The Old Stone Church sits on the edge of the Wachusett Reservoir in Boylston, Massachusetts. There is no shortage of these types of funky, haunted relics in New England, a region we like to believe was settled at the time of the Druids and therefore historically superior to the rest of the country. Looking at you, baby faced Arizona, showing up to the party in 1848. Please. By the 1600s we were hip deep in a kicky pastime called “falsely accusing people of witchcraft,” and we preserved the town squares and ye olde meeting houses where it all went down. New England is a patchwork quilt of states that fit together to make one, giant time machine much like a Transformer with lots of toll booths and no helmet laws.
Images of the Old Stone Church showing up in my Instagram feed were giving me the knee-pit sweats. There were staggering captures of this medieval stone building tucked against the backdrop of a tree-lined hillside lit with fall foliage in shades of copper, scarlet, and mustard. In other photos, blush and gold colored sunrise skies sweep violently around the building, dwarfing it with their kinetic energy. An enormous American flag often hangs from the backside of the church, adding its own impressive eye candy to the scene, the flag’s colors singing against the grey stone. When the reservoir is still, transformed into a glossy plain, the church and all the elements of its surroundings—the trees turned Technicolor in fall or whipped white in winter, the fog draped over the grounds on a spring morning, the full moon pressed into the palm of the night sky—are reflected in the water to produce a scene that looks like it should have been squeezed from a paint tube, and not simply “just happening.”
I wanted one of these prizes for myself. I took advantage of a recent relatively mild Saturday that offered a break between snow “events” (code for not-at-all-bitter-about-shoveling-snow-in-March) and set out.
The church that presently exists was built in 1891 on an area that was once sprawling field and farmland. It was erected to replace a Baptist Church that had burned down. A dedication for this new church was slated for March, 1892, but ended up getting bumped to May due to another fire that severely damaged its interior. This is what’s known in historical terms as “being extremely cursed.” The creation of the reservoir took place from about 1896 to 1905, completely changing the landscape while also destroying mills and farms in its path all across West Boylston. Not today, bastards! said the church like some kind of action hero left to defend herself against a ninja army using her pen knife and a pair of jumper cables as the waters encroached. The church became the lone architectural survivor of the flood, which is very equal parts Biblical and zombie apocalypse stories. Baptist services were held there for a few years into the early 1900s before the church was eventually emptied and abandoned entirely. In the 1970s, the church was added to National Registry of Historical (and likely cursed) Places where it maintains its post as one of those novel, off-the-beaten path places to check out.
When I arrived the grounds were deserted. A sizable snowfall from a few days prior left the reservoir in an unbroken sheet of white. The sun reflecting off the snow flattened everything out. I walked the short circumference of the church. The flag had been taken down likely due to weather. The church’s interior resembled what I imagined the inside of Noah’s Ark to look like: damp with exposed wooden posts and beams, dotted with pigeon droppings. I picked my way down the snow covered stone steps and walked a short distance away from the church and turned to face it. I felt awkward, the way you do when you run into an ex on the street—the trickle of small talk, the struggle to gracefully part. I was disappointed; this was a let down. And then I winced internally, suddenly feeling guilty. The church had shown itself in all those other photos in various ways, in different moods and attitudes. It was still showing itself to me that afternoon if I was willing to let it.
Photography is as much about conveying an emotional truth that sparks a connection between the viewer and the subject matter as it is about creating something aesthetic. How we tap into this essence, I have no idea, only that you know it when you see it and can feel it when it’s happening, even if it’s just a Spidey-sense kind of thing, hanging around the margins as you point your lens or adjust your angle. I know you can’t search for it casually or lazily. It’s like trying to get a butterfly to land on the palm of your hand: get still, be patient, have faith, be ready to receive.
I stopped looking and simply saw. I raised my camera and made my adjustments to get her in the shot as she revealed herself to me: stoic, imposing, proud, and lonely. She is an outlier, a hold out, a widow who has been left behind, and, I decided, brave that day in allowing someone a glimpse of her naked truth. We should all be blessed with that kind of courage in any season, in any surrounding, in every kind of light and shade.