By Emily Dowden ’18
While the Trinity College Chapel, a magnificent structure that towers over the Main Quad, has stood as an architectural icon and Hartford landmark for more than 85 years, what happens inside might be even more remarkable. The Chapel has long served as a source of comfort, inspiration, and learning for the students, faculty, and staff of the college, as well as the Greater Hartford community.
The Reverend Allison Read, college chaplain and dean of spiritual and religious life, notes the positive impact the space has on the community. “We all aspire to fulfill fairly high ideals in our work at the college,” she says. “And yet the true labor rests in the day-to-day practices of studying and learning, listening and collaborating to cultivate both growth in our students and enough care and collegiality to sustain us all in community.”
New Trinity undergraduates come in contact with the Chapel within their first few days on campus, as the Matriculation ceremony—where every new student signs the official Matriculation register—takes place each fall during Orientation. This tradition links generations of Trinity alumni with today’s students.
Throughout the year, the Chapel serves as a gathering space for the community in times of celebration as well as tragedy, a place where all are welcome to share their cares, concerns, and feelings. Events include the First-Year Candle Lighting Ceremony during Orientation that features welcoming speeches from students, faculty, and staff. A cappella concerts, holiday decorating parties, and even unexpected events such as the Spa Chapel—where stations for meditation, yoga, and massages are available simultaneously—draw many students. The annual Chapel Formal, a benefit dinner to raise awareness about a Hartford nutrition program, invites all members of the community to enjoy a three-course meal and a variety of musical performances.
Christopher Hager, professor of English, says the Chapel also serves as a source of light during darker times. “When a former student I was close to died unexpectedly at age 25,” he says, “some of his friends and I worked with Chaplain Read to plan a memorial service that took place in the Chapel.” Other meaningful occasions include the Transgender Day of Remembrance gathering each November to memorialize those who have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence.
Carrie Robinson, director of LGBTQ+ Life, says the Chapel has a “far-reaching” role. “It seeks to create an inclusive environment where each individual finds a place within religious and spiritual life,” Robinson says. “I think that on college campuses, it is rare to find such a strong connection between a Chapel and LGBTQ+ life, but here at Trinity, it is a very strong partnership and collaboration and one that I value.”
A safe haven for all is how Macie Bridge ’21 describes the Chapel. “I remember just being in awe of how this beautiful space on campus could bring together so many other students like myself who wanted to share in their faith journey together,” she says. “This is something I’m constantly grateful for—as a student body, we’re incredibly lucky to have this space to come together in worship and community.”
The Chapel also acts as a classroom. Hager is among the faculty members who integrate the Chapel into their courses. “Every time I teach my course on Herman Melville, the class does a daylong public reading of selections from Moby-Dick,” he says. “Each time, we spend part of that day in the Crypt Chapel, and Chaplain Read reads the chapter called ‘The Sermon.’ ”
As one might expect, the Chapel holds a variety of religious services and ceremonies. The diverse team in the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life provides resources to carry forward the Episcopal tradition and to support Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist life as well as diverse expressions of Protestant Christianity. The team welcomes and engages students with all kinds of backgrounds and interests, and the Charleston House of Interfaith Cooperation emphasizes bringing together people from across different worldviews.
Hillel Director Lisa Kassow recalls a concert held at the Chapel during the spring of 2019. “The Chapel Singers performed Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein, a magnificent Hebrew choral piece,” she says. “Student participants in both Hillel and Chapel Singers suggested an additional performance on Shabbat at the Zachs Hillel House followed by Shabbat dinner together, creating a deeply enriching experience for all.”
Other recent collaborations included the hosting of Ramadan Iftar, the evening meal Muslims shared to break their fast, and an Interfaith Friendship Feast that fostered discussions about shared values such as community, justice, equality, and hospitality.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Musical expression is a mainstay of Chapel life. Members of The Chapel Singers, founded in 1825 and the college’s oldest student organization, come from a wide variety of backgrounds and academic disciplines. The group sings regularly at Chapel services, performs at major college occasions and at concerts on campus, and tours throughout the United States and occasionally abroad. Christopher Houlihan, John Rose College Organist-and-Directorship Distinguished Chair of Chapel Music and adjunct professor of music, has directed this group since 2017, when he took over the role from longtime college organist John Rose.
Houlihan, an internationally known organist who maintains a concert career, says he’s proud that visitors to the Chapel include members of the Greater Hartford community in addition to individuals from Trinity. “The Chapel is one of Hartford’s great spaces for music, and a glance at the variety of performances here over the course of a year shows how much the community values this space,” says Houlihan. He pointed to the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s two sold-out concerts last fall during the Albert Schweitzer Organ Festival Hartford, the 60-year-old Festival of Lessons and Carols, the Trinity Organ Series, and the summer chamber and carillon concerts as examples of open-to-the-public offerings. The carillon, consisting of 49 bronze bells played from a keyboard in the tower of the Chapel, has been at Trinity for almost a century.
Borden W. Painter Jr. ’58, H’95, professor of history, emeritus, and former president of the college, says he fondly remembers the time he spent in the Chapel during his undergraduate years, particularly during Evensong services. “I came in as a first-year in 1954,” he said, “and, as with many places at that time, Chapel attendance was required. There was daily morning prayer and services on Sunday mornings, but Evensong [a centuries-old service of sung prayer] was the service everyone wanted to attend.”
The sounds of the Chapel also were important to Mathilde Sauquet ’18, valedictorian of her class and an active member of the Catholic community. “For lovers of music, this space is a vessel for transcendent experiences, followed by intercultural exchanges, meaningful conversations, and joyous meals,” she says. “As a student, I greatly enjoyed attending concerts in the Chapel and the dinners that would often follow. As an international student, the Chapel became a place where I could find kind, patient, empathetic people to talk to and receive guidance from.”
Chapel architect Philip Frohman, who also designed the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., included both spiritual and historical themes in his design. The intricately carved pew and kneeler ends commemorate college traditions, presidents, and alumni, as well as accounts from scripture; stained-glass windows uniquely memorialize both biblical history and figures including transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau; and wood carvings depict pilgrimages, including Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Yet, Chapel Curator Christopher Row ’91, who wrote his senior thesis at Trinity on the Chapel and, later, his dissertation at Harvard University on Frohman, notes that the Chapel, due to the Great Depression, was not completed according to the original plans. “The Trinity College Chapel is a great—and sadly unfinished—architectural and theological jewel,” says Row. “We have drawings, narratives, and blueprints for the building.”
The college is beginning a campaign to provide for the necessary renovation of the Chapel, stemming rainwater intrusion and securing the building’s structural integrity. Repairing the building and endowing its maintenance, staff, and programming strongly merit the support of Trinity’s alumni, says William Reynolds ’71, chair of the Chapel campaign. Reynolds, a former trustee and secretary of the college, recalls that he spent many hours studying in the Crypt Chapel, where the sounds of the organ served as background music. Reynolds says such memories and the Chapel’s iconic visual importance inspired him to get involved in the effort to save the building and to allow its spiritually broad programs for all students to flourish for generations to come.
“The very construction of this magnificent building represents idealism and faith in the future,” Reynolds says. “The Chapel, like the historic architecture of the Main Quadrangle’s buildings, provides a connection to the best inspirations of the past that continue to evolve into Trinity’s vibrant future.”