Sunday School Tradition at Memorial Church Thrives at 60

November 3, 2017
Church Schoo teacher Sophie Iosue works with students during Sunday class.

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

On a sunny fall morning, the bell in the steeple of Harvard’s Memorial Church calls worshippers to Sunday services and a flock of sleepy undergraduates, hurried graduate students and long-time congregants begins to file through the doors of the storied sanctuary.

In the midst of conventional University faces are the smiles, giggles, and eye-rolls of chatty young children in the herding tow of parents and grandparents. Each Sunday during the academic term the children, ages 3-15, take part in a Christian education tradition that is commonplace in churches across America, but more the exception and not the rule at university churches in the U.S.

“We have to remember that we are a large university and we cater to a cross section of students, not just undergraduates, but also those in the graduate schools and those in the professional schools, and many of them are starting and have begun young families,” said Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. “And when I think about a church, when I think about a vibrant church community, it always includes babies and young people.”

Church School teacher Daniel Ott works with students on a lesson during a Sunday class.

As the Memorial Church celebrates its 85th anniversary, it is also marking the establishment — 60 years ago — of its Church School, a Sunday school for children of the Harvard community.

Sunday schools were originally established in England in the late 1700s to help educate working children in industrial areas, and were as embedded in the American anthem as baseball and cheeseburgers by the mid-20th century. It was not until 1957 that a Sunday school program opened in the Memorial Church under the leadership of George Buttrick, the Plummer Professor and Preacher to the University from 1955 to 1960.

Cynthia Rossano, a long-time congregant and historian of Memorial Church, said it was actually Buttrick’s wife, Agnes, who not only identified the need for a children’s program in the church, but also helped establish the school to the relief of parents attending Sunday services. Rossano’s granddaughter, Louisa, 11, attends the school every Sunday.

“There were so many children, and people were bringing them to churches around the area and everybody was shuffling back and forth, trying to get here and there,” said Rossano, a friend and editor to Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church from the early 1970s until his death in 2011. “(Agnes Buttrick) said they needed a Church School for the children of whomever is here — faculty, parishioners, staff.”

Today the Church School serves between 20 and 25 children each week. The program is organized into six grade levels from pre-kindergarten to a confirmation class for 7th and 8th graders, as well as a separate class for teenagers who have completed their confirmation classes. The classes are taught by a team of Harvard undergraduates and Memorial Church seminarians.

The Rev. Westley Conn, the ministry fellow in the Memorial Church, is responsible for the Church School and the development of the Christian education program at the church. He said the program is designed to engage the students in the themes and teachings of the Bible, and in the wider context of the Christian tradition. 

“It’s one of the few schools at Harvard that you don’t need to have a resume, or letter of recommendation or SAT scores or anything like that,” said Conn, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ in July. “The Church School at its heart is a place for families and young people to connect and build relationships around their faith. We also answer their questions and talk a little bit about their week, and if that connects to the lesson for that day — awesome. If not, we just have a good laugh.”

The number of children in the program fluctuates year by year, with attendance on  the uptick for the past three years. Conn said the program is also expanding with the growth. Introduced this academic year are outings for parents and children. In October, families had the opportunity to learn about the church’s two pipe organs during an outing called “Pipes, Peddles and Pizza.”

Another program is scheduled in November that will offer parents a “night out,” where for a few hours in the evening parents can drop the kids off at the church in exchange for a new toy for the Church School’s philanthropic project.

Church School teacher Rebecca Hernandez help students with an art project.

This year, the Church School is trying to collect 850 new toys in honor of the 85th anniversary of the church, which will be donated to the annual Phillips Brooks House Association Christmas toy drive. The children are collecting donations of new toys or cash, which will be used to purchase toys for disadvantaged children.

“It’s almost kind of a challenge to the rest of the University,” Conn said. “If we as a church school can collect this many toys — even half of the 850 toys — then the rest of the University can do better.”

On a typical Sunday morning the children are invited to go with Church School teachers during the service, where they break up into age-appropriate classes. The weekly activities include discussions of biblical themes and traditions, art projects, and watching videos focused on Christian education.

Jamil Kone, 14, regularly comes to church with his mom, Dr. Philomena Asante M.D., B.A. '92, M.P.H.  '01.

“I learn different things about God, and what he has done for his people,” said Jamil, an eighth-grader. “And it’s fun learning a bunch of stuff about that. It’s not like school, it’s like fun, there are games and they give us snacks.”

Asante said the Memorial Church has been part of her life for the past 25 years and the church community is something she wants to share with her son.

“Sunday school education has always been important to me because it was sort of how I grew up,” she said. “It was important to have Jamil understand Christian life and Christian values. I also wanted him to know that no matter what anyone says about you, you belong and you belong in this amazing environment at one of the most famous schools in the world, and your mom went here, and you are part of the community.”

Jennifer Hoffman '00 and her husband, Daniel Larson '98, are also graduates of Harvard College. Hoffman is a professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. She said she attended her first Sunday service at Memorial Church when she a 16-year-old attending a boarding school in Andover, and later attended with Larson when they were undergraduates at the college.

The couple’s three children, Cedar, 11, Zephyr, 8, and Ember, 5, now attend the Church School at Memorial Church on Sundays.

"A few times we tried to attend several different churches, as our oldest son was upset about having to ‘go to school on a weekend,’” Hoffman said. “But I think Wes Conn must be a magician. He is a truly gifted communicator with children. Somehow, his Church School program turned around Cedar's anger, and Cedar became accepting of church. Now he looks forward to it as a highlight of the weekend.”

Church School teacher Sophie Iosue works with students during Sunday class.

Walton said he takes heart in hearing stories such as Hoffman’s. The church invests a lot of resources in the program in the hopes that the children and young people in the circle of Harvard’s diverse community have an opportunity to receive age-appropriate Christian education, he said.

“We also understand that many of our graduate students and people in the graduate schools, and post-doctoral candidates, and fellows come here and bring their children in tow— and sometimes their children are bringing them in tow,” said Walton.  “So, whatever helps build community here, I am excited about and I think it’s a wonderful investment.”