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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, May 24, 2024

More than meets the eye: Goddard Chapel

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Goddard Chapel is pictured in sunset.

Goddard Chapel is a pretty odd building. 

Most New England churches are boxy, covered in bright white weatherboard, their tiered bell towers shaped like wedding cakes. Sometimes they boast grand columns in the Greek Revival style which reigned in the early 19th century (a fascination with ancient Greek culture and its “symbols of democracy” was on the rise). 

Goddard has none of those qualities. 

“The chapel itself was designed intentionally to sit in contrast to the aesthetic of New England Congregational and Unitarian churches,” Lynn Cooper, Catholic chaplain at Tufts, wrote in an email to the Daily

Its facade (or facades, for the chapel has many sides) is assembled from local dark blue-gray slate, according to the University Chaplaincywebsite. While its no-nonsense bell tower seems to rise one hundred feet from the ground like a stack of Minecraft blocks, the roof of the covered porch on the other side of the chapel slopes to a playfully sharp point. Both the bell tower and the cloister are medieval Lombardic Romanesque — a style chosen by architect J. Philip Rinn, who also designed the old Barnum Hall and part of Metcalf Hall.Rinn planned to cover the chapel in ivy in order to “soften” its imposing stonework. 

Goddard’s stony exterior is laced with wood on the inside: Fitted pieces form diamond patterns as darker beams stretch across the arched ceiling. The warm natural color of the wood was restored in 2002 after it was painted light blue in the 1959 and 1965 renovations, although the ceiling in the back is a dark blue-green, perhaps more akin to the original olive color from 1883. The major renovations in 2002 also unveiled and restored the chapel’s old Hook and Hastings organ and added a light to the top of the bell tower. 

When Goddard was first built in 1883, it was, like the rest of Tufts’ roots, a primarily Universalist establishment

“Universalism is a testament to universal human dignity and universal salvation," Cooper said. "Universalists in the 19th century fought for access to education, religious tolerance, prison reform, social services, and care for those most in need who society had forgotten."  

However, Cooper said it is important to remember the darker history behind the chapel as well.

"The landscape which we now know as Tufts campus was originally the territory of the Wampanoug and later incorporated into the Ten-Hills Plantation, which enslaved both African Americans and Native Americans," Cooper said. "So, when we consider Goddard Chapel, we must place it in this context.” 

According to the Chaplaincy website, stained glass was something of a “lost art” in Europe and America, as it fell out of favor during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Rinn worked with Tomasso Juglaris, an Italian artist, to etch color onto glass using acid, creating the scratchy look of most of the artwork. Then, 19th-century innovation improved stained glass production, and the material was introduced in the United States in the 1860s.  

It was Rinn who chose the design of Goddard’s windows, most of which was relatively earthly in subject matter rather than spiritual.

“For the original artwork … the emphasis was on the natural world and human figures of this tradition,” Cooper said.

Indeed, two of Goddard’s windows show only plant life — tall palms and lily plants against creamy skies. Even the saints depicted are not angels, but human beings, according to Cooper. 

“Sadly, as in so many American churches, these figures [St. Paul, John the Evangelist, Mark] are all male and all imaged as white, making the stained-glass in Goddard Chapel at once beautiful and oppressive," Cooper said. "Here is another tension in the Universalist history of Tufts and the chapel which promises to [welcome] all but only upholds white male images — biblical figures inaccurately depicted as white — as exemplars and pillars of the tradition. And we have much work to do around accessibility.” 

Even though Tufts was founded as a liberal arts college rather than a religious school, mandatory services on Sundays were initially a standard of campus life, according to a university catalog from 1889.

“All students are required to attend morning prayers in the Chapel, and except those who go to their homes, public worship once on Sunday either in the Chapel or at such church as they may choose,” the catalog reads. By World War II, however, chapel gatherings became simply school assemblies to present “announcements of group interest” and “brief programs of a cultural or religious nature.”

Contestation surrounding the chapel’s symbolic history and present function has emerged and evolved.  In the Nov. 30, 1989 issue of The TuftsDaily,a student, who was a senior at the time, described their desire to throw a stone through the window behind the altar, which depicted a bearded man holding a bible in his right hand and a sword in his left.

“For non-Christians, this figure may be a symbol of a patriarchal and oppressive religion which has propagated many of the injustices, including racism and sexism, that are so prevalent in today’s society," the student wrote.

A few students responded in the Dec. 4, 1989 issue of the Daily that the author had misunderstood the window’s meaning: “According to the Self Tour Handbook of Goddard Chapel, ‘the sword (carried by St. Paul) was standard iconography in the portrayal of early Christian saints: it was the common weapon by which they often were beheaded,’” they wrote. 

In response to one student’s claim on Dec. 1, 1989that “Goddard Chapel was constructed as a Christian house of worship, and that is still its primary function,” another student argued onDec 4, 1989 that“the original purpose of Goddard Chapel is really not relevant today …  The belief that Goddard Chapel is a solely Christian spot and that people of other religions are merely guests in a building on their own campus is absurd. I am personally very pleased that most people associate Goddard Chapel with a place to hear the Bubs, Jills, and Mates.”

Most of the windows were dedicated not to Universalist religious traditions, but to Tufts founders like Thomas Goddard, an early Tufts trustee, and Hosea Ballou 2d, the university’s first president. The Latin inscriptions around each window impart more praise of people who donatedtoward making the window itself than biblical teachings. 

The only window which has any kind of moral tenet is the one of St. Paul, whose inscription reads: “Stand ye, quit ye like men, be strong.” Ironically, a windstorm broke that window in1955 (it was reinforced afterward).

Notably, according to Cooper, “There is no Jesus or cross built into this structure.” There is, however, a painting by Janet McKenzie called "Jesus of the People," which hangs to the right facing the altar and presents “a dark multiracial depiction of Jesus modeled by a woman,” Cooper said. McKenzie’s Jesus wraps themself tightly in black and white robes, a yin-yang symbol on their right and a feather on their left. 

Goddard has become a gathering space for events of all faiths, carrying Buddhist Sangha meditations on Mondays and Fridays, Catholic masses on Sundays, interfaith meetings and more.

“Many of our religious and philosophical communities adapt the space during their holy hours and gathering times so as to reflect the representation they need from their tradition — bringing out their own art and holy elements of ritual,” Cooper said. “Pre-pandemic, the chapel was a hub of connection and silence, a space for gathering, for dropping by to enjoy a cup of tea, and a place for religious and philosophical communities to live out their observances …  Folks in the meeting room might hear musicians practicing on the organ or the piano and I especially love the impromptu decompression sessions of students continuing conversations after particularly engaging classes.”

As much as the grand arch of the ceiling impresses, Cooper said, “it is the wooden floors [that] speak to me …  In walking meditations in Goddard Chapel, I invite students to take off their shoes. When we do this, we direct our attention to each step and in doing so, our socks leave impressions upon the deep red carpet and soft spot patterns of the hardwood beneath become even more apparent. They [creak] and they sing and they speak to us of so much that is beneath the surface.”

After a year with pandemic-era restrictions, Goddard has fallen quiet.

“I get the sense that Goddard Chapel, like so many of us, is lonely,” Cooper said. “I have only been back a handful of times since last March, but that’s my hunch.”