Chapel History

At its founding in 1746, Princeton University, originally known as the College of New Jersey, was first located in the parsonage of the Presbyterian Church of Elizabethan, soon afterwards in a sister church in Newark.  When the College moved to Princeton in 1756, the chapel was located in what eventually became the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall.  This arrangement lasted until 1847, when a separate building was constructed on the site of East Pyne.  However, by the end of the Civil War, a new chapel was needed because the number of undergraduates had doubled.  Henry Gurdon Marquand, a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the principal donor for the Marquand Chapel which was built in 1881.  This chapel was destroyed by fire during house party weekend in 1920, and for several years worship services were held in Alexander Hall, the place where Professor Woodrow Wilson had delivered his address “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”  The fire forced the trustees and president to give immediate attention to the issue of constructing a new chapel which would permit the University to maintain its religious heritage, but in a manner that recognized its public mission in an increasingly multicultural society.  University President John Grier Hibben issued an appeal for funds to construct a chapel in an architectural style based on the fourteenth century English Gothic and appointed Ralph Adams Cram of Boston, a leading architect of Gothic revival, and supervising architect of the University at the time and designer of the Graduate College.  When completed in 1928 at a cost of more than two million dollars, this imposing college chapel - capable of seating two thousand - was second in size only to the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge University.  The style conformed with the tudor Gothic that had been adopted for Blair Hall in 1897 as well as other buildings that were constructed during the succeeding several decades.

Many Princetonians are remembered in the Chapel’s stained-glass windows and in engravings on the pews, on memorial stones on the walls, in the silver communion chalices, memorial hymnals, and on many of the furnishings.  John Witherspoon, sixth president of the College and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, is pictured in the Great South Window (Christ the Teacher).  The figure of James Madison, Witherspoon’s student, is in the Window of the Law, high up in the south clerestory near the entrance of the chapel.  The oak pews in the nave are made from wood originally intended for Civil War gun carriages.  The magnificent pulpit, brought from France, probably dates back to the mid-16th century and had been painted bright red prior to its installation in this chapel.  The wood for the pews in the chancel, where the choir and clergy are seated for services, came from Sherwood Forest in England and took 100 people over a year to carve.  The statues adorning these pews represent figures in the history of music, scholars, and teachers of the church.  In the center of the chancel is the Great East Window (The Love of Christ).  The chancel is flanked by six bays of windows, the first two representing two psalms of David, and the remaining windows depicting cycles from four great Christian epics: Dante’s Comedia, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  The Chapel is also decorated with 25-foot silk paintings by Juanita Y. Kauffman. The Threshold paintings were commissioned for the University's 250th anniversary in 1996, and the Ascent: Blue River paintings were commissioned for and unveiled during the Pentecost of 1999.  Its magnificent Mander-Skinner organ - featuring 109 stops and 8,000 pipes - was completely renovated in 1991 by N. P. Mander Ltd. of England creating a magnificent instrument in the English cathedral style and is especially well-suited to the grandeur of the Chapel.

Today, enhanced by its elegant beauty and charm, the Chapel is the site of frequent weddings and memorial services for alumni, faculty, and many other friends of the University, as well as concerts, services of music, thanksgiving, and penitence.  Each year, a Service of Remembrance is held for members of the campus community and alumni lost during the year. The Mander-Skinner organ provides excellent accompaniment for the superb seventy-voice choir, and for concerts and other occasions, including several non-denominational events that the University holds here each year.  In addition to the various denominational services held throughout the week, an ecumenical service is offered by the dean and the associate dean of Religious Life each Sunday at 11:00 am (10:00 am during summer). The deans are also joined by an array of nationally known guest preachers throughout the year and Princeton University students act as chapel deacons, assisting the deans in leading the weekly worship. The service is open not only to the entire Princeton University community but to townspeople and visitors to Princeton as well, who are most-warmly welcomed.   The Chapel is a bridge between town and gown and it is in the Chapel that the University comes together as a community.