In the dust of renovation, Memorial Church defines its mission

October 19, 2016
In the dust of renovation, Memorial Church defines its mission

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Harvard Memorial Church Communications

The distance between Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and the Knafel Center in Radcliffe Yard is roughly a half-mile. And the nagging question for the leadership of the church this fall was centered on whether or not students and loyal regulars of Sunday services would find their way from one yard to the other during the renovation of Harvard’s historic sanctuary.

The answer did not take long to materialize. In fact, the result is clearly expressed each Sunday by the metallic sound of banging chairs being pulled by ushers from the stacks at the back of the Radcliffe Gym to provide extra seating to late-arrivals needing a place to sit.

“It made me feel confident to know that this incredible, hard-working staff of the Memorial Church is living up to the mission that our work cannot be confined to or reduced to the physical building of the Memorial Church,” said Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. “It makes me feel good because I know that people appreciate our work wherever we are. We know number one, God is there and number two, God’s people are there.”

At  the end of commencement last spring, construction crews erected a fence around three sides of the Memorial Church and set to work on a multi-million-dollar renovation to make the 84-year-old building more accessible, comfortable and functional in the developing and expanding mission of Harvard Yard’s “space of grace.”

Construction is expected to be completed early next year and by the time the fence is removed, the church will have — among a long list of improvements — a ramp to the front door that will accommodate people with mobility challenges, a new climate control system for the upper and lower levels of the church that will allow for more comfortable, year-round use of the building, and a reconfigured lower-level that will include new student and meeting spaces, an updated rehearsal room for the University Choir and offices for church staff.

Until then, however, the mission of the church must continue even without its distinguished sanctuary.

“If you read the mission statement of the Memorial Church it is more about Memorial Church the community than Memorial Church the physical building and that is because we are so much more than bricks and mortar,” Walton said. “We are a war memorial, yes. We are an iconic sanctuary, absolutely. But we are a community of faith that is committed to helping foster civically-minded, morally-engaged and aware students on this campus. And we take seriously the role of faith in a liberal arts education and what it means to be a well-rounded individual.”

Keeping the mission of the church moving forward without disruption is a daily exercise in logistics because primary functions — Sunday Services, Morning Prayers, musical performances and administration — once housed in one central building are now scattered across the Harvard campus.

The church staff is relocated in temporary offices off Brattle Street. Sunday worship services are now at the Knafel Center (Radcliffe Gym). Morning Prayers take place at Holden Chapel in the Yard. And the church’s robust music program, that includes the Harvard University Choir, is employing space at Paine Hall for rehearsals, and a host of venues for Fall Term performances.

“There are about five or six steps that one must take to offer, for example, Morning Prayers every morning that we don’t need to do in the church, so from the staff perspective there are logistics that make it challenging,” said Memorial Church Senior Minister Lucy Forster-Smith, the Sedgwick Chaplain to the University. “But I feel so privileged to be here to make this transition into the space and see what emerges. I have a feeling that whole communities who have never stepped foot in the church will come in and say this is incredible.”

An example of one of those simple tasks made complicated by the move is the weekly broadcast of the Sunday Services by Harvard’s WHRB. The Memorial Church is connected to the radio station by a line through steam tunnels under the Yard. The wire carries live audio transmissions captured from the church sound system to WHRB, a few minutes’ walk from the church.

In the Knafel Center no such line exists. So to continue the broadcasts, the church employed Harvard’s Media Production Center to install microphones in the former gym to pick up the music and speakers. Media staff also run the soundboard each Sunday and the feed is uploaded live to an online streaming service that is picked up and broadcast to WHRB listeners.

Another early challenge was a lack of parking at the Knafel Center. So in September a bus service was commissioned to shuttle people from the Littauer Lot near the Memorial Church to the entrance of the Knafel Center.

“I really think that overall it has not been terribly disruptive except logistically behind the scenes,” said Forster-Smith.  “But I think it really provides an opportunity for us to think through some new opportunities, to think new worship styles and how we identify ourselves as a religious community that is in diaspora.”

