Shadows and Light

The 4th of July is a few days away and it feels as if a historic focus is woven through this summer, with strands of the nation’s dark moments and shining lights.

Today my youngest daughter, Lauren, flies home to South Carolina from her college in Los Angeles. Once she has forgiven me for booking a flight that involved leaving for the airport before 4 a.m., we’ll spend our time checking items off her life list, summer list and whatever other list she’s prepared. She is the List Maven.

Mepkin Abbey
The monks at Mepkin Abbey gather for worship several times a day.

Among our first stops will be Mepkin Abbey. That’s been on our to-do list for at least three or four of her visits home, so we’re likely to go up this week. (May the Anti-Mosquito Force be with us.)

The Abbey is definitely off the beaten path, squirreled away on the Cooper River up in Berkeley County and light years from cosmopolitan Charleston. It has a remarkable history, first as Mepkin Plantation dating back to 1681 and the Lords Proprietors, those fellows in the powdered wigs who were granted land in the new colony by the British crown.

Henry Laurens
This portrait of Laurens was painted while he was held in the Tower of London.

The plantation was sold about 80 years later to Henry Laurens. Laurens was a Patriot and among the signers of America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. But as history is mixed with darkness and light, so was Laurens’ life. He owned one of the biggest slave trade businesses in the region. Literally thousands of enslaved men and women came through the port at Charleston and were sold by Laurens. He was immensely wealthy.

Tower of London
The Tower of London. Laurens was the only American ever held in the Tower. Photo by Pikous.

Laurens followed John Hancock as president of  the Second Continental Congress, and though his signature is not as dramatic as Hancock’s, it can be found on the Articles of Confederation. That signature cost Laurens nearly two years of his life when he was captured at sea by the British and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Mepkin’s famous occupants didn’t end with Laurens. In the 20th century, the plantation passed into the hands of Henry and Clare Boothe Luce. Clare again reflects this summer’s theme of light and darkness: Born in 1903, she was the illegitimate daughter of a dancer and a patent medicine salesman, and in her early life she grew up moving often from one city to another.

It had to be a beginning of hard knocks for a child.

Clare Booth Luce
Clare Boothe Luce in 1932, a life of shadows and light. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection
But Clare was not knocked down. She went on to become a journalist, socialite, ambassador to Italy and a Congresswoman. Her second husband, Henry Luce, was the publisher of Time and Life magazines.

After Clare’s daughter died in a car crash, she turned to religion and became a Roman Catholic. And that’s where Mepkin Plantation became Mepkin Abbey. The Luces owned and improved Mepkin for about 13 years before donating most of the property to the Trappists in 1949. The brothers of Mepkin belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

“Strict Observance” is an appropriate modifier. The monks rise at 3 a.m. and go to Vigils at 3:20. Throughout the day, except during worship, they maintain silence and aim for a state of constant prayer. For years, they raised chickens and sold the eggs to support the Abbey. They became the object of PETA’s scorn, and have since switched to growing less controversial mushrooms. They welcome guests and those who wish to make retreats at the monastery.

It’s a gorgeous place of peace and gardens, and the sleek and modern Clare Boothe Luce Library is quite impressive. Hopefully, I’ll have pictures to share soon after we go.

We’re also planning a family trip up to Gettysburg to see the Civil War battlefield, in part because I am fascinated by that war (thank you to three brilliant authors, Michael and Jeff Shaara, and James McPherson) and partly because Lauren can do research for a film she is planning to make during her upcoming senior year about the Underground Railroad. We’ll meander a lot, which is our habit, and hopefully stop by my hometown, Cincinnati, to see the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. I’ll post more about that, too, as we go.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Patty says:

    Very interesting. I’d love to go to the abbey, too, and can imagine you and your daughter there. Hey, keep driving this summer and come to Maine!


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