The Chapel

One of the notable events that occurs at the University Chapel each year is the interfaith Baccalaureate gathering, to which seniors process together.
One of the notable events that occurs at the University Chapel each year is the interfaith Baccalaureate gathering, to which seniors process together. Photo: Denise Applewhite
Princeton's religious heritage is exemplified in the imposing and elegant University Chapel, the third largest college chapel in the world. Built when students were still required to attend Sunday services, today the chapel is the center of spiritual life on campus for many denominations, fulfilling its public mission in an increasingly multicultural society.

It is Princeton's third chapel, replacing Marquand Chapel that burned to the ground in 1920; it was designed by Ralph Adams Cram in 1921 and finished in 1928. Then-president of Princeton John Hibben sought to engage the spiritual life of his students through architectural means: "The thoughts and feelings of youth are peculiarly sensitive to their surroundings… [T]hey come by daily association to recognize [in] the new Princeton Chapel… the University's protest against the materialistic philosophy and drift of our age, the symbol of the higher aspirations of man, a refuge for quiet thought and contemplation, 'a house of ancient mystery,' the holy place of God."

Reflecting the architectural style of medieval English cathedrals, the chapel's traditional cruciform plan is oriented along an east-west axis. Within the Collegiate Gothic edifice, the theme of fides et ratio — the interdependence of faith and reason in the contemplation of God — is expressed in decorative masonry, woodwork, tapestry and stained glass. Christian iconography is interwoven with elements of academic life and other religions. Highlights include scenes of vice, virtue and Bible stories over nearly every portal; stained glass depictions of Christian figures, Greek philosophers and modern secular saints lining the 74-foot nave; the massive organ above the elaborately carved pews of the chancel; and the great vitrines fronting the north, south, east and west facades respectively celebrating Endurance, Teaching, Love and the Second Coming of Christ.

Peculiarly Princetonian touches include in memoriam carvings along the walls, a tattered flag from the WWII-era U.S.S. Princeton, and the Prayer for Princeton etched on the narthex wall.

The chapel is the site of Princeton's annual Opening Exercises, the Alumni Day Service of Remembrance and Baccalaureate Services, as well as interdenominational memorial services, funerals and weddings for alumni and members of the University.