Towering above Harvard Yard, with its steeple visible for miles around from surrounding Cambridge and nearby Boston, Harvard’s Memorial Church marks a religious focal point for the famed University’s campus.
At first, the religious needs of Harvard’s students were met by chapels within its oldest structures, including one within Massachusetts Hall, Harvard’s oldest standing structure, completed in 1720. With the completion in 1744 of Holden Chapel, situated along the northwesterly flank of Old Harvard Yard, the college had its first structured dedicated solely to religious worship. However, a burgeoning student body soon outgrew the modest Chapel. Beginning in 1766, religious services were held in a chapel within Harvard Hall, nearer Johnston Gate. By 1814, services had shifted across Old Harvard Yard, to a chapel within University Hall.
Due to the generosity of merchant and philanthropist Samuel Appleton (1766-1853) — in whose honor the town of Appleton, Wisconsin is also named — the Appleton Chapel was constructed in 1858, at the site of the current Memorial Church. Samuel Appleton’s name and memory linger on in the form of the Appleton Chapel now incorporated into Memorial Church.
Appleton Chapel went on to serve the Harvard community for over seven decades. However, by as early as 1866, when Morning Prayer attendance for students became voluntary rather than mandatory, the Chapel was seen to be ill suited to university needs. By the late 1920s, the growing desire for a more appropriate and imposing religious facility on campus merged with the wish to commemorate Harvard alums fallen in The Great War (World War I). Appleton Chapel was therefore razed after the class commencement of 1931.
The task of creating a new Memorial Church fell to the firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bullfinch & Abbott, architects to the University. Sited on the former location of Appleton Chapel, this new monumental church — with a spire rising to 197 feet — was designed to counterpoint the stately and ponderous presence of the Widener Library, facing the Church from a few hundred yards across a portion of the Yard. That portion of the Yard has since become Tercentenary Theatre (a tribute to its dedication upon Harvard’s 300th Anniversary in 1936), the site of all Harvard commencements. Daily morning prayers and Sunday services are held at the Church, and its substantial 5,000-pound, 5-foot-wide bell tolls the passing hours, and announces events and services.
Memorial Church was completed in 1932, and dedicated on Armistice Day of that year, November 11th. The Church can seat approximately 1,200 worshipers. Within the facility, flanked by The Sacrifice, a sculpture by Malvina Hoffman, are the engraved names of 413 Harvard alumni killed in the first World War. Joining them in commemoration since are those alums who lost their lives in World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam.
Memorial Church is loosely affiliated as a Protestant non-denominational church, yet it regularly serves as the house of worship for a wide range of faiths. There are currently three dozen University chaplains serving 25 different traditions of religious worship.
The Church remains an enduring and prominent landmark not only within Harvard Yard, and the surrounding University campus, but also within the skyline and embracing ambience of the City of Cambridge.