US Chapel Talk given by Headmaster Mason Lecky on May 10, 2021.
Scripture: Matthew 7:24-27
The opening line of the St. Christopher’s history book, The First Fifty Years
, published in 1961 to celebrate the half-century mark of St. Christopher’s (which was known as “The Chamberlayne School until 1920) and authored by alumnus and former faculty member De Witt Hankins, reads as follows, “From the beginning this was Dr. Chamberlayne’s School, and we cannot trace the years from 1911 to 1961 without first speaking of the Headmaster.”
Indeed, we cannot trace, or even begin to consider, the foundational elements of the school we know and love today without first understanding and paying homage to our founder, Churchill Gibson Chamberlayne. Further, our existence, traditions, and culture today, some 110 years removed from our founding, remain linked to the man who singularly shaped the trajectory of our institution.
Last month, I had the good fortune to spend time in worship and remembrance at the grave of Dr. Chamberlayne and his wife, along with seniors Nash, Knight, and Luke, as well as our chaplains, members of our faculty and administration, and students from the Lower and Middle Schools.
We were upholding a tradition, instituted some time ago, to visit the grave of Dr. Chamberlayne as part of our Founder’s Day celebration, on or around the anniversary of his death on April 3, 1939.
As we gathered around Dr. and Mrs. Chamberlayne’s graves, I could not help but consider our founding headmaster’s indelible mark on the St. Christopher’s of today. More pointedly, I wondered to myself, “What would the Doctor think of St. Christopher’s in 2021, what would he wish for our future, and how would he make sense of the strife and tumult we have seen in our nation over these past many months?”
I will not attempt to answer each of these questions thoroughly or definitively, but I will share some thoughts—I promise—in a succinct fashion.
Dr. Chamberlayne was born in Richmond two days before Christmas in 1876. He attended the McCabe’s University School in nearby Petersburg, where he was shaped by the School’s namesake, Col. Gordon McCabe, a veteran and officer of the Confederate Army. Col. McCabe instilled in his pupils the supremacy of honor and integrity, even above scholastic, athletic, and artistic pursuits. The motto often repeated by Dr. Chamberlayne, “We cannot all be scholars, but we can all be gentlemen,” derives from Col. McCabe and his school.
Following high school Dr. Chamberlayne went on to teach at Gilman Country School in Baltimore, where he also took university classes at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Chamberlayne completed his undergraduate training at the University of Virginia, where he earned Phi Beta Kappa distinction. Dr. Chamberlayne went on to earn a Bachelor of Divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary, followed by a masters degree, a doctorate, and fluency in German from the University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.
In 1906 Dr. Chamberlayne returned to the U.S. and to Virginia, conducting missionary work in Albemarle County and serving as chaplain to Episcopal students at nearby University of Virginia. One year later he became chaplain and teacher, again at Gilman Country School in Baltimore, serving in that role for four years.
In June of 1911 Dr. Chamberlayne married Elizabeth Breckenridge Bolling, and just three months later, following a two-week honeymoon in Canada, the two of them opened the Chamberlayne School for boys at 3211 Grove Avenue, in what is today known as the Museum District.
Our school’s beginnings were modest—15 young men formed our original student body, five of them boarding students who lived with Dr. and Mrs. Chamberlayne in the Headmaster’s House, a simple wood-framed structure that constituted a dormitory, a recreation room, and a Dining Room for the Chamberlaynes and their boys.
Within the same half-acre lot was the original school building, a two-story red brick structure that had once served as a carriage house, designed with space for carriages and stalls for horses on the ground floor, with living quarters above it. The ground floor in 1911 contained a small gymnasium, lockers, bathrooms, and showers. The second floor contained a large study hall and several classrooms.
What is today the Museum District was, just over a century ago, undeveloped country land, so athletics could easily be conducted across the street on vacant grass land. After a full day of classes, the boys enjoyed an hour or two of athletic activity—just like today—but then returned at 4:30 p.m. for mandatory study hall. Saturday mornings were for detention periods for students with poor conduct the week prior.
Dr. Chamberlayne was deeply influenced by his own headmaster, Col. McCabe, his own father, who died when Dr. Chamberlayne was quite young, and also the progressive education movement that was sweeping the country in the early 1900s. Importantly, he was deeply influenced by his mother, who instilled in him kindness and compassion for young people, in particular.
What is today a common attribute in most educational institutions—a balanced regard for the intellectual, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual development of young people—was then a rather novel concept. Dr. Chamberlayne cared as much, and very likely more, for the character and personal attributes of his students as he did for their discrete academic abilities and achievements. Our notion of “educating the whole boy” comes directly from Dr. Chamberlayne, as does the primacy that we hold for a student’s honor and integrity—those traits above all else.
Even with a progressive and expansive view, informed by his time in Richmond, Charlottesville, Baltimore, and Europe, relative to the St. Christopher’s of the 2020s, the St. Christopher’s of a century ago was far more limited and narrow in its aims and its reach.
