“In grateful memory of the Harvard men who died in the World War we have built this Church.”
— inscription over the South entrance to the Memorial Room
The Memorial Church is the church for Harvard University, dedicated on Armistice Day 1932 in memory of those who died in World War I, a gift of the alumni to the University. Memorials have been added to remember those who have died in the wars since. The church stands opposite Widener Library as a visible reminder of the historical and spiritual heritage that has sustained Harvard for nearly four centuries.
The first separate building for worship at Harvard University was Holden Chapel, built in 1744. The college soon outgrew the building, which was replaced by a chapel inside Harvard Hall in 1766, then a chapel in University Hall in 1814, and finally by Appleton Chapel, a building dedicated solely to worship sited where The Memorial Church now stands.
When Appleton Chapel was built in 1858, thanks to the generosity of Samuel Appleton, Morning Prayer attendance was compulsory. When attendance became voluntary in 1886, the College was left with a building that had become too large for the Morning Prayer services and too small for the Sunday services. Although there was talk of building a more suitable chapel for worship at Harvard, nothing was done until soon after World War I when Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1909–1933) combined the idea of a war memorial with the need for a new chapel.
The University Architects Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott, were enlisted to design the new building, and they planned a structure that would complement the imposing edifice of Widener Library. This created an open area known as the Tercentenary Theatre, where Commencement Exercises are held.