The return of a long-standing Harvard tradition to one of its early homes is counted as one of those opportunities. Holden Chapel, built in 1744, is one of the oldest buildings on campus and the original site of Harvard worship services. Because of the renovation, Harvard’s equally-historic Morning Prayers were moved back into Holden this fall for the first time in 250 years.

The temporary move is getting high marks and support from speakers, church officials and attendees. Harvard students, faculty and staff as well as members of the local community, fill the small sanctuary most mornings for the 15-minute service of worship, inspirational speakers and music by the Choral Fellows.

But singing each weekday morning in Holden is just one of several new venues for the music department. The first concert, Stephen Paulus’s church opera The Three Hermits, was Oct. 23 in First Church, Cambridge and the Fall Concert, on 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20 in Sanders Theatre. The Annual Christmas Carol Services are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 13, in St. Paul Church, Harvard Square.

Edward Elwyn Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster of the Memorial Church, said he and members of the University Choir are fully enjoying this pause from the church.

“Music-making is so dependent on space — and is so defined by it — that it's great to be working with the choir in new spaces — it really brings new dimensions to what we do,” said Jones. “Prayers in Holden Chapel is really exquisite; rehearsing in Paine Hall is luxurious; and, though we miss Memorial Church's amazing organs, the Knafel Center is a very powerful space for Sunday worship.” 

In addition to the benefits of exploring new spaces, Memorial Church Ministry Fellow Alanna C. Sullivan said programs in temporary locations during the renovation is actually opening up an opportunity to reconnect with students and patrons of the church.

“When you are in the center of things it can feel like folks will flock to you and you don’t have to seek people,” she said. “We are making sure we know people by name at the receiving line so we can greet them by name and invite them to come to Sparks House for a lunch or a tailgate. I think it’s getting us to really focus on making the connection with the individual and being really intentional on that connection.”

The church is also working to preserve and develop new connections with a stronger online presence through its website and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The communications staff is posting more videos, photos and stories this fall than in the past on both the website and social media to keep followers up to date on the renovation and other church programs.

Walton is increasing his activity on his own social media accounts and spending more Sundays on the pulpit preaching and leading worship following his recent year-long sabbatical.

“Why? Because I’m actually loving it,” he said. “I’m loving the Knafel Center. The level of intimacy, as it relates to physical proximity between the pulpit and the pews, is much more consistent with the community where I grew up.”

University officials say the renovation project is on schedule and that the historic sanctuary in the center of Harvard Yard should be reopened early next year. But people walking into the classic New England church might not notice much change to the sanctuary except for the fresh coat of paint on the pews and a new finishing on the oak floors.

The change in the sanctuary will be more appreciable when the class of 2017 gathers for Commencement services in the spring and more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff, pack the chapel to capacity. In the past, with no air-conditioning, temperatures could soar even on a mild spring day. But with the new climate control system, not only will Commencement exercises be cooler, but also services, wedding and other events held at the church all summer.

The most noticeable change will be to the lower lever of the church, which was gutted to allow for the installation of the new HVAC, sprinkler and other systems. The reconfigured space will feature a new kitchen, meeting rooms, an instruction room, rehearsal space for the University Choir and staff offices. It will also include a “student oasis,” an open space for gatherings, meetings and simply a place for students to relax between classes.

“I often say that everybody may not belong to the Memorial Church, but the Memorial Church belongs to everybody at Harvard,” Walton said. “What we do on Sunday morning might not be your cup of tea as a Protestant, worshiping faith community, but that does not mean that seven days a week we’re not a classroom for critical thinking, that we’re not a physical site of human connection, that we’re not a place to get bottomless cups of coffee, conversation and community.”

But the renovation of Memorial Church is proving to be much more than a construction project. Church leaders and staff are looking at this time away from Harvard’s iconic sanctuary as an opportunity to reconnect, reenergize and recommit to the mission.

“It’s really lit a new fire of excitement for what it means for us to be a community of faith at the center of Harvard University. And I feel a part of it in ways that I’m not sure I did before,” Walton said. “I love the Memorial Church and I love everything it stands for and I look forward to moving back with that new perspective.”