling large technology systems to the publishing industry, Sullivan retired at 63. A gregarious “people person,” he began driving for Uber. It was fun, and he made nearly 2,700 trips. But he gave it up a year ago, when the novelty wore off and it became “a commodity.”

He and his friend Steve Knapp created a great-tasting beer. They named it Valley Forge Brewery. They just finished their 12th batch. Each is only 48 bottles. “We don’t sell it. We drink it,” Sullivan says.

But all of that pales next to his boats. His interest was piqued when he saw photos of Henk Hoets’ flat-bottom lumberyard skiff.

Don Sullivan

Though he’d sailed all his life, Sullivan had never given a thought to building a boat. In fact, he’d never built anything.

Suddenly though, he was motivated.

He bought plans and lumber, and went to work. Two months later, it was done. It’s now moored at Longshore.

That project done, Sullivan gave his tools away.

But at a 2018 boat show in Mystic, he saw a beautiful Caledonia yawl. It was there last year too.

So Sullivan decided to build it.

Constructing a 2-masted, double-ended sailboat is a lot more difficult than a skiff.

But Sullivan bought plans from a man in Scotland. He gathered all the tools he needed. He headed to a specialty lumber yard in White Plains.

Then he got to work.

An early stage …

“I just followed the plans,” Sullivan says, as if describing how Waze helped him get home.

“The plans” included putting planks over a mold — upside down. Then he flipped it over, and worked on the interior.

… a work in progress …

It took 500 hours, over 5 months. Much of that time he was on his knees, or in awkward, uncomfortable positions.

He worked alone. It was physically demanding — the planks are 24 feet long — and mentally exhausting too. “There’s a constant, anxious challenge of getting it done,” he explains.

But, Sullivan notes, “This was a calling. Driving home from Mystic, I knew I had to build this boat. And convince my wife of it.”

… nearing completion….

This project became the most enjoyable thing he’s ever done. “I’ve never been happier, prouder or more enthusiastic about anything,” he says.

The yawl launches in April. He’ll sail in local waters, then head to Cape Cod.

His wife will be on board — physically, and emotionally.

“We’ve been married 42 years,” he says. “It gets better every day.

“But this was not my finest moment. For 5 months I was constantly focused on this. Dawn was 100% supportive.

“Now I’m looking forward to doing things together again. She’s a great first mate!”

… and finally shipshape.

Sullivan does not know what his next project will be. He will not, however, build another boat.

Although, he admits, “I said that after the first one too.”

(Hat tip: Jeff Wieser)

Saugatuck Church Opens Black History Art Show

The Saugatuck Congregational Church mission statement includes a commitment to “welcome all people.”

Those are not just words.

The downtown congregation hosts a wide range of 12-step programs. Last year they sponsored a show of immigrant art.

In 2018, Saugatuck accepted an invitation from the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport to pair with a predominantly African American church. The goal was mutual learning about the impact of racism in our culture and communities.

Small groups from Saugatuck and St. Matthew Baptist Church met several times. A Westport participant said he was amazed to learn what he had not been aware of.

Saugatuck’s Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton and St. Matthew’s Rev. Aaron Best remain in touch. Their congregations will continue to connect.

St. Matthew Baptist Church

Dan Long participated in the exchange. An artist and member of Saugatuck’s arts committee, he helped organize last year’s “Art Beyond Borders” show, featuring works by Latin American immigrants.

The opening — with art, music and poetry — drew a very diverse crowd.

Dan wanted to organize more shows at his church, honoring diversity and fighting racism.

He died suddenly in June. His wife Priscilla and arts team members have taken up the cause.

A special exhibit — “Celebrating Color in Black History Month” — opens this Friday (February 21, 6 to 8 p.m., Hoskins Hall). Six area artists of color — Jeffrey Nelson, Amir Hines, Clyde Theophilus McLaughlin, Shanna Melton, Michael Brinkley and Lesley Koenig — will share their work.

Some of the work in the Saugatuck Congregational Church art show.

The show ends March 10. But Saugatuck Church’s commitment to multi-culturalism, and against racism, continues.

In May Rev. Donique McIntosh — minister for racial justice for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ — will be a guest preacher.

(“Art Beyond Borders” is open to the public, whenever the Saugatuck Congregational Church is open. Call first — 203-227-1261.)

Choral Chameleon Pops Up At Unitarian Church

Choral Chameleon is well named.

The New York ensemble works in a dynamic blend of genres and art forms — whatever type of choral music is called for, whenever they’re called to perform.

This year’s tour was inspired by the questions: “Regardless of whether we lean left or right, what if we could just leave the zoo? Would we find utopia, or go back to the never-ending search for meaning we humans have been on since creation?”

Cue: “If I Left the Zoo.”

