The Peace Abbey, a multifaith retreat center in Sherborn known for its unusual statuary and occasional celebrity visitors, has been sold following years of financial struggle.
Robert Murchison, the owner of a private investment management firm who lives in the town, bought the abbey’s three buildings and 2.5 acres for $1 million on Dec. 21, according to town records.
The deal will allow the Peace Abbey to pay off the organization’s heavy debt and preserve its memorials for public use, its founder, Lewis M. Randa, posted on the abbey’s website.
The memorials include a large sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi; a monument dedicated to Emily, a cow that escaped slaughter in 1995 and took refuge at the abbey; and Conscientious Objectors Hill, a slope behind the bronze bovine that contains the remains of more than a dozen pacifists.
The abbey donated many of its artifacts and papers to UMass Boston’s Healey Library last summer. The contribution laid the foundation of the university’s new Center for Peace, Social Action, Public Policy, and the Arts, UMass announced in July.
“When people ask whatever happened to the Peace Abbey, I enjoy telling them that she went off to college and became something greater than what she was before she left home,” Randa wrote in the message he posted on the abbey’s website.
Joanne Riley, UMass Boston’s university archivist, said Wednesday that the Peace Abbey’s posters, artwork, furnishings, and other materials have transformed the new Peace Room on the library’s fifth floor into “an interesting and comfortable place to be.” The room, which is open to the public daily, will offer exhibits related to social action and conflict resolution, she said.
Randa did not respond to e-mail or voicemail messages requesting comment Wednesday, but on the abbey’s website, he said the sale would allow him to pay off the abbey’s debts in full.
It is not clear how much the abbey owes its creditors. The Globe reported in March that the abbey owed its bank $340,000 and its shareholders $170,000. On Wednesday, the Metrowest Daily News, which first reported the sale, said its total outstanding debt was $337,000.
Randa founded the Peace Abbey in 1988 after Mother Teresa visited a school he founded in Millis for people with developmental disabilities, the Life Experience School. Visitors over the years have included the poet Maya Angelou, boxer Muhammad Ali, and Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh .
Over the years, the abbey offered workshops, events, weekly meditation sessions, and spiritual retreats. Devoted to interfaith concern for peace, it housed symbols and texts of 12 major religions, and five times a day, it broadcast the Muslim call to prayer over speakers.
But the abbey incurred heavy debt over the years — the bronze cow statue cost $160,000. Several times donors came to the rescue; Yoko Ono once gave the abbey $40,000, and in 2007, it launched a shareholders program that raised interest-free short-term loans in increments of $1,000 from individuals.
Ultimately, however, the debt burden became too much.
“My biggest fear, and I can envision it, is that the memorials will be bulldozed, and it would become a parking lot for whatever offices would go in that front building,” Randa told the Globe in 2007.
The sale agreement reached with Murchison, a former Fidelity executive with experience in real estate development, guarantees that will not happen, according to Randa.
Murchison has been in talks with town officials about the possibility of creating senior housing, and perhaps a town senior center, on the site. The planning board is in the process of drafting warrant articles for the spring Town Meeting that would open the way for such a plan.
“We have a growing senior population who would like to downsize from their family home,” said Selectman Paul DeRensis, who has discussed the idea with Murchison.
But Murchison said in a telephone interview Wednesday that those proposals are preliminary. He added that he has a deep appreciation for the history of the property and the architecture of the early 20th-century buildings, one of which was the former town library and lies in town’s historic district.
“This is not big bad developer showing up with his ideas,” Murchison said. “It’s, ‘Let’s have a conversation and see what makes sense.’ ”