Chaplain’s Corner: a window and a statue

Bridget Power

When my parents visited Williamstown earlier this fall, I took them on a quick tour of campus. In Thompson Memorial Chapel — where the College’s Catholic community gathers for Mass on Sunday evenings — I pointed out the building’s most famous stained-glass window, a depiction of an angel gazing up at the prophet Abraham, who in turn looks in the direction of the angel’s outstretched arm. Below this image is a portrait in profile of Williams alum and twentieth president of the United States of America, James Abram Garfield, class of 1856. The inscription dedicates the window to his memory as a “scholar, a soldier and a statesman.”

Looking at the window, my dad asked, “What do you know about Garfield?” to which I could only respond that I knew he had been assassinated.

In order to redeem my bachelor’s degree in American studies, I decided to embark on some further research.

I listened to the audiobook of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. I learned that Garfield, who had a loving but challenging childhood in Ohio, was already a talented student by the time he arrived at the College. After graduating, he returned to his home state, where he became a husband, father, college president for Hiram College, Major General in the Union Army, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. When he was shot on July 2, 1881, at a train station in Washington, D.C., Garfield happened to be embarking on a trip to Williamstown with two of his sons — both of whom attended the College, and the elder, Harry Augustus Garfield, later served as President of the College from 1908 to 1934. Garfield suffered for two and a half months as his medical team, with help from the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, attempted to locate the bullet. He died on Sept. 19, 1881.

Through a quick Google search, I discovered that the window in Thompson Memorial Chapel was created by the American artist John La Farge in the year after Garfield’s death. The window appeared in the College’s Stone Chapel (now Goodrich Hall) before it was moved to Thompson Memorial Chapel in 1905. Its inscription acknowledges Garfield’s “prolonged suffering,” while the image positions Garfield as a new Abraham, a father of a nation whose leadership will help his descendants reach the promised land.

In contrast to this message about Garfield’s life and death embedded in stained glass, Soldiers Monument conveys a universal hope for unity and perseverance, along with a reminder of the costs of war. The nameless soldier stands alone on the hill in front of Griffin Hall, looking south. He no longer fights; the stock of his gun rests on the ground.

Why people would choose to vandalize this monument, which has been a feature on the College’s campus since 1868, is confounding. The defacing of this bronze statue becomes part of its story. It continues to honor the students and alumni of Williams College, like President Garfield, who fought in the U.S. Civil War, but this memorial is also now a reminder of the persistence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in our own time.

The stained glass window and Soldiers Monument bring our attention to the presence and reality of suffering in our world. In distinct ways, they attempt to address particular experiences of pain and loss. Together, these memorials remind us that suffering is an unavoidable part of the human experience and elicit questions about how we individually and collectively make meaning of such suffering.

As students at a liberal arts college, you are invited to grapple with such questions. As a chaplain, it is my privilege to raise such questions, to wrestle with them, and often to simply sit with them. If you want to respond to any of the questions that these remarks might have brought up for you, I hope you’ll reach out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Bridget Power is the College’s Catholic chaplain.