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The Lasting Impact of our Chapel Program

The Lasting Impact of our Chapel Program
One of the places alumni report they are most eager to visit when they come back to campus is Belmont Chapel. I know I felt that way. Indeed, when I first brought my family to see St. Mark's back in the 1990s, one of the first places I wanted them to see was Belmont Chapel.
The Lasting Impact of our Chapel Program
Chapel Talk
John Warren
March 29, 2022
I believe that, at least to human perception, a place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it—have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation. – Wallace Stegner

Places live through the reverence with which we hold them.Thomas Bender

One of the places alumni report they are most eager to visit when they come back to campus is Belmont Chapel. I know I felt that way. Indeed, when I first brought my family to see St. Mark's back in the 1990s, one of the first places I wanted them to see was Belmont Chapel.
When I entered Belmont Chapel that day memories immediately came flooding back. I remembered sitting in a pew on cold winter nights, having raced from Elkins Field House, after a quick shower, with my wet hair having frozen. I remembered a Chapel Talk by Mr. Coleman, a French teacher, encouraging us to imagine how we would want to be remembered by speakers at our funeral. I remembered going to Belmont Chapel when, as a VI Former, we experienced the tragedy of a student death and finding many students and adults already there.

It is not only the personal memories of moments in Belmont Chapel that stay with me and my fellow graduates. It is also the prayers and hymns that are an integral part of our services that stay with us, and those prayers and hymns still move us deeply when we hear them. I have asked that two of those prayers be read later in this service, even though they are evening prayers.

Indeed, I have been to many funerals and memorial services of St. Markers where the deceased and deceased's family had asked that "Sun of My Soul" be one of the hymns. As one recent example, a few weeks ago Reverend Solter went to the memorial service in Washington, D.C., of an alum whose children had also gone to St. Mark's and saw and felt the emotions evoked by multiple generations of St. Markers as everyone sang "Sun of My Soul."
What is it about Belmont Chapel—and what takes place there—that makes it so special to me and to countless St. Mark's alums, and perhaps to you, if you are one of the students or adults who had the good fortune to attend Chapel in Belmont Chapel before COVID hit? The answer to that question will be as varied as each of the individuals in this room, because attachment to place is very personal. However, as those of you who have taken Advanced Studies in Global Citizenship have learned from Dr. Warren, a place is not a place until it is named, and has history, meaning, stories, traditions, and memories attached to it. A place is not a place until we find ways to pass the importance of that place on to succeeding generations. Places are made sacred by the ways in which the architecture and iconography reflect deeply held values and beliefs and by the use of rituals and ceremonies that are predictable and comforting.

Those in charge of St. Mark's, ever since our founding, have believed that regular time for religious or spiritual reflection is an important part of the School's program. When St. Mark's was located on the corner of Route 85 and Route 30, near the Groton Night bonfire spot, the head of the school transformed a study hall space, that held all of the students and faculty, into a makeshift chapel for a daily service. (1)
When St. Mark's moved to its present location in 1890, the Main Building included a smaller version of our current Chapel, with the altar at the end that is currently the Chapel's front door, and with all the seats facing that altar.
After World War One, donations to honor those who fought in the war funded the expansion and redesign of the Chapel. Amazingly, the part of the Chapel closest to Marlboro Road was sawn away from the building and then put on rails and moved towards Marlboro Road, a middle space was added, the altar was moved to the end closest to Marlboro Road, and the pews were arranged to face each other.
In 2009, in order to accommodate a larger school, we made some other alterations that allowed for 100 more seats, thus allowing all of our students and a portion of our faculty to be at all the services.
For much of our history, students attended Chapel once a day and twice on Sunday. During my student days, those services took place after sports and immediately before seated dinner on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and at midday on Sunday. Whether or not a graduate considers themselves religious, as Reverend Talcott reports, the recollection of these times draws us alums back, for some reasons I can put into words and for some reasons that I cannot because I am recollecting a feeling, something emotional.

Here is what I can put into words about what makes Belmont Chapel special to me: the design is first and foremost. The placement of the seats prompts us all to look at each other. Every time we sit in Belmont Chapel we see "us"...those of us present seeing—and experiencing—our community. The high ceiling draws my eyes, symbolically, to a larger reality beyond what is immediately here, and the stained-glass windows remind me of religious stories.
This totality of architecture and iconography, prompts a mindset in me—a mindset I have been told that others share—of contemplating a larger reality, whether a religious reality for someone like me, or a spiritual reality, or maybe just a reality that is removed from where you came from and where you will be going back to after the service.

