MCNS Articles
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
  April 19, 1995, Wednesday, City Edition


HEADLINE: Mrs. Gardner's annual claim on heaven;

BYLINE: By Alex Beam, Globe Staff

The annual Requiem Mass for the Repose of the Soul of Isabella Stewart Gardner, held in the chapel of the Fenway's Gardner Museum, is about as close as organized religion comes to replicating heaven on earth. Yesterday, with pure April sunshine streaming through the vaulted skylights, and a superb choir belting out a Gregorian Missa pro defunctis, it was quite easy to believe that somewhere out there, a soul was at peace.

Sublimely, the sacred fused with the profane. Rev. Andrew Mead leavened his prayers for "thine handmaid Isabella" with a more practical supplication: He petitioned for the return of the Gardner Museum's stolen art treasures. Quite properly. The FBI has had five years to crack the case. It's time to appeal to a higher authority.

And, rising like the incense now prohibited because it was damaging the Gardner's priceless canvases, there was a whiff of bemusement in the air. Here's a hint: The programs for the requiem are emblazoned with Mrs. Gardner's personal motto: "C'est mon plaisir" ("It is my pleasure"). Put another way, Mrs. G., a woman renowned for her beauty, her extravagant tastes and her munificence, was no saint.

If ever there was a life celebrated along the delicate fault line separating pleasure and perdition, it was hers. The all-time grandee of Boston's grandes dames, "Mrs. Jack," as she was known to her contemporaries, reveled in scandal, both real and imagined. She smoked Turkish cigarettes and japed on a first-name basis with boxer John L. Sullivan. The newspapers trilled when she attended a Boston Symphony concert wearing a headband emblazoned "Oh, you Red Sox," and spared readers no details of her public infatuations with the sensitive, young male artists of her day.

Perforce, Isabella Gardner was very devout. She was both a communicant and a generous supporter of Boston's two major "Anglo-Catholic" institutions: Beacon Hill's Church of the Advent and the Cowley Fathers' riverside monastery, now scrunched behind the opulent Charles Hotel. Gardner performed a yearly act of penitence - scrubbing the Advent altar steps in a form-fitting blue gown - to offset, it is said, the transgressions of a life too fully lived.

Mrs. Gardner once celebrated Mass with the pope in his private Vatican chapel and even assembled stained-glass windows and altarpieces for her own chapel, where she invited friends to celebrate Christmas Mass. In her will, she asked the Cowley Fathers to hold a memorial service on or around her birthday, April 14. She died in 1924, at age 84.

Frankly, when it comes to celebrating Isabella Gardner's life and works, the church has been found wanting. The Cowley Fathers performed the Mass up until 1985, when they forgot to show up. A Freudian lapse? "The rector felt it was inappropriate to be doing this service for a woman of scandalous reputation," explains a friend of the museum. "It was as if they had lost track of the history."

Translation: It was as if they had forgotten the terms of the deal. Mrs. Gardner took care of you on earth, and you guys stand by her on the other side. But it was not to be. There is a letter in the Gardner Museum archives, signed by former Cowley superior Thomas Shaw (now the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts), suggesting that the Gardner requiem be performed by his colleagues at the Church of the Advent. The letter ends: "Thank you very much for relieving us of this responsibility."

Thankfully, the Advent came to her rescue. Because Mrs. Jack left no endowment for the memorial service, it has become something of a no-frills requiem at the cash-strapped museum. The choir is much smaller than in previous years, and a Good Samaritan now foots the bill. The traditional post-service breakfast is no more. After the service, the communicants smile nervously at one another and file slowly out of the museum under the eyes of newly vigilant security guards.

But even in its scaled-back version, the service - which is open to the public - is definitely the best apres-Easter show in town. When Mead dismissed us with the words "May she rest in peace," there seemed to be every possibility she was doing precisely that.
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