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Mass. General Chapel marks 75 years

By Brian Fraga Pilot Correspondent
Posted: 6/3/2016

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Members of Mass. General Hospital chaplaincy staff offer closing blessings at the service to mark the chapel's 75th anniversary. Pilot photo/courtesy Mass. General Hospital

BOSTON -- On any given day, a visitor to Massachusetts General Hospital's chapel may find a nurse praying for her patients, a food service worker silently praying the rosary, a patient's worried relative seeking consolation or a homeless person seeking a moment's rest.

"It really is Mass General's common room, where people all come together, from very different walks of life, who are all seeking the same thing in that chapel space," said the Rev. John Polk, an Evangelical Lutheran minister who serves as the Director of Chaplaincy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Rev. Polk helped lead a May 25 service to celebrate the chapel's 75th anniversary. Since the Gothic Revival Chapel first opened on April 25, 1941 on the first level of the hospital's Baker Memorial Building, countless men and women of different religious traditions have sought refuge there.

"They all come for the same reason; for consolation, for peace, prayer, to communicate with God. Sometimes they come here to cry," said Father Joseph Boafo, a Catholic priest who has served as a chaplain at Mass General for three years.

"It's a blessing to have the chapel here," Father Boafo added. "Every Sunday, we have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and we have different services."

The chapel -- which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- has a weekly Catholic Mass, as well as a weekly Jewish service and a weekly Muslim prayer service that attracts hundreds of people. There are also monthly Hindu and Buddhist services, as well as a daily 15-minute prayer service.

In addition to the scheduled services, hospital staff members and relatives have gathered in the chapel to celebrate weddings, attend musical performances and to honor loved ones and colleagues who have died. People have also come to the chapel to pray and reflect after tragedies such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The religious services in the chapel are also broadcast into patients' hospital rooms, so up to 1,000 patients at any time can be watching the services on television, Rev. Polk said.

"In such a very busy, complicated, huge organization, the chapel provides a moment of peace and quiet and rest for lots of people, including patients and their loved ones and the staff of the hospital," Rev. Polk said.

Providing a sacred space for patients, their relatives and hospital staff was the original vision of Bishop William Lawrence of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. In 1939, Bishop Lawrence, who was then elderly and retired, sent out 1,500 handwritten letters to potential donors asking for support "in this bit of pioneer hospital work."

According to hospital records, more than 800 people of all religious faiths responded to the bishop's plea. Their generosity and Bishop Lawrence's guidance led to the Gothic Revival chapel opening in the hospital's Baker Building.

Bishop Lawrence wrote that he envisioned the chapel being a "living thing," a place of meditation and prayer set apart from the hospital's busy operations, where anyone could seek solace.

Though he was almost 90 years old, Bishop Lawrence drove the chapel's creation and lived to see its completion.

The chapel was moved to the first floor of the hospital's Ellison Building after the Baker Building was demolished in 1992. The present chapel is constructed according to the original design and incorporates the same stained glass windows designed by Charles J. Connick and Associates of Boston.

The chapel's Tree of Life motif echoes the west windows at Chartres Cathedral in France while local visitors will also recognize the influence of the John LaFarge windows at Trinity Church in Boston.

"In the style of a Gothic Renaissance chapel," Rev. Polk said. "It can be a very familiar kind of restful, worshipful place."

In one year, Rev. Polk said at least 7,548 people visited the chapel and made entries in the prayer book.

"In 12 months, 7,548 written prayers, petitions, intentions have been poured out in earnest in writing," Rev. Polk, said, "and we know the total number of people who have entered through these doors in that same time frame far exceeds those who took a moment to write what was on their hearts."

The May 25 anniversary service included music, prayers, and reflections from several hospital chaplain and staff members, followed by a reception in the Chapel foyer.

Rev. Polk focused his remarks during the service to the chapel's role as a communal place of prayer for everyone.

Said Rev. Polk, "Though we may look different, sound different, dress differently. Though we may be staff or patients or loved ones we all seek something similar -- perhaps to hear the good news that our patients, their loved ones, visitors and the staff are indeed priceless treasures."