Chapel in Uncertain Times
By Jackie Waters
Photograph by Adam Richins
This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of St. Mark's Magazine.
Necessity is the mother of invention. This proverb rang true over the past couple of years at St. Mark's, as our community navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and reimagined many of the day-to-day workings of the School out of necessity for health and safety. Faculty, staff, and students pivoted and shifted gears—from in-person to remote and back again—and in doing so, became more resilient. In the midst of a global health crisis, as we socially distanced and grieved the absence and loss of loved ones, the necessity for community and connection as a School became even more critical. The chaos and uncertainty had many yearning for a calm space, a chance to contemplate and set aside fears (if only for a few minutes), and a place to find peace.
Continuity and Connection
At St. Mark's, Belmont Chapel has often provided that quiet space for reflection so needed by our community in times fraught with confusion and despair. Yet, for the past two years, our School has been unable to share that sacred space together due to the pandemic. Since St. Mark's first went remote in March of 2020, Head Chaplain Barbara Talcott and Associate Chaplain Katie Solter have, out of necessity, reinvented the Chapel program—not once but twice. First, for virtual Chapels over Zoom last year. Then again, for in-person Chapels in the Putnam Family Arts Center's Class of '45 Hall this year. It was no easy feat, but Barbara and Katie, along with Director of Music James Wallace, were committed to offering continuity and connection to the St. Mark's School community.
"We didn't come back from March break; the very first thing people came back to was Chapel," recalls Barbara. "It was the first thing in the new paradigm." Katie remembers that first online Zoom Chapel vividly, "We opened to Padma Mynampaty '22 singing and playing her guitar, we saw everybody's faces gathered for the first time; you could visibly see the essential joy, and you could see some people tearing up. It was like, we're together again; this is completely different, but at least we are together virtually." This shift to online Chapel, one that lasted all throughout the following 2020-2021 academic year, was not without challenges. "We made a ton of mistakes," admits Barbara, "but everybody was very forgiving." Both she and Katie acknowledge the difficult realities of a two-dimensional Zoom platform, noting that attendance at Chapel was not required, and as students became increasingly more exhausted, attendance dipped and dwindled. At the same time, there were pleasant discoveries and silver linings.
"There were people who deliberately showed up for every Chapel, coaches like Carl Corazzini, who said to the hockey team, 'You're showing up and you're turning on your screens,'" said Katie, appreciating that commitment to community. "And a number of faculty were on those [Zoom] tiles with their kids, and then there were plenty of students whose parents were sitting next to them," echoed Barbara. "All of these staff who couldn't usually attend Chapel, attended on Zoom."
Senior Associate Director of Donor Relations Megan Hyland, P'20, '22 shared, "As a fully remote employee last year, the familiar elements of the service were a source of connection and comfort, allowing me to cling to some sense of normal despite the virtual setting. To be able to see student and faculty faces, see the hymns and watch the choir videos, hear the stories of the Chapel speakers and even have the three minutes of silent prayer and meditation helped ground me back in the world of the campus from my home office space. I appreciate the creative way some students embraced the remote setting by making videos for their Chapel talks."
Even though this virtual experience lacked the shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face embrace of the intimate Belmont Chapel space, the student creativity was certainly one silver lining that came out of Zoom. "I also think the creativity of the kids to be able to come up with videos, that was a gift in itself," agrees Katie. "You got to see people's homes, you got to see them walking around in their backyards, and they could be creative in other ways that they couldn't otherwise. It was particularly meaningful for kids who were on the other side of the world to be able to really share their experiences. Some were really good at depicting the pain of what it meant to stay motivated, stay connected."
Despite the absence of the physical Chapel space, the continuation of the program online helped to hold a dispersed community together during an especially difficult time. And while Chapel is no longer virtual on Zoom, and the community is able to once again gather together in person this year, renovations to Belmont Chapel's air-filtration system have precluded the School from returning to that beloved space. Instead, Chapel is taking place in the Putnam Family Arts Center's (PFAC) Class of '45 Hall, an admittedly grand and less intimate venue with its own unique set of challenges.
Setting the Stage
"You've got to use some imagination," Barbara says with a laugh, when asked about the transition to this new, larger venue. Along with an image from the interior of Belmont Chapel, which Barbara used as her Zoom backdrop last year, the team brought in several physical pieces and set them up on the stage, including a rug, some chairs, and the whole Eagle lectern from the chapel. James even managed, through a herculean effort, to bring in an electronic organ.
Since the Class of '45 Hall is a shared space used for multiple events on campus, Chapel is definitely more of a production this year. The "set" needs to go up and then come down twice a week. In addition, the team has to reimagine services formerly held in Belmont Chapel, like Lessons and Carols, and figure out how best to alter these programs so that they work in this distinct space.
