A young Holyoke of the Class of 1746 chronicled the happenings at Harvard College before his admission: “1742, June 2. Foundation of the Chapel Laid Some part of ye begin’g of this month. [sic]” Thus he recorded the beginning of a symbolic change in the Harvard Yard: the construction of its first chapel. Despite the many religious commitments of Harvard men, who read the Scriptures multiple times in a day and practiced the teachings of the Bible, a century went by until Holden was built.
This particular shortcoming of the College, which had already finished its brew-house, buttery, and philosophy chamber, constituted a disturbance to its most devout students. The project to rectify this issue was begun using funds raised by Thomas Hutchinson, Class of 1727, on his trip to London. The charitable donation of £400 was delivered by Mrs. Holden, whose coat of arms still adorns the gable of the modest, Gregorian building. When the College did finally build its temple, somehow it never realized its mission.
Holden Chapel lost its ecclesiastical status irretrievably in 1766 when the Harvard Hall was built, and its ground level designated as the new College chapel. Three years later, Sir Francis Bernard declared the Chapel was to be the new meeting place for the House when the British troops came into town. In 1775, the militia took over the building during the Revolutionary War, and used it as a general utility room: the chapel barracked Washington’s troops.
During its tumultuous early years, the Chapel deteriorated as a result of its service to the state and the Revolutionary War. It sat in silent disrepair in the corner of the Yard for years. In 1783, the auspicious Dr. Warren, Class of 1771 and founder of the Harvard Medical School, laid his healing hand on the Chapel and planned to convert it into an amphitheater.
Over two centuries later, on a summer day in 1999, some construction workers hit a round brick object under the Holden Chapel. When their curious eyes rested on what looked like human remains, archaeologists were called to the scene.
Accompanied by Christina J. Hodge, an archaeologist and lecturer for the course, Archaeology of Harvard Yard, I walk down the red shelves in the Peabody Depository. We stop at letter “H” and start pulling drawers full of objects from the Holden excavation. The broken glass tubes are tainted with rainbows of arsenic, mercury, and lead. The matrix that the artifacts were salvaged from was mostly organic matter, Hodge tells me. Organic mush sifted through the big, round, brick dry well.
We look at brown bones stained with red pigment here and there, and a grey piece of coral. Hodge says that the most interesting finds have been a shoe, and a set of buttons. These personal items suggest that the remains are from cadavers that were displayed, in full dress, at the amphitheater.
The recreational activities of the students who frequented the Chapel are evidenced by a wine bottle and many, many oyster shells. Midnight raids on the Chapel to sneak out the remains for the purposes of room decoration were not unheard of. The lectures at the chapel were frequented by seniors, with permission of their parents and the payment of a fee. They lasted two to three hours and focused on examination of many kinds of human remains. When the medical school moved to Boston, along with the lectures, it left behind a small museum of specimens at the Chapel. Some of the specimens that were excavated in 1999 are on view as part of the “Body of Knowledge” exhibition at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments in the Science Center.
After a renovation in 1880, Holden Chapel acquired the status that it holds today. Since then, crowds of a respectable size have congregated for music department events, elocution classes, and choir practice.
Surrounded by the newer halls of Stoughton, Hollis, Lionel, and Mower, Holden Chapel is often missed by the eager tourist’s camera. Having housed state officials, soldiers, fire trucks, human cadavers and chemicals, it has earned a well-deserved retirement.