“A space for quiet in a crowded school.” This was the seed of the vision that led former head of school Elizabeth B. Hall to purchase the Snackerty Brook Meeting House, an old Baptist Church in the woods of New Hampshire.
Hall shared this vision with Doreen Young, then head of the English department, who quickly came to share this vision for a place of quiet reflection when the winter snow blanketed the Sudbury River or Walden, preventing it from being a refuge.
A few days after purchasing Windsor benches for the assembly hall, Young telephoned Hall and said, simply, “I’ve found what we want.” She had found an ad in Yankee Magazine advertising an old church for sale with original wide pine board pews for the small sum of $1,500. After discovering it was owned by G. Holden Green, a specialist in the relocation and restoration of New England antiquities, they drove the eighty miles north to New Hampshire one spring weekend in 1954. Hall remembered:
“For the first time we saw the building that was to become the Concord Academy Chapel. It was not an inspiring sight. Stark and dilapidated, it stood on a knoll of granite by a crossroads midway between the villages of Barnstead and Strafford. The once white clapboards had long since lost their paint, dried out, and curled. Paper shingles on the roof had little power left to keep the rain out. Inside the plaster was beginning to fall from a slightly domed ceiling which completely hid the timbers that we were later to discover with such surprise and pleasure.”
At the time, Hall and Young had little idea as to how much surprise and pleasure this building would bring to Concord Academy. After much deliberation and planning, the decision was made: the chapel would be moved to Concord, largely by hand by willing faculty, staff, students, and friends.
On June 27, 1956, Bill Eddy, a member of the English department, and his wife Beryl left for NH. They were the first to set up camp and begin disassembling the meeting house by hand, sleeping in mosquito netting and tents, and washing in a nearby swimming hole. The process took three weeks. On July 18, aided by a crane that had removed the triangular roof trusses, the chapel was on its way to Concord.
It was left at the end of CA’s formal gardens, prompting townspeople to wonder what was happening. Faculty and staff were aided by students in the work of erecting the chapel. Pews were oiled by hand, and lumber delivered from the local lumber yard. One day, students arrived in old clothes to paint clapboards. A foyer, designed by Quincy Adams, was added to the front and, with foresight, built strong enough to support a steeple.
The first service was held on December 11, 1956, a Christmas service held the night before the students returned home for the holidays. (This is a tradition that has been carried on to this day, in the form of the Senior Holiday Chapel, featuring stories, songs, and readings.) At that time, a furnace had been installed but there was no furniture and no lights. At the service the school sang carols and remembered John Peabody Monks, whose bequest to the school, and the gifts of his wife and daughter, had paid for more than half of the required materials. In his history of the chapel, Phil McFarland writes of that first service:
“The congregation had come voluntarily, almost the entire school, dressed in old clothes for warmth. Each had tiptoed in, bearing a lighted candle. They were seated on the floor, in the scaffolding, along the edge of the unfinished gallery, legs swinging, in the shadows. Not a word was spoken above a whisper. Yet no one had requested silence. And when it was over, each went silently away, to remember.”
From this humble first service, the chapel grew over the years. The large carving of the famous verses from Corinthians 13, which speaks of love, were carved as a part of a class during the winter of 1956-57, in which each student was given one letter to carve. It was installed for Baccalaureate service on June 6, 1957. The border was added one year later.
The steeple was added a few years later in 1961, as a tribute to Patricia Lennihan Wulsin ‘41, who died suddenly. The work of construction was carried out by students during the winter of 1960-61. The simple tribute — “We honor those who in life honored us” — honors not only the memory of Pat, but all those whose memories live on at Concord Academy. The bell was installed in 1962. Years later, in 1984, the chapel was dedicated to and named in Mrs. Hall’s honor.
In the decades since relocating the chapel to Concord, the school grew from close to 300 to over 400. As a consequence of that growth, the chapel could no longer accommodate the entire school community. In 2003, Jake Dresden, then head of school, began the careful process of renovating and expanding the chapel with Don Kingman, director of operations, so that it could accommodate the school of today. Together with faculty, staff, students, alumnae/i and architects, they tackled a daunting challenge: to nearly double the size of the chapel without altering its essential character.
The renovation began in June, 2004, and the chapel was re-opened on October 12. Citing the spirit of Mrs. Hall, Don Kingman did some hands-on work to ensure the project was completed. The renovation, featuring an expanded and curved North side, now seats 420 people, boasts enhanced acoustics, improved light, a higher ceiling, and soaring beams.
In describing the chapel, Katherine Mosby ‘75 wrote the following:
“Simple elegance of architecture creating a vessel to be filled by the imagination decorated only with words: seniors making sense of their journey, the sound of a community swelling in song, or the thrilling silent words of Corinthian carved into wood and memory; a place where the tongues of men and angels found expression.”
That a 1700’s Baptist church came to Concord from a remote field in New Hampshire is remarkable. That is has become the heart and soul of the school is more remarkable still. With the expansion completed, the warmth of the meeting house remains, and the new building is old again.