By Ellen Ishkanian
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2012
The Peace Abbey in the center of Sherborn is for sale, and the owners are ready to accept an offer from anyone willing to pay the asking price of $999,900 to get out from under the debt that’s plagued the institution for years.
Over the past five years the property has been put on the market periodically, as financial woes burdened the institution owned by the Life Experience School in Millis; it was founded in 1988 to promote pacifism and social justice and is internationally known for honoring peace activists with their Courage of Conscience Award.
But unlike in the past, when the price tag topped $5 million and its owners were looking for a group or individual to buy the property and allow the abbey’s work to continue unhindered, financial reality and the threat of foreclosure means the property will be sold in total or in pieces, with no conditions attached.
Lewis Randa, founder and director of the Peace Abbey, said last week he expects to move many of the program’s artifacts, such as the peacemakers table, out of Sherborn by the end of the month. He also said he is hoping to relocate the abbey’s programs to a local college campus, although the details still need to be worked out.
Daniel Ortiz, university librarian at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said his facility will provide space for abbey artifacts, Randa’s personal papers, conscientious objector files, books, and other items, which will be archived with a collection from social justice movements.
The peacemakers table will be kept on the UMass library’s fifth floor, where students studying peace movements can sit in the same seats that significant historical figures such as Mother Teresa once sat.
“Hopefully, it will help spark a discussion about global issues, social justice, and the peace movement,’’ Ortiz said.
“We are helping preserve the work of the Peace Abbey and move it into the future,’’ he said.
The abbey will remain open for weddings, retreats, peaceful meditation, and other activities until the property is sold, Randa said. He wants some remnants of the abbey to remain on a small piece of land set apart from the rest of the complex.
Randa said he wants the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, a bronze statue of Emily the cow, and the Conscientious Objectors Hill of Remembrance to stay in perpetuity.
The three memorials are on a strip of land to the right of the abbey’s driveway, between the property and the town’s war memorial and cemetery next door.
The Gandhi statue and surrounding bricks pay tribute to the work of great peacemakers, and the bronze cow is a memorial to vegetarianism, humanity, and nonviolence, representing the life of a cow who escaped slaughter in 1995, according to the abbey’s website.
Emily had been given refuge at the abbey, where she remained until her death eight years later; she was buried beneath where her statue now stands.
The Conscientious Objectors Hill is an incline behind the statue, and is the final resting place of the cremated remains of 13 pacifists. A granite memorial with their names marks the site.
Randa said the Gandhi statue and Emily the cow gravesite and CO Hill are permanent memorials.
“They are built to remain in place in Sherborn,” he said, ” and serve as a gift to the world well into the future. They serve as a touchstone for those who believe in the beauty and power of peace and nonviolence.’’
The potential sale of the property comes as the institution faces a hefty mortgage.
“If someone wanted to buy it as an investment, that would be the best thing. But the price is lowered, and we’re going to sell it no matter,’’ said Dot Walsh, program coordinator and chaplain at the abbey.
Walsh said the abbey has been able to stay open, and continues to reserve rooms in its guest house and book functions, but it has fallen behind on its $3,000 monthly payments on its mortgage, which is held by the Middlesex Savings Bank.
“They have been wonderful to us,’’ she said, “they extended the deadlines, but we’re just not able to make the payments every month.’’
Randa says the group owes approximately $340,000 to the bank, and $170,000 to shareholders. He said any extra money made from the sale would go into the Life Experience School’s endowment.
There are three buildings on the site, which has a residential zoning, according to Prue Hay, a realtor with Rutledge Properties in Wellesley who is the listing broker for the property.
There is a residence, built around 1914, that is now used as the guest house; a front building, which was constructed in 1917 and once was the town library, and has meeting rooms and an interfaith chapel; and a small barn, she said.
The town assessor’s office says the guest house sits on 1.06 acres and is assessed at $568,100, the library building sits on 0.37 acres and is assessed at $564,700, and the barn is on 0.91 acres and is assessed at $317,000.
Hay said the bank “doesn’t want to foreclose on the property,’’ and that it is cooperating with the abbey to find a way out of the debt.
She said the house on the property can be purchased separately, and was listed for $799,900. The owners are willing to divide the property to permit such a sale, she said.
“This is a place that I’ve really come to believe in, and I’m working to do the best for everyone,’’ Hay said.
Betsy Johnson, the town historian and curator of the Sherborn Historical Society, said the former library is in the town’s historic district; as a result, permission from the Historic District Commission would be required to demolish, remove, or relocate the structure.
Any change in zoning to allow commercial or other uses would need a two-thirds majority vote of Town Meeting, something difficult to achieve, according to Jeanne Guthrie, administrative assistant in the selectmen’s office.
“If you’re thinking it could be a shopping mall or a Trader Joe’s, no,’’ she said.
Walsh said while they are still hoping that a foundation or individual interested in maintaining their programs will buy the property, she and Randa are looking for an alternative location where they could continue their work.
“We’re still aggressively working on finding a home in Boston,’’ Walsh said. “We’re kind of in a waiting game, but we have to be ready in case it sells and we have to move quickly.’’
Walsh said they are particularly interesting in finding a home at a college or university where they could continue to give seminars, run classes and hold retreats teaching techniques that encourage nonviolence, peacemaking and cruelty-free living.
The abbey’s website says they are considering a move to UMASS Boston this summer.