What takes place in Belmont Chapel, the rituals and ceremonies, helps promote a special kind of thinking. The order of service, the hymns, the prayers, the Chapel Talks—taking place in that place, which is associated with the sacred, encourages religious or spiritual thinking with particular power for me, and I hope for some of you.
Something else about Belmont Chapel that prompts a religious or spiritual habit of mind for me are the many plaques containing the names of graduates, the generations of those who died in wars the United States has fought in since our School was founded in 1865. I recognize, when I see these names, that I am part of a community of St. Markers that goes back over 150 years, many of whom sat in the same pews our current St. Markers occupy. I realize that this association may not work for you since only in the last 60 years has the St. Mark's student population been diverse in sex, race and ethnicity. However, I do invite you to note that you are part of a large body of graduates with whom you do have this common Chapel experience.
I deeply regret that the lack of ventilation in Belmont Chapel has made being there for our Chapel services impossible since COVID hit. The good news is that the School is investing in a ventilation system which we hope will be finished this spring, allowing us to get back into the space for at least a while before the Class of 2022 graduates. That said, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Reverend Talcott, Reverend Solter, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Krasinski, and members of the IT team, for making Chapel go very well here in the Class of 1945 Hall this year and go very well when we have needed to hold our services remotely.

I know that our twice-weekly Chapel services are simply part of the weekly routine for us at St. Mark's and so we do not necessarily stop and contemplate its meaning for our School. I invite you to join me in engaging in that thought for a couple of minutes. I am convinced we are a better school because of the Chapel program, and even though we are not currently participating in the Chapel program in a sacred place, we are gaining many of the special benefits nonetheless.

Here is what I especially value about our Chapel program, regardless of where it happens:

First of all, Chapel provides an opportunity for reflection. During the three minutes of silent prayer, meditation, and reflection, we do have the opportunity to just "be." That is a different three minutes than many of us have otherwise during the day, allowing for an opportunity that would not otherwise exist. Indeed, that consistent three-minute quiet period supports a habit of mind that we are getting better and better at incorporating elsewhere at St. Mark's, perhaps with participating in mindfulness activities that Mr. Corazzini organizes, or beginning a class with a few minutes of journaling.

The creation of a Chapel Talk promotes reflection because the very act of creating a speech about something important helps the speaker sharpen up their own thinking, very valuable for that person's own personal growth. The opportunity for reflection also comes from listening to Chapel Talks. These talks offer an opportunity to consider messages that a fellow student or a faculty or staff member has carefully put together as an explicit offering—a gift. The messages are, on the one hand personal and individual, and on the other hand certain themes recur, and that reinforcement helps our own reflection about what is important, here at St. Mark's and in the way we think about our life.

So, thank you to those of you who have given Chapel Talks and who will give Chapel Talks, and thank you to Reverend Talcott and Reverend Solter for helping student speakers put together their Chapel Talks. These talks are incredibly important to our community, and I know to those of you who give them.

Secondly, Chapel provides a regular structured opportunity to think about large questions: who am I?...what do I care about most?...what do I want to do be here and elsewhere? there a God?...what do I believe in and why? The Chapel talks encourage thinking about these larger questions, and so do the opening sentences, the hymn, the prayers, the descriptions of alums and other members of the community who have died, and the beauty of the organ postlude.

When you come back as an alum, which I hope you will do frequently, I suspect you will want to see the place we are in now, the Class of '45 Hall, because it will contain memories for you, especially if you are a musician or a singer. Perhaps the memories of this year's Chapel services will linger too. What I hope most of all is that you will have spent enough time in Belmont Chapel and will have found time in that sacred place sufficiently meaningful, so that you will make—as I did—a visit to the Chapel a part of your time when you return to campus.

Prayers at the End:

Oh Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen. (2)

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; all for your love's sake. Amen. (3)
  1. I learned about this use of the original School Room from Nick Noble '76.
  2. From the Book of Common Prayer, p. 833
  3. From the Book of Common Prayer, p. 124
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