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King David comes to Saranac Lake

August 19, 2014
By Paul Willcott , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

A few weeks ago when my wife Ann and I moved from New York City and made the former Carmelite Monastery in Saranac Lake our only residence, I thought about King David. When he died, it was recorded that he "went to lie down with his fathers." I rather like that phrase. It's evocative in a way that "he was buried in Jerusalem" is not.

Don't be misled, though. I didn't think I was coming to Saranac Lake to be buried. Quite the opposite. Ann and I were coming to start a new life - one that would allow us to gather around us loved ones separated by death or distance. We were going to lie down with our fathers just like King David did, but without having to die to do it. Here's how that works.

The former monastery is not just a large structure; it's also a dormitory for departed spirits. One nun famous for her peaceful passing while sitting in a rocking chair in the St. Joseph room simply refuses to leave. A carpenter named Keith saw her. Kathy, a friend of a friend, saw her. Shaaron, visiting from Texas, saw her. We keep a rocker in the room where she died. The chair was already old when I knew it as a boy.

The house was sanctified space when the nuns were in residence, and when they left, there was no ceremony to return it to a secular existence. For half a century or so before the nuns arrived, it was a place of healing. No wonder it could compel us to buy it.

Now that we live in it, rather than just visiting on weekends and holidays, the full force of its spiritual essence is becoming more evident. It's like going to lie down with our fathers.

As soon as we had repainted some walls, we began hanging family photos. Walking in the second floor hall always offers a sense of reunion. I say hello to Ann's people, even the ones I never knew, and thank them for creating Ann. To my family, living and dead, I also say thanks and renew my intention to be worthy of their love. One photo has five generations, ranging from my great-great-grandfather (born in 1848) to my brother. These photos are more than just photos - sacrament-like - they are a presence.

The house has also allowed us to entertain living friends and family for extended periods. Summer get-togethers have been a joy. The oldest grandchildren are now teenagers, and they've been coming here from Texas ever since they were born. The monastery and its life will forever be a part of their beings. That's a sort of lying down with our fathers paid forward.

For most of the century before Ann and I bought the house, it was public in a way that an ordinary residence is not. As a cure cottage for its first half century and a monastery for the next, it was a civic asset in which the whole village felt some sense of ownership. That didn't entirely end when we took over stewardship. Sometimes people still come in unannounced. I once found a priest wandering about on the third floor. He had celebrated Mass here on occasion, and he wanted to have a look around. I got the impression that private ownership of the building was pretty much inconceivable to him. Now and then, mothers and daughters have entered convinced that the house is a North Country Community College dormitory. One Sunday morning, I discovered a number of faces peering in front porch windows. A family elder had been a patient at Franklin Manor Sanatorium, and they were curious about it. Friends and neighbors show up in a way that is like the "Leave It To Beaver" growing up I was blessed with. This openness resonates with my past so strongly that it seems like lying down with my fathers.

One more instance - the strongest one I know. My father died 50 years ago after a life of sacrifice, frustration and more than his share of unhappiness. I think he's found peace here, and he's made it his job to pass it to me, and to Ann as well - even though he never knew her in life.

It's a special house.


Paul Willcott and his wife Ann live in the former Carmelite Monastery in Saranac Lake. He publishes essays monthly at



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