Friday, July 10, 2020

The 1911 Chapel of St. Columba - The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

When Daniel Leroy and is wife, the former Susan Elizabeth Fish moved permanently from their elegant home at 20 St. Marks Place to Newport, their daughter Mary Augusta was still in her teens.  In 1849, when she was 20 years old, she married another Newport resident, Edward King.

King had already made a fortune in the China Trade, dealing in tea and silk, and had extensive real estate holdings in Newport, Rhode Island and New York City.  The King mansion, design by Richard Upjohn in 1845 and completed in 1847, was the largest and most impressive house in Newport at the time.

When Edward died in September 1875, The New York Times remarked "His wealth is estimated at $5,000,000."  The massive estate would equal about $111 million today.  The article added "a wife and eight children survive him."  But before the century was out, Mary Augusta King would repeatedly attend the funerals of her children.  Both Edward and Elizabeth died in 1878, Alexander in 1885, and Leroy in December 1895.

Mary commissioned John La Farge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a memorial to her husband in the Newport cemetery.  She was a congregant of St. Columba's Chapel just outside of Newport and donated several windows memorial windows.

Her connection with John La Farge and the Irish St. Columba resurfaced when Heins & La Farge was awarded the commission to design the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.  The plan included seven chapels fanning out in a U shape behind the main altar.  They would be known as the "Chapels of the Tongues," dedicated to the city's largest immigrant groups.

The Irish chapel would be the Chapel of St. Columba, the patron of Ireland and Scotland.  On April 13, 1905 The New York Times reported "Work on the Chapel of St. Columba, for which a gift of $100,000 from Mrs. Edward King was recently announced, will shortly begin."  Mary's donation would equal $3 million today.  The chapel was to be a memorial to her daughter, Mary LeRoy King, who had died a year earlier.

Sadly, Mary would not live to see the chapel completed.  She died three weeks after The Times article.  When the Chapel of St. Columbia was dedicated on April 19, 1911, it was presented to Henry Lewis Morris of the Cathedral trustees by her son, George Gordon King.  The family added to the gift by providing "two patens, two chalices and two cruets, all silver-gilt, inscribed: 'In living memory of Mary Augusta King 1911, Mary LeRoy King 1911" to be used within the chapel.

Spanish-style wrought iron gates introduce the chapel.  photo by Another Believer
Heins & La Farge's striking work melded Romanesque with Gothic.  A Spanish-style wrought iron screen and gates sat within a Romanesque arch.  Within niches on either side were ten statues which followed the successive stages of the development of Christianity.  Within the chapel proper the heavy engaged columns along the walls were decorated with incised spirals and terminated in leafy capitals.  Above the cream-colored Italian marble altar were mosaics representing Celtic crosses.  

The stained glass windows, however, were the chapel's pièce de résistance.  Modeled after the windows in the 13th century York Minster cathedral, they were "pattern windows" because they relied on geometric patterns rather than figures or scenes.  (The exception was the depiction of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the four upper panels of the central window.)  They are also known as grisaille windows because of the amount of "grizzled" or grayish brown glass used. 

The intricate windows are breathtaking.

Helen Marshall Pratt, the author of The Cathedrals of England and Westminster Abbey, was highly impressed with the windows.  In an article in The New York Times Magazine on September 14, 1919 she called them "almost equal in beauty to the Five Sisters Window of York Cathedral."  She deemed them "better worth studying than any that I know in the city."

Originally, of course, the Chapel of St. Columba was filled with seating and accessory items.  On December 7, 1929, for instance, the Ballston Spa Daily Journal noted "surrounding the chapel are six wonderfully graceful seven-branched Candelabra, after Donatella, which were brought from Italy."

The chapel had noble visitors on December 28, 1924 after Lord Robert Cecil, the First Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, and his wife attended services in the cathedral.  The New York Times reported that following the services the head usher "took Lord and Lady Cecil and Mrs. Lamont on an inspection of the seven Chapels of the Tongues."  The couple was taken with the sculptured entrance.  "The Viscount remained longest in the Chapel of St. Columba.  Here is a series of statues by Gutzon Borghum of representatives of the successive stages of the development of Christianity in England."

The sculptures of church figures flank the entrance.
The chapel was the scene of an interesting ceremony in 1965.  On November 10 the Review Press-Reporter of Bronxville, New York reported "A 700-year-old piece of Westminster Abbey was presented to the Episcopal Bishop of New York last week."  

The gift from England was conferred in a ceremony in the Chapel of St. Columba.  The Dean's Verger of Westminster Abbey gave Bishop Horace W. B. Donegan a 1-foot by 9-inch by 8-inch piece of a carved capital from one of the Abbey's ambulatory chapels.  It dated from the 13th century when Henry III started to rebuild Edward the Confessor's church.

The Bishop promised that the 28-pound artifact would be "incorporated within the fabric of our Cathedral Church," and said that "until the Abbey stone is permanently built into the Cathedral Church it will be on exhibition in the Nave."

In 1990 artist Keith Haring sculpted a bronze triptych altarpiece entitled The Life of Christ.  One of the nine casts was acquired by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and placed on the altar of the Chapel of St. Columba.  It stands out starkly within the Heins & La Farge surroundings, a poignant piece of religious art.

photographs by the author


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  2. I remember those beautiful candelabra. What happened to them?

  3. This chapel used to have furniture such as pews and there were candelabra, What happened to them. I do like the Keith Haring triptych being used as a raredos, though. I have loved Keith's work for years, an artist taken from us way too soon. The chapel looks too barren after the removal of the candelabra and furniture. Is it even used as liturgical space any more?

    1. Most of the chapels have had the seating removed. I assume they are only brought back when a service is scheduled.

  4. The cathedral website calls this the British Chapel to include all the peoples of the British Isles. One of the architects was Christopher Grant LaFarge, the son of noted artist John LaFarge who was married to a granddaughter of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of Rhode Island. Oliver's younger brother, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of New York City, was the grandfather of August Belmont who gave the adjacent chapel of St Saviour as a memorial to his late wife. I question the fact that John LaFarge designed the windows as he died in 1911 at age 75. The Cathedral guidebook (1920,1965) I have states that the windows were the "work of Wilbur Herbert Burnham of Boston."

  5. No, the windows were not executed by LaFarge; although I'm not certain they were by Burnham, either. The 1916 "The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine" published by the Cathedral League, as well as the 1923 "Rider's New York City" attribute them to Clayton and Bell, in London. While it may be termed the British Chapel today, that was not the original designation. And at one point, by the 1920's, it was called the "Scots Chapel."