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Kennebunk surprise where frugality and artistry meet

The St. Anthony Monastery began as an industrialist’s mansion.

Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe

The St. Anthony Monastery began as an industrialist’s mansion.

KENNEBUNK — When we arrived at the breakfast buffet at the Franciscan Guest House the Lithuanian cook was beaming as she carried out a big tray of hot, round doughnuts. She set the tray on the table and dusted the doughnuts liberally with powdered sugar. It turns out that we had hit the breakfast jackpot. She doesn’t make doughnuts every day (although she does make great muffins and breads) and they are a favorite with both guests and staff, who debate the secret ingredient (almond extract, perhaps) that makes them so delicious. The hot little treats were just one of the simple pleasures and small surprises of our stay at this modest lodging.

Sometimes frugality really pays off. On the recommendation of a friend who visits regularly, we had booked a stay at the Guest House as an alternative to more expensive lodgings on this pricey stretch of the Maine coast. The Guest House sits literally across the street from the White Barn Inn and Spa, a Relais & Châteaux property known for luxurious pampering. With modest, clean rooms and cheerful, friendly staff, the Guest House enjoys the same great location near beaches, dining, and shopping. It also shares a beautiful 47-acre property on the western side of the Kennebunk River with the St. Anthony Monastery. The estate has a quirky back story.

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Buffalo industrialist William A. Rogers bought the land at the beginning of the 20th century and commissioned architects Green and Wicks, favorites of Buffalo society, to design a Tudor-style mansion and outbuildings for his seaside estate. The handsome buildings of half-timbered stucco were completed in 1908 and complemented with an English garden-style landscape designed by the Olmsted Brothers, successors to the practice started by their father, Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park and Emerald Necklace fame. The property changed hands in 1936 and was sold again in 1947 to a group of Lithuanian Franciscans who had fled the communist regime in their homeland. They converted the 6,300-square-foot mansion into a monastery.

The monastery and the Guest House are separate entities, but they share a sense of serenity — and connection to Lithuania. Many Guest House summer staff are students from Lithuania, and long-time guests of Lithuanian background enjoy speaking with them. The monastery has retained the mansion, while the 65 rooms of the Guest House are spread among other buildings on the property. The main building, with the front desk, breakfast room, and bulk of guest rooms, was originally used as a seminary and then as a secondary boarding school that closed in 1970. Other rooms occupy a horseshoe-shaped complex of stable buildings designed by Green and Wicks, and a few more are in the White House, a former school residence. Half the rooms in the main building have big windows and lovely views of the grounds, but some guests prefer the greater quiet and privacy of the other buildings.

Rooms at the Franciscan Guest House are furnished simply but with all the essentials.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Rooms at the Franciscan Guest House are furnished simply but with all the essentials.

Whichever building you choose, the decor doesn’t vary much. Rooms have wood-paneled walls, practical dark carpeting, worn but serviceable wooden desks and bureaus, a mini-refrigerator, small air conditioner, and a heater that runs on LP gas. Beds are covered with floral spreads, and the variety — one queen, two doubles, double with twin, two twins, bunk beds — works for most combinations of family and friends. While the Guest House is a retreat from the summer hubbub of the Kennebunks, it doesn’t have to be a retreat from the world. Every room has free Wi-Fi and cable television. “What number is the sports channel?” is the most commonly-asked question. A computer and printer are available for $1 for 30 minutes, payable on the honor system.

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In fact, many visitors do come here to seek peace and renewal and to appreciate the spirituality of the place. A modest crucifix hung in our room and fellow guests included a group of Catholic women. The Franciscans say Mass every morning, but we felt no pressure to attend. “Even if you’re not Catholic, be sure to check out the chapel,” Mary Puleio told us when we checked in. “The artwork is amazing.”

The chapel was constructed in 1965-66 and we made it the first stop on a walking tour of the grounds. As Puleio had promised, we were amazed to find stunning Expressionist stained-glass windows, metalwork, and bas reliefs by Lithuanian-born artist Vytautas Jonynas, who also decorated the Vatican pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The monumental piece made by Jonynas for the facade of the pavilion is one of several sculptures and shrines on the broad lawn.

A trail on the monastery grounds overlooks the tidal Kennebunk River Harbor.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

A trail on the monastery grounds overlooks the tidal Kennebunk River Harbor.

The Guest House thoughtfully leaves insect repellent on the front porch and it’s a good precaution before setting off on the walking path that leads through the woods, past marshlands, and along the banks of the Kennebunk. Properly protected, we could pause on the benches overlooking the river and watch the boats in the tidal estuary. A few religious statues and shrines are tucked into the woods, including charming niches donated by schoolchildren. Attached to trees, each wooden shelter holds a small image. Even those more attuned to nature than formal religion can’t help but find inspiration in their stories of faith, courage, and perseverance. We were most taken with Kateri Tekakwitha, whose statue nestled in a shady grove near the river. Born in 1656 in New York to an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father, “Lily of the Mohawks” was persecuted for her Christian faith. She often found strength and solace in nature and became the patroness of peace and ecology. The first Native American saint, she was canonized in 2012.

We were too early in the season to use the saltwater pool at the Guest House, but we really didn’t mind since the sandy stretch of Gooch’s, Middle, and Mother’s beaches was only a half-mile away. At late afternoon low tide, the beaches were full of walkers (with and without dogs) and a few boogie boarders skimming along the wave edge. In summer, beach parking is by permit only. The Guest House provides a pass for $5 for the entire length of stay to guests who prefer not to walk.

We were, however, disappointed that we were too early in the season for the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet. While some Guest House lodgers make dinner reservations in the fine-dining restaurant at the White Barn Inn, the Guest House itself has become known for its generous buffet dinners. They celebrate home cooking with main dishes like pot roast, baked chicken, or baked haddock and also feature such Lithuanian specialties as hot or cold beet soup, kugelis (potato pudding), beautiful breads, and decadent desserts.

Instead we walked the half mile into town to the Clam Shack, which sits by the bridge that connects Kennebunk to Kennebunkport. The humble seafood shack hasn’t let its status as 2010 winner of the best lobster roll in the Travel Channel’s Food Wars go to its head. Diners still place their orders at the window, wait for their numbers to be called, eat at wooden picnic tables by the river, and receive a coupon for two-for-one ice cream cones at nearby Aunt Marie’s Ice Cream. After our ice cream, we didn’t linger to check out the brew pub or do some window shopping. We wanted to get back to the Guest House to see the illumination on the shrines — and check the score of the Red Sox game.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at arris.lyon@verizon.net.
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