“Over the summer, the space has been given a thorough face lifting and the interior converted into the simple, yet dignified chapel now in use daily for services and other appropriate school convocations….This welcome surprise to all the school family now stands as an attractive addition to the heart of the campus and a constant reminder of the ideals for which the School was founded.”
It would be understandable to interpret those words as the opening of today’s Memorial Chapel Re-Dedication service. In reality, my predecessor of several decades prior penned those words in October of 1965, fifty-six school years ago this month, on the occasion of the conversion of this building from a gym/locker room/rec. room/lunch room into the sacred space we know and love today—our Chapel.
Built in 1917, when we were known as the Chamberlayne School for boys, when our enrollment was approximately one-tenth of what it is today, and when we had only been here in the Westhampton neighborhood for three years, this building has served numerous purposes for our boys and our community. One might say it has been what we needed, exactly when we needed it.
In 1917, when the Great War was waging across Europe and our country was sending youth by the thousands overseas to fight, we used this space as a drill hall, a training room for our Chamberlayne Cadet Corps, consisting of both students and faculty members. In a short time, as the war concluded and as the last devastating pandemic finally receded, this space was used as a multi-purpose gymnasium—basketball was played on these hardwood floors, with spectators cheering wildly from these balconies, which were originally accessible from stairs outside the building. Later, when a newer gymnasium nearby replaced this one, this space alternated between idle storage, a recreation room for our boarding students, a lunch room for our day students, and a weight-lifting room. Records suggest that those last two purposes—a lunch room and a weight-lifting room—were even achieved simultaneously, made possible by a wire fence that bisected this open space right down the middle.
One can only imagine the sights, sounds, and smells produced by such a classic boys-school combination of a weight-lifting, lunch-serving multi-purpose room.
Fast forward to the summer of 1965, the first full summer of Headmaster Warren Elmer’s tenure, and imagine the transformation that must have taken place. Longtime faculty member and resident historian Joe Knox said as much in a 1995 Chapel Talk on this building. Mr. Knox said, ”Warren Elmer, the fourth Headmaster of the School, had just arrived and had decided to turn this place into a Chapel. This disreputable old building underwent a Christian transformation. Of course, first of all the fence, that had so recently been put up, came down. The floors were sanded and varnished, and they were beautiful—after all, they had been put in for basketball. And pews and kneelers were found at an old Army chapel no longer in use, and the heater was fixed and new lights were put in, and a bell and belfry were put up on top. The brass lectern and pulpit were found in storage in the Mayo Memorial Church House. The building was painted inside and out, and a kind of gray plywood wainscoting was put around the inside, and the inside stairs were built to go up to the galleries.”
Now, let’s fast-forward 32 years from this building’s original transformation in 1965, to the year 1997, just two years after Mr. Knox’s Chapel talk, and to the last time this building was Re-Dedicated. You see, in the spring of 1997, 80 years after this building was constructed and 32 years after it had first served as a Chapel, this building received its second thorough make-over. Thanks to the generosity of the Camp Younts and Ruth Camp Campbell Foundations and the family of Paul D. Camp III ’56, this space was modernized with new HVAC, lighting, an enlarged altar area, restored lectern and pulpit, new windows, siding, trim, landscaping, and more.
That brings us to the summer of 2021 when, in the midst of this century’s pandemic and thanks to the remarkable generosity of the Classes of 2020 and 2021, we committed, once again, to bring new life to this special space on campus. Over the summer, these storied wooden floors were refinished, pews were sanded and stained, walls and ceilings were painted, and new audio-visual equipment was installed.
We give thanks today for those renovations of 25 years ago, made possible by the Camp family, including Lee and Doug, who join us today, and for the generosity of the Classes of 2020 and 2021, including the leadership of Randy Weis and Karen Wise, gathered here today. I want to give special thanks to our Director of Facilities, Mark Gentry, who oversaw this summer’s renovation with care and attention, to our campus interior-decorator, Laura Partee, who likewise devoted great effort to this project, and to Jane Garnet Brown, our Director of Development, who oversaw fundraising efforts for this worthy cause.
Gentlemen, as you depart this space this morning, and the next time you enter it for Chapel or any other purpose, I’d like for you to ponder the notion of sacred space. What does that word even mean, sacred? I looked it up, interested in the etymology of the word. Not surprisingly, it stems from Old English, and French before that, and Latin even before that—“sacer” [“sacher”] in Latin—which today can be understood as holy, or set apart.
What, then, makes this space, our Chapel, holy, set apart?
Is it the shields you see displayed on our walls, depicting the 12 Apostles, created by former chaplain Skip Blair and his students? Or the flags you see adorning this space, representing the heritage of current students, former exchange students, and international schools with which St. Christopher’s has close ties? Or is it the plaques you see on the walls, noting, among other things, deceased St. Christopher’s alumni, given in love and memory by their classmates upon their reunion on campus?
Or, might we consider that what makes this space sacred is not so much its physical attributes and artifacts, but rather the memories we hold from this space and the special people who regularly inhabit it? Consider the annual All Saints Day Memorial service to commemorate the dead of the year just passed. Or perhaps wedding services—there are many alumni and current faculty members who have been wed in this space—or services of baptism of newborn Saints.
For you, our students, this space represents morning time, the start of the school day or, as has been the case this year and last, a mid-morning respite, a reset and a recalibration. A time to be together, to pray, to sing, to listen, to think, to be still, to wonder. Fittingly, for a boys school, this is also a space to laugh—early in my tenure here, there were boys eating donuts upside down in this space; we annually hold Halloween costume contests here, Christmas gift services, students vs. faculty Battle of the Brains, and much, much more. It seems to me that this space has demonstrated a certain flexibility over the years to be exactly what St. Christopher’s needed it to be at that moment in time—which is plenty and quite special.
Last week I met Reverend Edwards in this space and talked to her about what makes this building so special. She shared something I had not previously considered but found fascinating to realize—if one takes an ariel view of the St. Christopher’s campus on this side of St. Christopher’s Road, with that thoroughfare as a western border, Henri and Kensington to the north, Maple to the east, and Fergusson and Wesley to the south, you will discover that the Memorial Chapel sits almost perfectly equidistant to those four borders—right in the center of our campus.
We know that this building was erected over a century ago, as a gymnasium and a drill hall, and that our campus in 1917 possessed but a fraction of the acreage that we possess today. Still, I can’t help but think there is some divine providence that what has evolved over decades into our most important campus space sits literally in the heart of campus, accessible from all four corners, an anchor of our days and our passage through time, as students and teachers.
I will leave you with the following wish, for students and adults alike. I ask that each of you, at least once but preferably with some regularity, do as I have done well over a dozen times in the past five years. Find a time when this Chapel is unoccupied—early in the morning, mid-day, or late afternoon and evening work well. Let yourself into this space—it is typically unlocked—and just be in the space, all by yourself, quiet, inquisitive, grateful. This space will talk to you, the echoes of memories—joy, pain, contemplation—the full range of human experience, life at a boys’ school. Over time, if you invest in this space, it will repay you and start to take hold in you, in ways that you could not imagine before knowing it. You will be richer, fuller, more whole for knowing and loving this space, just as it has known and loved all of us.