The Chapel program is among the very oldest traditions at St. Mark's. While it has evolved in nature and substance over the past century-and-a-half, it continues to play an important role in bringing together a modern and increasingly diverse school community.
Twice each week, the St. Mark's community gathers in Belmont Chapel for a service. A hymn or song is followed by readings, a talk or presentation , and prayers, before students and faculty are dismissed for another busy school day. Once a month, a longer evening service is held, featuring a full choir, acolytes, and a more traditional structure and content (see left).
This is, upon initial examination, a far cry from the program of worship originally established for the School in 1865-66. There was no Belmont Chapel in those days, but the first Schoolroom (see photo at right) had stained glass windows behind the master's desk, and a formal service was held there every day, Monday through Saturday. On Sunday morning, the entire school would cross Marlborough Road and walk up the gentle sloping hill to St. Mark's Episcopal Church for a full service. The organist and choirmaster was often a member of the St. Mark's faculty, St. Mark's students made up a good portion of the choir, and for a dozen years beginning in 1883, the Rector at St. Mark's Church was the Rev. Waldo Burnett, SM Class of 1871 and a son of the School's founder.
With the advent of the now familiar Main Building in 1890, Belmont Chapel became the center of St. Mark's worship (see photo at left for original Belmont Chapel). For many years, there were still seven mandatory services each week, all very traditional. Services were run by an ordained Episcopal chaplain (or sometimes by the Headmaster—from 1894-1930 an ordained clergyman as well).
Belmont Chapel was renovated and expanded after the First World War (see photo at right) to commemorate all the St. Markers who served, and with more space for an expanding enrollment, the tradition continued. In those days, the vast majority of both students and faculty were Episcopalian, and all homilies/sermons were delivered by a chaplain, headmaster, or outside guest. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the first St. Mark's student—a Head Monitor— gave a chapel talk, and the first women to speak in Belmont Chapel weren't given that opportunity until the early 1970s.
By the 1960s, there were just five services each week, by the early 1970s only five, and by the late 1970s just four. Even as the number of services was decreasing, enrollment—spurred by the advent of coeducation—was again on the rise, and with the dawn of the 21st century, the Chapel underwent yet another renovation to accommodate a larger school population.
An expanded student body also meant a much more diverse school community. Today, the St. Mark's Chapel program serves Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, many types of Christians (less than 20% of the School community is Episcopalian), and many students who have been raised with no faith at all. Its offerings are now diverse in expression while remaining rich in content. Students of all ages serve as wardens, acolytes and readers, and oversee the activity of the chapel through the work of the Interfaith Chapel Council.
For the past few years, the majority of speakers from the Belmont Chapel lectern have been students, as each year more than 40 Sixth Formers address the community gathered at morning services (see photo at right). The student speakers often reflect on their own lives and experiences, sharing insights into themselves and offering perspective to their peers. These Sixth Form chapel talks can be informative, personal, and even constructively critical, but they are always designed for the benefit of the whole community and are fundamentally community-building in nature. Chapel presentations can include music, drama, dance, and other forms of performance, often extremely creative. They offer a "time out" from a busy schedule: a chance to reflect, to learn something new about a person or a problem in the community, to enjoy someone else's talent or interest—in general, to live a fuller, more reflective and appreciative life of a school full of blessings.
Other adults—faculty, alumni, friends, and family—also deliver chapel talks, including the Chaplain and the Headmaster. Recently, alumna Elaine Harvey '06, co-chair of the School's Young Alumni Leadership Council, addressed the St. Mark's community at an evening service in Belmont Chapel (see photo at left). She spoke on "service leadership"—the concept of a leader who is servant first, citing ethical philosopher Robert Greenleaf: "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead."
Readings, performances, and prayers at St. Mark's Chapel services are drawn from many religious, spiritual and ethical traditions, and may include insightful poetry and prose selected by the students themselves. Students and faculty have given mini-concerts (see photo at right) and/or led group singing. Others have presented slide shows or dramatic performances. Most of the time spent in prayer is spent in silence—a practice the students seem to love—which allows each of them to connect with themselves and with the spirit in their own individual ways, through prayer, meditation, or reflection.
St.Mark's also offers voluntary services each week. The Holy Eucharist is celebrated on Wednesday afternoons, while the Crypt beneath Belmont Chapel is a space where community meditation sessions are offered on a regular basis. Opportunities are there for Shabbat services during the High Holy Days and for Muslim Friday prayers as dictated by student and faculty need and interest. "We value the life of the spirit highly at St. Mark's," says the Barbara Talcott, current head chaplain (see photo at left), "and we are eager to make it accessible to our students in whatever form is most meaningful to them." Rev. Talcott also offers Confirmation preparation beginning after exams in January and ending with a service of Confirmation and Baptism at Belmont Chapel in the spring.
