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Icons Among Us: Marsh Chapel

The history of the building at the University’s heart

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In the slide show above are more views of Marsh Chapel.

Not long after the foundation of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel was laid, President Daniel Marsh (STH’08, Hon.’53), president from 1926 to 1951, asked the builders how long the edifice would stand.

Indefinitely, the architects and engineers replied. Barring earthquakes or bombs, the structure would survive for 1,000 years or more.

Marsh was pleased. A Methodist minister from rural Pennsylvania, he envisioned a place where BU students could worship for centuries to come. In his book, The Charm of the Chapel (published in 1950), he wrote, “We always regarded a chapel not as a luxury, but as a necessity.”

“We hope that the procession of immortal youth passing through the halls of Boston University for the next thousand years will be vouchsafed a vision of greatness, and that that vision of greatness will become habitual, and result in moral progress,” read the dedication of the Daniel L. Marsh Chapel, named by the University trustees in Marsh’s honor.

More than half a century later, Marsh’s vision stands. Gothic in style, Marsh Chapel soars above Comm Ave, towers and spires reaching for the heavens. Each week, hundreds of students pass through its gilded wooden doors to pray, meditate, even steal a few winks between classes.

“It is a place of many purposes,” says the Rev. Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel. “The chapel is not only the center of religious life at BU, it is the heart of BU itself.”

Prior to the mid-20th century, Boston University’s buildings were dispersed around the city. Seeking to unify the school, Lemuel Murlin, president from 1911 to 1924, purchased 15 acres along the Charles River during the 1920s. The campus grew slowly over the next two decades, with Marsh overseeing construction. And Marsh Chapel became its center.

With flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, an enormous chancel, and ornate stained glass windows, the chapel evokes the architectural wonders of Europe’s medieval cathedrals. Its walls are built from Indiana limestone, its tile floors carved from Italian, Belgium, Spanish, Tennessee, and Vermont marble. “It is meant to inspire wonder and awe, forgiveness and faith,” Hill says.

While the chapel is not as massive as cathedrals from the Middle Ages, “it is a graduation of beauty from the ground up to the tiniest fret,” wrote Marsh. “It is art at its highest — expressed in architecture, painting, stained glass, line and form, curve and color.”

Like BU, Marsh Chapel is deeply rooted in Methodism. But from the beginning, Marsh intended the chapel to be a place of worship for people of all religious convictions. This idea is reflected in the four stained glass windows on the east side of the chapel, representing Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Methodism. “Here in God’s house there shall be no prejudice, nor bigotry, nor narrow sectarianism,” he wrote.

Before sealing the chapel’s cornerstone, Marsh placed Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish books of devotion inside. “They are meant to symbolize that this chapel, in its very fundamental conception, is intended to be a house of prayer for all people,” he wrote.

Although the figures of Jesus Christ and the four Evangelists are carved on a wooden screen behind the pulpit, no cross appears in the chancel. “The absence of this symbol is very deliberate,” according to Hill.

Marsh believed that religion should never restrict academic freedom, he says. As a result, representations of faith and learning converge throughout the chapel. Visitors find images of Saints John the Baptist, John, Paul, and Peter alongside Horace Mann, Booker T. Washington, Alexander Graham Bell, and Abraham Lincoln. And it’s no coincidence that the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Theology flank the chapel. “This is our way of saying architecturally that religion is most effective when it permeates education, and education is most safe when it is infused with the spirit of true religion,” Marsh wrote.

As decades passed and the University became more diverse, Marsh’s vision of an ecumenical community began to take shape. Today, Hill oversees 30 religious life groups and seven University chaplains. “The word ‘university’ means unity in diversity,” says Brother Lawrence Whitney (STH’08,’11), chaplain for community life. “At Marsh, we take our role in community formation to be central to the ethos of BU.”

Each Sunday at 11 a.m., Hill leads an interdenominational Protestant worship service that draws about 200 congregants and is broadcast on WBUR, BU’s National Public Radio station, and its Web site, to approximately 30,000 listeners worldwide. The liturgies are ecumenical and nonfundamentalist. “We preach a gospel of grace and freedom, a responsible Christian liberalism,” Hill says.

Music is an enormous part of worship at BU, he says, and the chapel has two choirs: the Marsh Chapel Choir, which sings every Sunday, and the student-run Inner Strength Gospel Choir, which performs three times a year.

Both choirs are accompanied by the music of an enormous organ imported from Canada in 1950, an essential part of the chapel’s interior design. Its elaborate wooden screens include carvings of Saints Gregory and Cecilia, bells, clef scrolls, and music staffs. Carvings depicting Georg Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach grace the newel posts on the choir stalls.

Several months ago, Hill noticed an unfamiliar face among the Sunday crowd. When he asked the visitor, a woman from South Boston, what had brought her to Marsh Chapel, she replied, “I thought it was time I went to a real church.”

Her response made Hill’s heart soar. “What Marsh hoped for the chapel has come to fruition,” he says. “It’s a spiritual center, a reminder of the values on which BU was founded.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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4 Comments

4 Comments on Icons Among Us: Marsh Chapel

  • Anonymous on 11.16.2009 at 8:29 am

    Marsh Chapel History

    This article misses a great opportunity to give some “alternative” history of Marsh Chapel, namely, the Marsh Chapel Experiment and the 1968 student occupation of the chapel:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxDZW6n69-0

  • Anonymous on 11.16.2009 at 10:35 am

    I would go to 10 p.m. Sunday Mass. It was candlelit, with usually just a solo flute or cello playing. There was a nun who celebrated a lot of the Masses, and she was wonderful. It was a great way to end a weekend and prepare for the new week.

  • Anonymous on 11.16.2009 at 8:49 pm

    Nice article; however, I wish you had included the perspectives of some of the students who frequent Marsh Chapel.

  • Anonymous on 11.17.2009 at 2:44 pm

    Marsh on Bigotry

    I was struck by the quote:
    “Here in God’s house there shall be no prejudice, nor bigotry, nor narrow sectarianism,” he wrote.
    - – - Given the persistent history of both Catholic and Protestant churches as the community centers of prejudice and bigotry, did President Daniel Marsh leave any writings on how he harmonized this ideal with the ideals of the Judaic, Catholic and Protestant religions?

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