About one meditator’s memories of New Harmony, Indiana

By Tom King - WCCM Meditator

I first came to New Harmony, Indiana quite by accident. I am a Chemical Engineer and much of my business throughout my career was oil refineries. If there is an oil refinery in the US, I have probably visited it sometime in my career.

There is a tiny refinery in Mt Vernon, Indiana, about 15 miles from New Harmony. I was visiting this refinery probably in the mid-80s. When we had completed our meeting, the process manager asked where I was staying while in the area. I think I was staying at a Holiday Inn along the interstate about 30 miles away. He said, “No, you are not.” He told me to call and cancel that reservation and to go check in at The New Harmony Inn. And so I did. That visit started, if not a love affair with New Harmony, certainly a kind of affection affair.

I remember being attracted by the quaint streets, old well-kept homes, the Shaker type furniture of the Inn and the lovely Red Geranium Restaurant with the great wine list. After spending way too much time in Interstate hotels and Interstate hotel food, the New Harmony Inn was a welcome retreat. And it did have a “retreat” feel to it even before I was drawn to retreats.

So, in the next 10 or so years I probably visited the town three or four times, but I was always aware of it as a nice memory stored in some slightly dusty file in the back of my brain. In those subsequent visits I learned a little more about the history of the town but not much. I was more interested in the lovely, quiet setting, the great swimming pool and of course, the restaurant and wine list.

The town was founded as a Utopian Society in 1814 by a group of Lutheran separatists who had moved to Pennsylvania from Germany to escape persecution from the established Lutheran church. In 1814, their leader George Rapp, bought 20,000 acres of land on the Wabash River in Indiana and he and his followers moved from Pennsylvania to Harmonie, as it was called. They agreed to hold everything in common under Rapp’s direction and to live celibate lives in order to be ready for the coming Millenium or end of the world as we know it. The town prospered. Farming, tanneries, breweries, distilleries were all successful. However, after 10 years, the Millenium had not come, and the Harmonists - as they were called - decided to go back to Pennsylvania.

In 1824, the town was sold to Robert Owen, a Welsh industrialist and his partner, William McClure. The desire was to build a society where social justice prevailed and education was free to all. McClure brought a group of scientists and learned adventurers to New Harmony on what is now known as the Boat Load of Knowledge. Unfortunately the Owenite social experiment failed two years after it began and Robert Owen returned to Wales; his sons and daughter, however, stayed as did many of the scientists. With the central idea of education for all, “...scientific, cultural, social, and economic benefits were realized not only by New Harmony, but also by the Midwest and nation at large.”

Now back to my meditation journey. In early 2001 my brother Pat introduced me to WCCM. Together we listened to Laurence and Thomas Keating talk about silent prayer.  I began meditating, although not always successfully or faithfully. In 2008, I met Kathy Kokas, now my wife, at a Laurence Freeman retreat at the Dominican Retreat Center in Houston. We were married a year later. (Tom and Kathy pictured above.)

One of the things I told Kathy very early on was that I was going to take her to this lovely little town in the southern part of Indiana, called New Harmony. Well, we didn’t get to it right away, but in 2014 or so, I took a job at one of those refineries near New Harmony. We were there for one year and I think we visited NH at least 3 times for holidays. During these visits I discovered the New Harmony connection with Houston, Texas, and Jane Blaffer Owen. I also discovered the WCCM naming at the John Main Seminar in New Harmony with Bede Griffith in 1991.

Jane Blaffer Owen was an oil heiress from Houston. She married Kenneth Dale Owen, a great, great grandson of Robert Owen. He took her to see the little town of New Harmony where he was raised in 1941. She fell in love with the town and spent the rest of her life rebuilding it and bringing her own vision. (Read New Harmony, Indiana, Like a River, Not a Lake, her memoir.) Ms Owen was nothing if not unique. Over the years, she brought artists, architects, philosophers and Benedictines to visit New Harmony and gift it with their own talents.

She had a great affection for Benedictine spirituality and she would host Benedictine retreats annually. Through her influence the 1991 JMS with Fathers Bede Griffiths and Laurence Freeman was held in New Harmony. Other teachers in other years included Esther de Waal, Joan Chittister, Cynthia Bourgeault and John Philip Newell, each benefitting from her hospitality and sharing their unique wisdom of Benedictine spirituality.

The list of famous people from all walks of life who contributed to New Harmony are too many to mention. The book referenced above is a great way to get to know New Harmony but the best way is to visit. Just ask any of the WCCMers that visited for a weekend retreat in 2018.

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