Plans are underway to renovate Thompson Chapel, including new stone tablets engraved with the names of Williams men who died in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. These tablets will be additions to the plaques that honor men who fell in wars from the French and Indian War through World War II, and will replace lists of the names of the men now written on paper and hung on the walls.
The chapel will also have a new lighting system installed, and the floor plaque to Ephraim Williams, which is currently covered, will be removed and mounted on the wall.
Winthrop Wassenar, Director of the Physical Plant, said “the inscription of these names in stone will make the treatment of these men consistent with the treatment of men from other wars.”
Wassenar noted, “This hasn’t been done before as the money for this kind of project isn’t available in the year-to-year budget, as it is relatively expensive. The Class of 1950 has stepped in to provide funding for the changes in the chapel this year, and neither the inscriptions or the changes in lighting could have gone forward without their help.”
A former chair of the theater department designed the current lighting of the chapel. At that time, the chapel was envisioned as a space for performances by various musical groups and theater projects. The new lighting will be installed with a mind to the original purpose of the room: a sanctuary.
Thompson is said to be the most photographed building on campus but it is also, in the words of former President Harry C. Payne, “the most underutilized building on campus.”
According to Chaplain of the College, Robert Buckwalter, “the building is now used for a service on family weekends, and alumni weekends a Martin Luther King Jr. service, 18-20 weddings a year, mainly for alums but also for faculty, and for funerals, primarily of emeritus professors.”
The building is also used as an overflow for Chapin when the larger hall is booked and a large space is needed for an event. The Panama Canal Symposium and the debate on gun control are two recent examples of this function.
The chapel, built in 1904 by Francis R. Allen, was used more often in the past. The baccalaureate service, a religious service prior to the day of graduation, was traditionally held in the chapel, but in recent years the event was moved to Chapin Hall in order to accommodate a larger audience.
Through World War II, when the College had a religious affiliation, there was compulsory daily prayer in the Chapel. Buckwalter noted “Williams students first heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which happened on a Sunday night, when the president of the College announced it at the Monday morning service. After the war and until 1959 there was a compulsory weekly service.”
Voluntary weekly services were held in Thompson until 1965. Buckwalter noted, “the choir was paid and eventually came to outnumber the congregants.”
There have been several attempts to reinstitute voluntary weekly services in Thompson, most recently in 1992-1993. Buckwalter explained that “One week, a student would lead the service, the next week, a faculty member, and the third week I would. We continued this rotation, but attendance wasn’t great. A few times there were only six or seven people in the pews, which is very noticeable in as large a hall as Thompson.”
While the large Chapel is seldom used today, the basement of Thompson is utilized by a variety of groups. Buckwalter noted “the basement is currently used for a Williams Christian Fellowship weekly Bible study, there is a room the Muslim Student Union uses that has been consecrated for Muslim prayer, a grief support group meets there and there is a beautiful, newly restored small chapel in the basement, which the Newman Association uses.”