The Brandeis University Chapels make up one of the most celebrated locations on the University campus, a place of spiritual and serene reflection for the Brandeis community. Situated in a shady, tree-lined corner of campus around a heart-shaped reflecting pool, the architecturally placid and peaceful buildings are designed so that none casts its shadow on another. The Three Chapels together form a unified whole, and each building is as important to the master plan as another. This, in its philosophical essence, is the message of these buildings. In October of 2015, the Three Chapels will celebrate 60 years as a part of the history of Brandeis University. The history of the Chapels is a fascinating narrative of the vision of the University’s founders, the power of community action, and the unity that interreligious cooperation and respect can provide for a campus.
The building of a place of worship at Brandeis had always been part of the plan for the University’s first president, Dr. Abram L. Sachar. In the May 1954 press release announcing the plan for the Three Chapels, he noted that it was traditional for the founding faith of a university to build the chapel as a place of worship for their given denomination. Given the Jewish-founded yet non-sectarian status of Brandeis, this tradition presented an intellectual and architectural conundrum—how to avoid giving more weight to Judaism over other religions. By the third year of the University’s existence, money had been donated by noted Boston surgeon Dr. David D. Berlin to build a Jewish chapel on the Brandeis campus, named for his parents, Mendel and Leah Berlin. When this was announced in February of 1953, the Student Union protested vehemently, stating that it supported instead the original plan for an interdenominational space, which had been designed by Brandeis’s first master planner, Eero Saarinen. With funding for the Jewish chapel already set, Sachar was thus presented with the need to build at least a Catholic or Protestant Chapel as well, and he began at once to fundraise.
Abram Sachar and the other founding leaders of Brandeis saw the new demands of the project not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. Together, the Chapels were designed to emphasize the uniqueness, individuality, and equality of all creeds. There would be no shared space of worship, but instead a common outdoor area with an altar and reflection pool. Collectively, the Chapels were intended to create a space of unity, interreligious dialogue, and a celebration of faith. Max Abramowitz, the renowned architect who had designed may other elements of the early Brandeis campus, prepared plans for each chapel to have a unique character and identity. By October of 1953, the plan was announced with much fanfare.
|Building sketch ca. 1953|
A large fundraising effort for Catholic Bethlehem Chapel was led by former Massachusetts Governor Paul A. Dever and businessman and owner of the former Boston Braves Baseball franchise Louis Perini. It was praised and supported by Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing, who was a major leader in the fostering of positive relationships between Catholics and Jews. Catholics from across the country sent in donations. Major contributions included the donation of the chapel organ by the Callahan family in honor of their son William, who had died in combat, and religious vestments donated by Cardinal Cushing. However, not all members of the Boston Catholic community were supportive; leaflets were distributed with noticeable anti-Semitic rhetoric, urging Boston Catholics to prevent a “Jewish university” from building such a chapel. The Chapel itself, designed to evoke the styling of a cathedral, was named "Bethlehem" to connect it to religious scripture.
Fundraising for the Protestant Harlan Chapel was another communal effort by its represented religious community and Brandeis. Spearheaded by C. Allen Harlan of Detroit and Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II, the chapel was designed to evoke an open bible. The namesake of the chapel was the Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the grandfather of the chapel benefactor, Harlan II. The elder Harlan was the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that racially segregated American life (and which his grandson would reverse as a member of the Warren Court), who noted “[t]he Constitution is color-blind.”
The Jewish Berlin Chapel was given many features to symbolize particular religious ideas. The ark was designed to evoke the tabernacle the Jews carried in the wilderness, and noted fabric artist Helen Kroll Kramer created curtains to reflect the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. The outside façade of the chapel was designed to be simple and humble, taking inspiration from the prophet Hosea, who said to “[w]alk humbly before God.” It was built as the largest of the three chapels, in representation of the history and community of the University. The Brandeis University Hillel would oversee the Jewish chapel, while the Newman Club oversaw the Catholic chapel, and the Protestant Christian Students Association oversaw the Protestant chapel.
From the start, the Three Chapels were intended to form a central place for student and campus religious life on campus. The dedication of the Three Chapels took place on Sunday, October 30th, 1955, and was a very prestigious event for the campus community. There was music from faculty member and organist Caldwell Titcomb, and the University Chorus preformed works by Christopher Tye, Herbert Fromm, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Igor Stravinsky. Two major addresses were given, by Brandeis President Abram L. Sachar and Associate Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II. Honorary degrees were awarded to major religious thinkers in each tradition represented by the Chapels: Paul Tillich for Protestantism, Jacques Maritain for Catholicism, and Leo Baeck for Judaism. In his speech, Sachar referenced the writing of 18th-century Christian playwright Gottfried Ephraim Lessing and his work Nathan the Wise. Upon seeing the sacred beauty in the life of Nathan the Jew, a friar says: “There was never a better Christian,” to which Nathan responds: “We are of one mind. For that, which makes me, in your eyes, a Christian, makes you, in my eyes, a Jew.” Sachar’s speech introduced the Chapels as forming a space for religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation and conversation.
The dedication of the Three Chapels was picked up by many major national publications, including the New York Herald Tribune, Time Magazine, and Life Magazine. From this auspicious beginning the Chapels developed into a center of rich intellectual and religious life at Brandeis. The Chapels project was referred to in University publications as a prime example of the mission of Brandeis and the social diversity it encouraged. In 1965, for the 10th anniversary of the Chapels dedication, the University hosted a three-day academic conference on religion, academia, and social justice, which featured talks by academics, activists, and public religious figures from across the United States. To this day, the Three Chapels at Brandeis University continue to stand as testaments to the history, mission, and legacy of the University and to provide a sacred space of religious observance and personal reflection for the entire University community.
Written by Matthew Chernick, a triple major in Classical Studies, European Cultural Studies, and Film Studies at Brandeis University and University Archives Student Assistant.
All Sources used as part of this article are from the Three Chapels Collection. The collection is available for scholarly and community use at the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections at Brandeis University.
1 Abram L. Sachar; Press Release for The Three Chapels
2 The Justice; February 19th 1953
3 Architectural Record
4 Richard, Cardinal Cushing; “The Cushing Letter”
5 Abram L. Sachar; “Speech at Dedication of Chapels”
6 Anonymous; “Catholics of Boston” leaflet
8 Micah 6:8
9 Sachar; Dedication Speech
10 Brandeis University; Dedication of the Three Chapels Program Card
11 Sachar; Dedication Speech
12 10th Anniversary Conference Program