Choral Chameleon

Using humor, animals and music ranging from the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “I Am the Walrus” to the world premiere of Westport’s own Edward Thompson’s whimsical a cappella trilogy “Aphorisms of the Zookeeper,” Choral Chameleon returns to Westport’s Unitarian Church this Saturday for their only Fairfield County appearance.

The February 22 concert “explores the primal instincts in humans, and the stories and fables of earth’s creatures and transformations.”

For example, Thompson’s new work includes “Alligators.” It’s based on the saying “When I’m up to my neck in alligators, I remember that my intention was to drain the swamp.”

Animals can teach us about life — and with a bit of humor. Both are much needed these days.

Edward Thompson

Thompson — the church’s music director — has quite a resume. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard, a doctor of musical arts from the University of Hartford, and did post-doctoral work at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

He has composed dozens of pieces for youth, mixed, women’s and men’s choirs, as well as instrumental works.

But this is his first for — okay, about — animals.

 (Choral Chameleon’s “If I Left the Zoo” tour is Saturday, February 22 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.)

Jonathan Stumps For Joe

In December I posted a very inspiring story. For his bar mitzvah, Bedford Middle School 7th grader Jonathan Costello made a heartfelt video about his stutter.

It went viral. Stutterers of all ages found they had a voice.

Among those who saw it: Joe Biden.

His staff reached out to Jonathan. The former vice president — a stutterer himself — wanted to meet the young Westporter.

It happened a few days ago — in New Hampshire.

Jonathan and his dad Sean knocked on more than 30 doors for the campaign, before heading to a rally.

Jonathan Costello, on the campaign trail.

The presidential candidate was excited to meet the 13-year-old.

“They had a very heartfelt and touching conversation,” Jonathan’s mother Lauren reports.

The meeting …

“It ended with Biden asking for Jonathan’s phone number. What a moment!”

… and the hug, captured by C-SPAN.

No word on whether Jonathan heads now to Nevada or South Carolina to help in the next caucus and primary.

Or whether he’ll just give advice by phone.

Unsung Hero #132

It might sound strange to call Bill Mitchell an Unsung Hero.

The public face of Mitchells of Westport — son of founders Ed and Norma, brother of Jack, father and uncle of the 3rd generation to lead 8 upscale men’s and women’s stores, on the East and West Coasts — his generosity is boundless.

He and the entire Mitchell family open their stores, their checkbooks and their hearts to a breathtaking variety of organizations and causes. Very quietly too, they help countless individuals, in any kind of need.

They’ve been honored often (though not enough) for all they do. But this Saturday (January 25, 6:30 p.m.), a special event will be particularly meaningful.

The Conservative Synagogue of Westport holds a “funraiser” — and Bill Mitchell is the guest of honor.

Bill Mitchell

The reason dates back 25 years. Founders were trying to get permission to build a synagogue on Hillspoint Road. Though near the Post Road, the zoning was residential. Some neighbors opposed the plan.

Unsolicited, Bill stood up at several meetings. He’s not Jewish — his family has long been associated with the Saugatuck Congregational Church, and he’s a longtime supporter of various Catholic charities — but he talked about the importance of the synagogue.

After he spoke, the Planning & Zoning Commission passed the proposal. Unanimously.

Bill’s support of The Conservative Synagogue did not stop there. On the High Holidays, he opens Mitchells’ parking lot to congregants.

He and Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn have become great friends. It’s a good bet that when the rabbi offers “mazel tov” on Saturday, Bill will not be at a loss for words.

In Hebrew.

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Halper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

Baba Ram Dass: The Westport Connection

Westport’s history is filled with writers who — while not as closely associated with our town as, say, Peter De Vries or Max Shulman — spent time here at the heights of their careers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. J.D. Salinger. Shirley Jackson.

Add Baba Ram Dass to the list.

His “Be Here Now” — described by the New York Times as “an exuberant exponent of finding salvation through helping others” — sold 2 million copies, and has had more then 3 dozen printings.

But he’s perhaps better known for his advocacy — with fellow Harvard professor Timothy Leary — of LSD, and the spiritual inspiration he found in India.

Ram Dass — born Richard Alpert — returned from India as a “bushy-bearded, barefoot, white-robed guru,” the Times says. He became “a peripatetic lecturer on New age possibilities and a popular author of more than a dozen inspirational books.”

Baba Ram Dass

He also started a foundation to combat blindness in India and Nepal, supported reforestation in Latin America, and developed health education programs for American Indians, the Times reports.

According to alert “06880” reader — and endless fount of historical knowledge — Mary Gai, Ram Dass came to Westport around 1979.

He was here, Mary says, thanks to the kindness of a follower. Independently wealthy, the woman lived in a compound — with a big van, tents and campfires — on the Saugatuck River.

I’m not sure how long he stayed in the woods here. But last year Ram Dass began an essay on aging this way: “One evening I was taking a train back from Westport to New York city….”

