The Essentials of Campus III: Sage Chapel

29 05 2009

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Moving on to yet another fixture of the Cornell Campus, we have the first religious building constructed for the university, Henry Sage Chapel.

So, most Cornellians are at least aware of why the chapel was built- Cornell, being founded as a nonsectarian university, was often attacked by its detractors for its lack of religious emphasis, earning itself the nickname “the heathens on the hill”, or “infidel Cornell”. A.D. White could’ve cared less, as he was enormously proud that the university touted nonsectarianism and voluntary church attendance (White always made the claim that Cornell was the first to have voluntary chapel, but that distinction actually goes to the University of Virginia (140). Regardless of opinion, however, the vast majority of students at the time were church-goers, so Henry Sage, one of the original trustees (and an enormously wealthy benefactor of the university), donated money to construct a chapel so that students may be able to attend church services on campus rather than having to venture down to the various houses of worship in the city.

Lore has it that when Mrs. Sage was looking through the plans for Sage College in 1872, she noticed a small corner of the building was to be set aside for a chapel. Supposedly, she turned to her husband and exclaimed, “is that the only provision in that great university which is made for chapel services?”, and the following day her husband approached A.D. White with the idea of build a proper chapel (193). Look ins back towards the facts, Sage had originally proposed a university chaplain, which White staunchly opposed (194), suggesting a lecture series in Christian ethics (along with other faiths) instead. So when the chapel was first built, it had a lecture series given by both local and well-travelled preachers, but no permanent clergyman.

The original Sage Chapel was completed in 1875, about the same time the first student handbook finally suggested that services were merely voluntary. Over subsequent years, Sage was remodeled and expanded numerous times (1884, 1903, 1939) before the construction of Anabel Taylor in 1953 did away with the need for further expansion. The original Sage looked something like this:

Sage Chapel as it appeared in the late 1870s.

Sage Chapel as it appeared in the late 1870s.

The original construction was less than half the size of the current Sage Chapel, and sat 500 worshipers (194). The house to the right (east) was home to Professor Charles Babcock, who also happened to be the person who designed Sage Chapel. According to Morris Bishop, morning services were usually poorly attended as students preferred churches closer to their boarding houses in the city, but afternoon services were often packed. Electric lights were installed in the belfry of Sage Chapel in 1879, the first in the Ithaca area (a fact that they included in the free agendas you picked up at the registrar—or (202)). The Mortuary Chapel, where John and Jennie McGraw, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Sage, Willard Fiske Ezra Cornell, A.D. White and E. E. Day all lay at rest, was completed in 1884 (all are bodies except Day, who was cremated and had his ashes interred in the chapel in 1951). A.D. White was known for giving much attention to the details of the chapel exterior, so that students would have a good moral impression (236). It should be noted that Fiske, who died seven years after Henry Sage, was interred during a football game with Penn, so hopefully no one would pay much attention (356). This was an epic fail, because Sage’s two sons were a little angry that their father’s enemy was allowed to be interred in the same mortuary room, so they resigned their trustee positions four days later in disgust, and severed all ties to the university.

So, that largely fulfills our little history portion. Cornell has a nice little book out there for those who are interested in some of the finer points of Sage Chapel, but for those of a more casual interest, going inside the ornate chapel is a real treat, especially if you can sit in on a session on the organ.

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Many of the windows are dedicated in memoriam to those whose lives were cut short. Among examples are students who died during the smallpox outbreak of the late 1800s, and the Cornellian who was killed during the Civil Rights protests, Michael Schwerner ’61 [2].

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I’ll be honest; as someone who doesn’t regularly attend services here in college but still considers himself a Christian, I do not nor have I ever been greatly comfortable with even taking photos in churches, because to me it feels disrespectful. Hence the relative lack of them.

[1]Morris Bishop, A History of Cornell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962.

[2]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey_Schwerner


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4 responses

31 01 2013
Kevin Barr

I had the great pleasure of visiting Sage Chapel this very afternoon. Other than some students that were in the basement, I was all alone. The lights were dim. And the smell of polished wood over a century old permeated the air. Not a sound to be heard. I walked the interior in silence and awe! I read most of the bronze tablets, and learned a few things along the way. A death due to drowning aboard Adm. Perry’s ship. And the class of ’61 student killed during the equal rights protest. I even peaked in the crypt, which was locked. Kevin R. Barr Interlaken NY 1/30/13

12 09 2015
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[…] in the country, famously home to a school that pastors derided in fiery philippics 150 years ago for daring to not affiliate itself with a Christian denomination or enforce mandatory church attenda…, churches can hold their […]

25 01 2016
Greg Medina de Kinsman

I haven’t been there in over 30 years, since I was on staff there. But I would spend many a lunch hour there meditating or just reflecting on any number of topics that were relevant to me at the time. However, nothing impressed me more than the day that I saw a bronze plaque below a stained-glass window that was dedicated in honor to a distant relative of mine…Estevan Antonio Fuertes, who in the latter part of the 1800s founded the College of Engineering. He was the son of Spanish immigrants to Puerto Rico at a time when the Island was still part of the Spanish colonial empire. He was also the founder also of the campus’ Fuertes (pronounced erroneously as “Forteez”) Observatory. Once at a dinner I mentioned this to the then-president who dared to argue that “there were no Puerto Ricans on this campus in the 1800s”. I told him that since he was white, he didn’t stand-out as any kind of “outsider”, but his undeniable contributions and accomplishments DID stand-out and still do He excused himself and left the table.

25 01 2016
Greg Medina

I haven’t been there in over 30 years, since I was on staff there. But I would spend many a lunch hour there meditating or just reflecting on any number of topics that were relevant to me at the time. However, nothing impressed me more than the day that I saw a bronze plaque below a stained-glass window that was dedicated in honor to a distant relative of mine…Estevan Antonio Fuertes, who in the latter part of the 1800s founded the College of Engineering. He was the son of Spanish immigrants to Puerto Rico at a time when the Island was still part of the Spanish colonial empire. He was also the founder also of the campus’ Fuertes (pronounced erroneously as “Forteez”) Observatory. Once at a dinner I mentioned this to the then-president who dared to argue that “there were no Puerto Ricans on this campus in the 1800s”. I told him that since he was white, he didn’t stand-out as any kind of “outsider”, but his undeniable contributions and accomplishments DID stand-out and still do He excused himself and left the table.

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