For more than 80 years, Harvard’s Memorial Church — its dizzying white spire rising above Tercentenary Theatre — has been an important campus landmark, and a spiritual home for the community. Created as a memorial to honor the Harvard men and women who died during Word War I, as well as a worship space to accommodate a growing student body, it has served myriad roles over time.
Built in the Georgian Revival style by architects Coolidge Shepley Bulfinch & Abbott in 1931, the church is at once a spiritual retreat; a lecture and concert hall; a space for reflection, laughter, and occasional tears; a welcoming haven for incoming freshmen; and a Commencement stage where seniors bid their farewells.
But more than a building, Memorial Church is a diverse community of students, staff, congregants, and friends. That community lost one of its cherished own when the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who had served in the church for more than 40 years, died at age 68 in 2011. “Through his wisdom and appreciation of the richness of the human spirit, Rev. Gomes has left an indelible mark on the institution he served with unmatched devotion and creativity,” said Harvard President Drew Faust, recalling him in 2011.
In July 2012, Jonathan Walton succeeded Gomes as Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.
“Memorial Church has given me a glimpse of President Faust’s vision of ‘One Harvard,’ and I desire for it to be a major site of human connection and intellectual collaboration for this entire University,” said Walton, a Baptist minister, explaining his vision for the church.
In keeping with that theme, Walton has complemented the church’s daily morning prayers service with an informal meet-and-greet over coffee and doughnuts. He also helped to transform the church stairs facing Widener Library into a gathering space called the Porch, as part of the University’s Common Spaces initiative. “As I always say, ‘Everyone at Harvard may not belong to the Memorial Church,’” said Walton, “‘but the Memorial Church belongs to everyone at Harvard.’”
Recently, several members of the Harvard community reflected on their connection to the church and shared some of their fondest memories of it.
Edward Jones has been the church’s Gund University Organist and Choirmaster since 2003. One of his favorite rituals is the annual service of Christmas carols, a mix of old and new songs sung by the choir and congregation.
“It always gives me a tingle to do that every year,” said Jones, speaking from the church’s solemn Memorial Room, where the singers gather for the carols service before processing into the church. “The church is beautifully decorated, the Yard feels very Christmassy, and it’s a real culmination for the choir of a term of hard work, and then a really lovely way to show off and to bring a great gift to the community.”
Master’s student in Middle Eastern studies Nora Lessersohn ’09 works part-time at the church as a development and community relations coordinator, helping organize events and programs, and drafting communications for the MemChurch Fund. She said she loves the way the sound of organists practicing in the sanctuary drifts down to her basement office, and working for an organization that “makes people feel connected to one another, and to something greater than themselves.”
As a freshman, Ye Dam Lee ’15 lived just across from the church’s front door in Thayer Hall. She attended a service on her first Sunday as a Yard resident and has been a regular ever since. She serves as a co-head usher for the church, helping to organize its team of student volunteers.
Lee, who arrived on campus from “a non-faith background,” said attending weekly services has helped anchor her both to “God and to life outside of academics.”
“I’ve been able to grow so much in my faith, learning not only from the sermons, but in conversation with the staff and parishioners and my fellow ushers. More than any other place on campus, Memorial Church is where I feel at home.”
Divinity School student Meighan Parker, Memorial Church Grants Committee co-chair: “In the past years, the Memorial Church has distributed $50,000-plus to nonprofit organizations, which range from homeless shelters to food banks, in Boston and Cambridge communities. My role has shed light on the wonderful charitable organizations in our communities, and I am thankful to play a part in assisting their missions.”
Courtney Crummett, member of the congregation: “The first change that Jonathan [Walton] instituted that got some attention was the passing of the peace; it’s when you turn to your neighbor and introduce yourself and say, ‘Hi, peace be with you.’ At Memorial Church we had never done anything like that … I thought it was great. The challenge that we have in this community is meeting each other, and that is the solution.”
Olumakinde Ogunnaike ’17, member of the congregation: “My favorite memory would have to be the first service I attended. Professor Walton’s sermon, the choir’s performance, and the very architecture of the main church and Memorial Hall were simply awe-inspiring. Although it has been a full semester, I still feel that same sense of wonder and reverence every time I walk in the doors.”
Nora Lessersohn ’09, development and community relations coordinator: “I have seen over and over again how Memorial Church makes people feel connected to one another, and to something greater than themselves. I like working for a place that can make people feel that way.”
Edward Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster: “It always gives me a tingle to do [the carols service] every year. The church is beautifully decorated, the Yard feels very Christmassy, and it’s a real culmination for the choir of a term of hard work and then a really lovely way to show off and to bring a great gift to the community.”
Ye Dam Lee ’15, co-head usher: “Memorial Church has been the first church of which I feel truly a part. Going to church on Sunday has been one of the things that anchor me every week, to God and to life outside of academics. … More than any other place on campus, Memorial Church is where I feel at home.”
Judith Sizer, member of the Memorial Church Grants Committee: “My parents attended the Christmas carol service the night before I was born, so I guess that was my first visit to the church. I was also christened in Appleton Chapel. I began attending Sunday services in the mid-1990s, and joined the grants committee in 2005. My father’s memorial service was held in the church in 2009. Rev. Peter Gomes, Edward Jones, and the church staff did a wonderful job in helping us to celebrate his life together with memories, music, and prayer.”
Brianna Elise Goodlin ’15, church school coordinator: “My involvement in Memorial Church has been a defining experience in my time at Harvard. I have met more genuine, loving, and incredible people through the Memorial Church community than I thought was possible. I have been given the opportunity to grow in my own faith, to guide and teach beautiful young children, and to make unforgettable memories and friendships that I will cherish long after I have left Harvard.”
Richard Campbell, sexton: “One day, Peter was complaining about the microphone not working on the altar, so I went up there to check it and I was impersonating him. As I looked to the back of the church, who is standing in the doorway? Reverend Gomes. He said ‘Richard, is that you? … Carry on.’”
Imeime Umana ’14, usher: “Memorial Church has given me a community and a spiritual home throughout my time at Harvard, which has undoubtedly grounded me and given me perspective during stressful times. I feel blessed to have an opportunity to give back to a community that has helped define my Harvard experience.”
Tara Benedict, member of the congregation: “The first service I attended was in January 2011. … I was instantly moved; not only were the grandeur of the space itself and the glorious music enough to make one want to keep coming back week after week, but the overall tone of the service and the message of the first few sermons I heard there really resonated with me.”
Adriana Pohl ’14, University Choir senior secretary: “Memorial Church has become my home away from Kirkland House. … The hours I have spent in the church, learning, performing, and attending, have not only shaped but defined my college experience, and almost from the beginning, I knew that I couldn’t imagine my Harvard experience without the University Choir.”
Ayodeji Ogunnaike, Harvard master’s student and member of the congregation: “Memorial Church has meant quite a lot to me over the years. Service is always one of the highlights of my week, and it is one of the places my younger brother Makinde ’17 and I always know we will go together.”
Carson Cooman, composer in residence: “It is a great pleasure and privilege to be a part of this wonderful University community in this tremendous city. Memorial Church in particular has been a place where, for many years, worship experiences and programming of excellence have been offered to reach students and community alike.”
Jonathan Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church: “As I always say, everyone at Harvard may not belong to the Memorial Church, but the Memorial Church belongs to everyone at Harvard.”