Baba Ram Dass died on Sunday, in Hawaii. He was 88.

If you have any memories of his time in Westport — or simply how he influenced you — click “Comments” below.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary of Baba Ram Dass.)

Photo Challenge #259

The Unitarian Church is a Westport treasure — both spiritually and physically.

For well over half a century, the congregation has been at the forefront of many social justice battles. They’ve provided a home for folks of many faith traditions, and those with none at all.

Throughout that time, they’ve done it in a building that looks as beautiful and modern as the day it opened.

Set back in the woods — unnoticed from nearby Lyons Plains Road — its soaring sanctuary and large windows provide gorgeous, inspiring, ever-changing views of the world.

David Vita’s image of those woods in autumn — framed by church windows — was last week’s Photo Challenge (click here to see). Fred Cantor, Andrew Colabella, Molly Alger, Bill Barron, Stephen Axthelm, Rosalie Kaye, Seth Schachter, Annie Haskel, Richard Hyman, Jill Turner Odice, Carol Hanks, Luke Garvey, Peter R. Powell, Tom Risch, Bobbie Herman, Mari-Eleanor Martino, Susan Miller, Jo Ann Flaum, Jalna Jaeger and Stephanie Ehrman all knew exactly where those woods were.

At least some of those readers are not Unitarian Church members. But at some point, nearly every Westporter has found his or her way there — for a wedding, funeral, service, meeting or program.

If you haven’t been there yet: godspeed.

This week’s Photo Challenge is a tougher one. If you know — or think you know — where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Jay Dirnberger)

Dost Thou Remember?

Staples High School graduate Catherine Webster now lives in Oklahoma. Her congregation — First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City — is celebrating the tricentennial of the carol “Joy to the World.” On Facebook, she wrote that last Sunday’s service focused on the idea that music transcends the intellect, and speaks directly to the heart and soul.

During the lay reflection, Catherine described the traditions of Staples’ Candlelight Concert. It was a joy, she said, to share both “Sing We Noel” and “Welcome Yule” with her beloved community. Here are her beautiful, heartfelt remarks:

Dost thou remember the Prophet of old
Who that most wond’rous story told
How of a virgin pure and mild
Should be born a perfect child?
The seer spake true: The virgin so fair
A son from Heaven doth declare
Sing we Noël, Noël, Noël.

If this song is unfamiliar to you, fear not: I bring good tidings of great joy! It’s exceedingly obscure, and you won’t be hearing it any time soon on KMGL’s all–holiday line-up.

But for me, it’s a Christmas classic. Every vocal music student from my high school back in Connecticut has learned this song since the 1950s. The 100-voice a cappella choir has used it as a processional for the annual Candlelight Concert, literally for generations. And will again next weekend (I checked.).

This is music that speaks directly to my heart, and the setting also adds to its power.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

In the dim of the high school auditorium, the school orchestra would play the instrumental introduction as the choir, robed in blue with white stoles, processed down the 3 aisles and surrounded the audience with the warm light of flickering (electric) candlelight.

Once everyone was in place, the orchestra played a big downbeat and the choir members would turn to face the audience. A high school teacher commented that he always associated that turn with the future that his soon to be former students – the graduating seniors — were facing, full of hope, candles aglow.

My family started to attend this concert in 1966, when it was already a long-standing tradition and considered the high school’s holiday gift to the town of Westport.

I had just turned 1 year old that year. We continued to attend the concert as youth from our church, babysitters, our friends’ older siblings and – finally – my brother and I made it to high school to take part.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old. Some of those performers — now with their own children out of college — will return this weekend.

Although clearly a Christmas carol, performing this song touched the hearts of my many Jewish friends and the several others, like me, who identified as non-Christian.

The power of the song, and of the tradition, transcended a particular theology and unified us. I know I was not the only student who felt the weight of history as we took our places, continuing the tradition that our elders had established, helping to continue and preserve it for those not yet born.

In an online forum related to my hometown, a woman who graduated in 1958 commented: “Can anyone explain why every time I see a post about Staples’ Christmas Candlelight concert I immediately start to sing ‘Sing We Noel,’ and get all misty-eyed?”

To which the original poster replied: “Because once you’ve been part of it, it’s part of your soul.”

It is certainly part of mine.

Antonio Antonelli, in the 2018 “Sing We Noel” processional.

So is the introit that the choir sang in the lobby prior to the processional. Unseen but not unheard, many of us held hands as we performed this number, which has for me a truly ancient feel. Here’s the final verse:

Welcome be you that are here
Welcome all and make good cheer
Welcome all another year
Welcome Yule!

(The 79th annual Candlelight Concert is set for tomorrow — Friday, December 13 — and Saturday, December 14. All tickets have already been distributed.)

The “Sing We Noel” processional — a part of every Candlelight Concert since 1940. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)