The National Catholic Review

When I first saw the gothic chapel at Princeton University many years ago, I was quite taken aback. It was large, beautiful inside and out with a spectacular stained glass window over the altar, and seemed surprisingly Catholic for a university that I had always taken to be professionally secular, neutral and mainly disinterested in religious matters. Margaret Grubiak’s book offers a great deal of enlightenment on the unusual circumstances and controversies over chapel construction and gives intriguing thoughts on the reasons for their decline. When finished with the book, I actually wished for an extension of it into current times to see what has since been the fate of the “white elephants.” But presumably that will have to wait.

Grubiak restricts herself in two ways to make the material manageable. The first restriction is that of the time period of great chapel building, or non-building in the case of Johns Hopkins, to 1920-1960; the second is her limitation to several chapels of the great private universities. The book covers principally the chapels at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with an epilogue about the controversy concerning the cross in the Wren chapel at William & Mary. There is no discussion of the situation of chapels at Catholic or other presently confessional universities, though the Catholic reader will recognize some of the arguments and will find some of the controversies surprisingly familiar.

Grubiak maintains that the construction of the large university chapels, in many cases more than 200 years after their founding, came as a response to feeling a real and present threat to the identity of the university as an American Protestant establishment. This threat she traces to three intermingled developments: the acceptance of the German research model of a university; the increasing numbers of the student body with non-Protestant or non-Christian religious beliefs; and the ascendancy of science and secularism. In the face of all these developments, exacerbated by the applications of non-Yankee sons of immigrants, something had to be done to reaffirm the Protestant, Christian identity of the university. Architecture, at the center of the campus if possible, was one way.

In the antebellum college of the 19th century, religion had been “the central, authoritative, and cohesive force.” In other words, it had given each college a distinctive identity. The colleges had been founded and supported by Protestant denominations mainly to provide the churches with educated clergy: Columbia, Anglican; Harvard, Massachusetts Puritan; Yale, Congregationalist; Princeton in alignment with the Presbyterian church. By the late 19th century, however, the German model of the university had become an ideal. This meant that research and search for the truth was the priority, rather than the more traditional American liberal-Protestant view that the purpose of education was moral citizenship, with the humanities and religion making the main contribution to the education of the “whole man.” Even with more science and research, the colleges still wanted to maintain a generalized Christian orientation for its now quite religiously mixed students, though without any professed sectarian leaning. Due to the extreme difficulty of holding nondenominational chapel services of any real interest to those present, obligatory chapel was discontinued at Harvard in 1886. Yale followed suit in 1926, and Chicago dropped the requirement “just eighteen months before the completion of its immense, 2,500-seat chapel in 1929.” With the dropping of the requirement of chapel attendance, the white elephant chapel was on its way.

Princeton. The argument at Princeton was over the style of the chapel. Clearly medieval and neo-Catholic style, it had its adherents and opponents. One adherent was Woodrow Wilson, who thought the chapel “added a thousand years to the history of Princeton.” The defense was based on the academic principle that older is better, on universities’ not well concealed appreciation of age and precedence in academia. The counterargument was that the chapel was not clearly Presbyterian, the chapel appealed to the emotions and had a non-Protestant sense of religious mystery. And what was the preacher to make of an altar? The riposte: the chapel was quite similar to King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, (and anything relating to Oxford or Cambridge can’t be bad).

Harvard. In the Yard, Widener Library rises up on one side with its high staircase and impressively wide facade of 12 Greek columns, containing within all the secular treasure of knowledge. The architect wanted to balance that horizontal challenge with an equally impressive appeal to the vertical and transcendent and thus erected a neocolonial church with an enormously tall spire. The architectural dialogue between the two is impressive. But there were problems. Many wanted to see that Harvard had freed itself from the shackles of religion, even from its admittedly ecumenical Puritan ones. The problem was handled by making the church the campus memorial to the dead of World War I. The Yard thus has two monuments defining it, Widener Library and Memorial Chapel. Widener is used constantly. The author implies that the Chapel, despite President Lowell’s grand concept of Harvard’s values, may even in the 1930s no longer have reflected those of the students and alumni. A white elephant?

Yale. At Yale there is no chapel at all to balance the library. Students had been obliged to attend chapel until the fatal year 1926, and it was at that point that an immense chapel with a capacity of 5,000 seats had been proposed. President Angell was deeply afraid that the absence of compulsory chapel would mean the secularization of Yale, and so favored a beautiful edifice to attract students. The donors were not interested. Instead the Stirling Library was constructed, for all the world a neo-gothic church, except not a church, a library. Grubiak gives a wonderful tour of the church-library ending with the lending desk as the “altar” and the enthroned icon of alma mater above it as a medieval icon of the Virgin in the “apse.”

The University of Pittsburgh carries the idea of the library as church still further, with students sitting at desks under gothic arches and vaulting in the Cathedral of Learning. Here however Grubiak has omitted the Heinz Memorial Chapel, which, it could be argued, though small, is at least a chapel—quite a beautiful one.

It will not be necessary to mention Hopkins here, since the grand plans for a central chapel, though well illustrated in the book, were never funded.

M.I.T. Grubiak finishes with a look at Eero Saarinen’s chapel at M.I.T.. In a section entitled “Educating the Moral Scientist,” she cites the need after Hiroshima and Nagasaki for sciences and technology to realize the power and moral responsibility they possess for what they introduce into the world. A new chapel was necessary, according to M.I.T.’s President Killian, to “give attention to man’s spiritual life,” and he wanted a chapel that would be appealing to Catholic, Protestant and Jew. World War II was having its effect on chapel building. Saarinen’s chapel, also well illustrated in the book, is a simple drum-shaped edifice, with rhythmically curved walls admitting light reflected off water in the moat.

There is something elemental and almost “scientific” about it that is reflected admirably in its interior, with a central skylight admitting a dazzling shower of light particles down onto a block-like central altar. It seems fine for M.I.T. But then the author reminds us, the capacity of the chapel is small, only 115 to 150 people. This 1951 chapel has defended itself from being called a white elephant by its deliberately limited size and elemental beauty. Grubiak, though admiring its beauty, still calls it a white elephant, though I think she is being influenced by her previous arguments referring more to the prewar chapels that were aimed at maintaining the faith of the several Protestant ascendency. This chapel is indeed small, but a gem for the three faiths for which it respectfully elicits reverence. Not a white elephant; maybe a silver fox!

The book ends with an epilogue on the foolish-seeming debate over the cross on the altar in the Wren chapel of William & Mary. The cross ended up in a plastic display case on the side of the church. At least for historical reasons, why is a cross inappropriate in the chapel at the school? In any case, with that inappropriate plastic box, Margaret Grubiak’s intriguing book brings us full circle. I recommend it to any religious educator.

G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., is professor of German at Georgetown University.