Campus & Community

Somber, joyful service marks 75th birthday

5 min read

Over a thousand people crowded into the Memorial Church Sunday (Nov. 11) for a special birthday. Seventy-five years earlier, almost to the minute, the Colonial-style structure was dedicated on Armistice Day 1932.

“This is a festive and happy day for us,” said the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, who in 1982 had presided over the celebration of the church’s 50th anniversary. It was a time to acknowledge all of Harvard’s dead from 20th century wars, he said, and to celebrate the living as “a beloved community of memory and hope.”

“The silent sound of prayer and the active sound of music are always here,” said Gomes of the building, with its high white pews, rich woods, and vaulted ceilings. “This is no mere war memorial.”

Celebrations stretched over nearly four hours, beginning with a church service commemorating both the war dead and the benefactors to the high-columned structure.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick ‘78, J.D. ’82, a member of the Memorial Church congregation, quoted “two philosophers.” Reinhold Niebuhr was one. The other was his grandmother, whose slum-bound rose garden on Chicago’s South Side has remained his inspiration.

In the 1950s and 1960s, adults in his broken, impoverished neighborhood “treated [children] as if they had a stake in us,” said Patrick. “They understood how to tend their garden.”

He praised Gomes for tending the “garden” that is the Memorial Church.

The service featured the world premiere of “The Litany of Light,” an anthem commissioned for the anniversary celebration and composed by Carson P. Cooman ‘04, now an instructor in Harvard’s Department of Music. A line from the libretto, by Elizabeth Kirschner, summed up the day’s duality of somber remembrance and fundamental cheer: “Joy may wander but never leave.”

The Harvard University Choir sang throughout the day, and a lush musical prelude featured the Riverside Brass Quintet.

Afterwards, celebrants walked out through the Memorial Room — “the heart of the church,” said Gomes. A fresh green wreath had just been placed there by an honor guard of cadets from Harvard’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program.

In the sharp chill of early afternoon, the crowd gathered on the wide granite steps of the South Porch. Led by a bagpiper, they formed a wending, slow procession from the church — “a motley crew in procession, meant to be noticed,” said Gomes.

At the grassy Delta in front of the Science Center a large tent awaited, where about 500 guests ate salmon and drank champagne from fluted glasses. Gomes and Harvard President Drew Faust made remarks in celebration of the occasion, and former University Marshal Richard M. Hunt was chairman of the day.

Behind the podium was a wall of enlarged photos showing famous visitors to the Memorial Church through the years, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

History was at the core of the afternoon remarks.

The Memorial Church was built with donations from alumni to commemorate those from the University family who had fallen during World War I. “Here at Harvard, the war cast a long shadow,” said Gomes.

During the 1914-18 conflict, Harvard sent 11,319 to fight; 375 died in the Allied cause, including three faculty members. Three died fighting for the German side.

By the fall of 1918, enrollment at Harvard College shrank to 20 percent of its usual size, and the campus itself was transformed into “an armed camp,” said Faust, who is also Lincoln Professor of History. Nearly all remaining undergraduates belonged to student army training camps.

In those days, “the war had been deeply felt in the day-to-day experience of Harvard University,” said Faust. Building the Memorial Church was an attempt to cope with fresh memories, she said — part of a worldwide struggle to understand what was known as the Great War, which occasioned 70,000 memorials in England alone.

“The Memorial Church stands in the tradition of trying to reinvent humanity in a world that had seemed to lose sight of it,” said Faust.

The grand church was designed to counterbalance the scale and grandeur of Widener Library across the New Yard. But it was unique among memorials of that era, meant to be “a living institution,” said Faust, where the energetic civic and religious business of a university community could unfold. “What better way to honor the dead,” she remarked, “than to place them at the heart of the living?”

As for the future, said Gomes from the tent’s low wooden stage, “we have a very specific adventure in store” — refurbishing projects that over the next two or three years will cost $6 million.

Appleton Chapel will be opened up to restore it to the “bowl of light” it once was, he said.

Both the chapel and the gallery will be fitted for two new Charles B. Fisk organs. And the pulpit will be relocated to underneath windows where it was before 1968.

“Needless to say, dear friends, you will all hear more,” said Gomes to the gathering, in one of the day’s many lighthearted calls for more church benefactors. “This might well be the most expensive free lunch you ever had.”