"Central as our academic ambitions are to our mission, and as passionate as we teachers are about them," says Talcott, "we also understand the inherently partial nature of any ambition that is not also nurturing to the spirit. We acknowledge that our students have a spiritual dimension to their lives, and we encourage and support that in them, whatever individual form it may take."
For all its diversity, Talcott asserts that the Chapel program at St. Mark's "remains, nonetheless, a powerful, unifying, spiritual 'eye' at the heart of the hurricane that is everything else that we do. When we walk through those doors twice a week, all of us in this community are invited to set aside the competitive, achievement-oriented parts of our work and take the opportunity to just 'be.' We start the day as a gathered community having a shared experience. We share with each other our joys and sorrows, our humorous or helpful observations about life, our individual passions, and our heartfelt requests to the community for understanding or aid. In this space and during this time, the rest of our demanding, competitive school lives is respectfully invited to take a back seat. St. Mark's has always reserved a space and a time for this 'soul work' because as an Episcopal school, St. Mark's understands both self and school to be part of a larger web of meaning and purpose, one that will be there to catch us when our accomplishments along one of the usual school dimensions disappoint (as they inevitably do). St. Mark's is a school that understands—and seeks to help its students understand—that as exciting and as important as school is, there are things far more important than accomplishment, far more necessary to happiness than success." So, as part of the Health Committee, the head chaplain meets with other professionals and administrators to give heed to and advise on a range of issues affecting student life and wellbeing at the school. Assistant Chaplain Stephen Hebert (at right) is also part of the St. Mark's Chapel team, leading meditation sessions and working with students in a variety of areas central to the community's spiritual health.
Thus, in the 21st century, the St. Mark's Chapel program is responsible for and responsive to the spiritual life of those from diverse faith traditions. The program is designed to address and minister to the widely varying spiritual needs of students, faculty, staff, and their families through school-wide and voluntary religious services, outreach opportunities, and pastoral care. The Interfaith Chapel Council, composed of students and faculty from diverse religious backgrounds, advises the chaplaincy and organizes student participation in the spiritual life of the school.
The regular weekly Chapel services—on Tuesdays and Fridays—are integral to the philosophy espoused by current Head of School John C. Warren '74—that the intentionally small St. Mark's community should come together as a community at least once each school day throughout the week. So on Mondays and Thursdays there are formal seated meals, everyone gathered together in the adjacent dining rooms; on Wednesdays and Saturdays there are all-school meetings; and on Tuesdays and Fridays the entire community gathers in Belmont Chapel. And a formal seated meal follows the monthly evening service with full choir, again gathering the St. Mark's family together, in shared worship and a shared meal.
Of course, Chapel services are part of the regular routine at St. Mark's, and certainly may be viewed at times by St. Markers as merely another obligation. But, notes Barbara Talcott, "the experience that so many students complain bitterly about—having to go to chapel—turns out quite quickly—within a few short years of their departure—to be the experience that most strongly draws their hearts back to the place after they leave." Occasional adolesecent negativity about mandatory Chapel, she points out, "doesn't seem to stop alumni, every time they return to campus, from going straight to the Chapel, first thing, to spend time there themselves or to show it to their spouses, children and friends; to get that feeling of 'special space' and 'special time' when they step over the threshold. The Chapel draws them like a magnet, because it gave them something in their youth that fed them in ways of which they were then unaware, that kept them balanced in ways that they could not appreciate until they tried to survive another school or a demanding professional or parenting career without its steadying influence." An alumnus who feels some of that pull when you walk into Belmont Chapel after a long absence, feel "what it means to be a graduate of an Episcopal school, a school that takes seriously the life of the spirit.
"If living alumni, of all ages, find themselves drawn to this place," declared Talcott in a Reunion address she delivered in Belmont Chapel, "then I have to believe that the spirits of classmates who have died are also drawn here quite strongly when they come back to St. Mark's. When we are made aware of the struggle or the death of any St. Mark's graduate, the on-campus community prays by name for that graduate in this space. So if our dead are anywhere on campus, I suspect they're here--at least in part. This is a memorial chapel, funded and built and consecrated to the memory of St. Mark's alumni who died in service to their country, but we also consider it a memorial chapel to every St. Marker who spent time staring at these stained glass windows and standing up and sitting down in these pews, whether they did it with genuine appreciation or with genuine apathy or even with genuine antipathy!"
Beautiful and intimate, even with expansion, Belmont Chapel continues to provide a sacred space, set aside from the rest of the busy, achievement-oriented world outside its walls. Fulfilling its mission, it grounds and informs the heart, soul, and spirit of the St. Mark's community, providing a place where students of all faiths, uncertain faith, and no faith tradition at all, can actively engage their St. Mark's family, giving as much as they receive.
"I hope," Talcott says,"that as long as it stands this Chapel will continue to meet the needs of students and alumni. I pray that it will continue to offer St. Mark's students a very special place, while at the same time celebrating those St. Markers who have passed on and welcoming their spirits back here, where we can greet them with open and happy hearts."