Even with rapid growth, the School then enrolled a small percentage of the students that we do today, the faculty teaching the boys were rather homogenous, in that they were primarily young and middle-aged men trained at a small number of nearby universities. Our campus and facilities were satisfactory for their day but decidedly Spartan relative to today’s classrooms, athletics and arts facilities.
Our student body, too, was fairly homogeneous. While the boarding department provided what today we call student diversity, as with virtually every other prep school in the country a century ago, our students were white, affluent enough to afford private-school tuition, and generally from a few neighborhoods located in proximity to the School.
On Wednesday of last week, we heard from scholar and educator Taylor Reveley, the former president of William and Mary, who recounted his childhood in the South as one of deep and painful segregation between the races. Mr. Reveley was speaking of the South, and our entire country for that matter, of just over a half-century ago.
Richmond and St. Christopher’s School, like much of the South and our entire country, was deeply segregated throughout the early years of our school. You may recall earlier this year we marked the death of the first Black alumnus of St. Christopher’s, Walter Lindsay, who graduated from our school in 1975. Our first black students enrolled in St. Christopher’s in the late 1960s, and our first Asian-American student enrolled some 20 years before that.
Fast forward to today, with a robust student body of nearly 1,000 boys, a faculty and staff that is nearly half female and half male and trained at colleges and universities all over the world, a sprawling campus occupying over 40 acres and hundreds of thousands of square feet, and, of course, the omnipresence and integrated use of modern technology—What would Dr. Chamberlayne think of St. Christopher’s in 2021?
What would he think, more precisely, of our strikingly more diverse student body, one that boasts students from nearly 60 zip codes throughout the Richmond region, one that remains predominantly Christian but that actively seeks and welcomes boys from the Jewish, Islamic, and other faith traditions? What would he make of our increasing student racial diversity, with a record number of students of color enrolled this year, with another record year to come next year—a student body and faculty and staff that grows in its diversity and inclusion, we hope and pray, year by year, as a more genuine reflection of not only the current Richmond region but also of the country and world you young men will inhabit and lead in the decades to come?
While it might take Dr. Chamberlayne some time to gain his bearings in this modern version of St. Christopher’s, I am confident that he would take pride in all that he would see and experience here today. More forcefully, I believe he would be astounded and overcome with joy.
Recall that Dr. Chamberlayne was himself a progressive, an ordained Episcopal priest who, by all accounts, was compassionate, loving, and empathetic. Early records and letters tell us, for example, that Dr. Chamberlayne despised demerits or other punitive forms of consequences for student behavior. Instead, he preferred to encourage and focus on positive behavior, routinely patting boys on the back, literally and figuratively, praising jobs well done.
I have to believe that Dr. Chamberlayne would be moved by and deeply proud of the diverse backgrounds, forms of intelligence, and myriad accomplishments of our student body today. His heart would ache, I believe, at irrefutable signs of racism, injustice, and discord that have been brought to light throughout our country before and during this pandemic.
He would strive for justice and peace, as a Christian, for equity and fairness, and he would call all of us to love one another, just as we long to be loved and just as Christ loves us.
He would remind us that we all part of one family, of God’s kingdom, and that each of us are beloved Saints, even when, or especially when, we may not see things eye to eye.
I will close now with words directly from Dr. Chamberlayne, words he wrote in 1936, three years prior to his passing, in response to the question, “What does St. Christopher’s stand for?” I hope you will agree with me that his writing, and the beliefs behind it, have aged well.
He wrote, “St. Christopher’s School provides for the development of a boy from four standpoints: mental, physical, spiritual, and moral. This four-sided development is secured by a variety of interests in which the boys themselves not only take part but, but also manage. In this manner a boy’s initiative along various lines is developed.
High standards are maintained scholastically by small classes, frequent reviews, and semester examinations. Evidence of the effectiveness of these methods appears in the enviable record made by graduates of the School in the colleges and universities which they attend.
The boys are taught to appreciate the great value derived from work in the Literary Societies and take an active interest in the bi-monthly programs. An opportunity for further development is furnished by the Dramatic Club and two school publications, ‘The Pine Needle’ and ‘Raps and Taps.’
Athletically the School has a high rating. It has more than once developed city champion teams in baseball and football, the School teams have compiled an enviable record in competition with other preparatory schools of the State. Physical training is secured for the youngest boys in football, baseball, and basketball by organized teams in charge of competent coaches.
Recognizing the need for the spiritual development of a boy, the School holds a prayer service each morning, in which the boys take an active part. The School Missionary Society provides the opportunity for the boys to do something for others. Each month this society holds a meeting which is addressed by an able speaker. Classes in religious instruction are a part of the regular course of study.
Each boy is on his honor at St. Christopher’s. Infractions of the honor rules are judged by a Student Honor Committee chosen from the boys, with the advice and approval of the Headmaster. Put upon his own responsibility and upon his honor, a boy rises to the occasion and develops character rapidly. Few are the instance when the Honor Committee is called upon to act.
The development of the boys at St. Christopher’s is far from being a perfect process, but it approaches the ideal, and it tends to produce well-rounded young men. Such is the aim of St. Christopher’s School.”