"The Chapel experience this year is not all that different from the teaching experience last year in that everything has to be thought through for a new paradigm," says Barbara. "But at least we're all together." Like the Zoom Chapels of last year, there have been some positive outcomes, and the ability to be together tops the list.
For Katie, the acoustics in PFAC have been an added benefit of this year's program. She notices more students singing in Chapel and thinks, "Maybe just the joy of being together brings more people to participate in the singing than ever before. And it sounds really, really good" in a space created as a concert hall. This year, Katie continually hears more feedback about the uplifting music and how beautiful the choir sounds.
She notices more members of the community taking time to pause and be still, as well. "I see a lot more people showing up early and just enjoying the space," she says. "They show up early just to sit in silence. I mean, how many times do you get a few moments of silence in a day?"
One of those people is Director of Counseling Services Jennifer Taylor, P'20, '23, who shared, "Chapel has always been a place where I can be in community with others but also a time when I can have quiet and calmness before I start my day. During the pandemic there were so many unknowns and a great sense of disconnection within the school community. However, throughout the entire year, Chapel was a constant. I am grateful that this part of School life was able to be maintained!"
"I think what we really just have tried to do, both in Zoom Chapel and in PFAC, is to keep the continuity because everything else went wacky," explains Barbara. "And somehow, even though we keep changing media, we are holding on to the liturgy, to the shape of the service."
Opportunities to Share
Both Barbara and Katie agree that the student involvement in Chapel has been crucial to keeping the program going, despite all of the adjustments that needed to be made these past two years. In addition to the Interfaith Chapel Council, which includes students from all of the religious affinity groups, the head reader, head acolyte, choir heads, and chapel wardens assisted in the Chapel services.
Newly needed this year in PFAC were students who could help with technology in the booth; they arrived early in the mornings to make sure the microphones were set up and the sound levels were adjusted. "It means a lot to us that they do that work and they know how vitally important they are," Barbara says with appreciation.
The St. Mark's VI Form students, in particular, carried the community through this challenging time with their thoughtful Chapel talks. "The Chapel talks have been fantastic," says Katie. "I think every talk has been really top notch."
Chapel talks at St. Mark's offer VI Form students a chance to tell their unique stories, and students often seize this opportunity to share significant personal revelations with the entire School community. In this safe space, students have come out as gay, talked about what it feels like to be a Palestinian American, reflected on the death of a parent, and described the challenges of leaving a village and family behind in Africa to attend boarding school in Southborough.
"It's a place where people sit down, all 400 of us, and listen to your truth. And that's a beautiful thing," notes Barbara. "If I could say one thing, I would say how much I thank the VI Formers for giving their talks. Because without them, what are we?" she asks rhetorically. "They came through for this community. They absolutely came through for me and for this School. And I don't even know if I can say loud enough how grateful I am to them."
The Big Context
After students graduate from St. Mark's, they often return to tell Barbara that Chapel is something they no longer have in college. "It's something special that we give them and that they really miss," she says. Since it is required at the School, Chapel is a place where we all come together as a whole community. "It's an opportunity for us to think about St. Mark's in a larger frame, the people who went before us and sat in these seats," Barbara continues. "I think you have to remember that life is short, and I love the way Chapel gives us that context twice a week, the big context."
Chapel also provides a focus on values that we trace directly to our identity as an Episcopal School, such as: time for spiritual reflection and for the intentional teaching of wisdom, compassion, and humility; human reason used critically in the pursuit of knowledge; and life in common, strengthened by honest and respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference. School worship that is inclusive and religious study that is meaningful are important, as is community service, social justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being. Our community-wide practices of Chapel twice a week, along with required academic study of religion, philosophy, and ethics, and all-school engagement in community and equity programming, relate to these values.
"Our job is spiritual, it's right here. Spiritual reflection," says Barbara, pointing to the values. "And to make sure that kids, that the spiritual life is available to them." Notes Katie, "I think the whole pandemic has helped kids really understand the why of the spiritual life. And I'm not defining spiritual life necessarily through religious identity, but that life can be hard and that the intentional practice of silent prayer, or music, or walks alone in the woods...they've learned what helps during difficult times."
"We're all in this together," she says. "We're one big community, we're sitting shoulder to shoulder, we're sitting face to face no matter what happens. All are welcome." For her, Chapel emphasizes "the infinite value of every human being" and "the importance of belonging."
In a time of uncertainty, when so much is changing all around us, the Chapel program provides community and offers a place to belong. "These kids, their lives are insane. And really what they want is peace and calm and some predictability," Babara believes. "They want a place that's reliable because the rest of this is nuts."
At St. Mark's, we are a family, and Chapel is "a family thing." As Barbara says, "I just love the way Chapel is an us thing here."