Link to the past

By Jessica Barzilay

Los Angeles drivers have very nearly seen it all on the streets of Southern California. However, even the most seasoned driver would have been surprised to see a chapel, split into 16 fragments, fastened to a procession of flatbed trucks, hurtling down Sepulveda Boulevard during the rainiest month of 1938.

So transpired the relocation of Saint Saviour’s Chapel from the former Harvard School’s campus in Venice to its current position across from Feldman-Horn Gallery, said School Archivist Alan Sasaki.

Now a Cultural and Historical Monument of the City of Los Angeles, the chapel serves as one of the only remaining physical connections between the old Harvard and today’s school.

Since its construction in 1914, the chapel has evolved from a house of worship at the heart of the Episcopalian Harvard School to a space for select performances and services at Harvard-Westlake.

Architecturally, the chapel serves as one of the only links to the old Harvard. A few members of the community connect the school population of the present to that of the past.

Athlete Study Hall Coordinator Steve Shaw ’71 remembers his experiences in Saint Saviour’s as a student when Harvard was an Episcopal military boading school. At that time, students participated in services every day of the week, which often served not only as religious proceedings, but also as a sort of class assembly.

The chaplain who designed the stained glass, Father John Gill, and the headmaster at the time, Father John Chalmers, led the student body in both spiritual and academic pursuits. The services were especially central to the school experience for students who lived on campus, since boarding was optional, .

“I looked forward to the services,” Shaw said. “The ones in the evening for boarders were a lot more community-oriented, since we knew each other really well.”

History teacher John Johnson began working at Harvard in 1976, when students were required to attend services once a week and the school no longer offered a boarding option.

Johnson’s connection to the chapel has a very personal aspect to it. Johnson was baptised in Saint Saviour’s when he first joined the community. He also became the godfather to the son of a former student and has spoken at memorial services for students and collegues.

“As is true of the best traditions and institutions, the chapel combined the personal and the school into a single experience or memory for me,” Johnson said.

As the school steadily grew, its religious character became less prominent so that there were only optional weekly services by the time Shaw returned in 1985 as alumni director. After the 1991 merger with The Westlake School for Girls, the significantly increased class size and the secular nature of Westlake made grade-wide church services logistically impossible, Shaw said.

Today, Chaplain Father J. Young conducts weekly open services on Tuesday mornings, with a group of eight to 10 regulars. He believes that each member of the community would benefit from attending at least one of the weekly services before graduating in order to honor the school’s past.

“The school has always had a historical connection to the Episcopal culture from the Harvard end of things,” Young said. “Not attending a service before you graduate is kind of like not ever seeing a school play — it’s a major part of the experience.”

Outside of the weekly prayer sessions, the chapel serves as the setting for weddings, memorials as well as for the annual Christmas service, which was held Dec. 11.

In addition to its religious functions, the chapel provides a prime location for one of the school year-end vocal performances of the school’s musicians. Traditionally, “Senior Solo Night” in the spring is the only concert that choir singers perform in Saint Saviour’s, said Choral Director Rodger Guerrero.

Although the relatively small seating capacity makes it difficult to hold other concerts in the chapel, Guerrero appreciates the effects of the architecture and acoustics.

“No other building on campus brings as much vibrant warmth to singing as does Saint Saviour’s,” Guerrero said.

All of the choirs record their vocal performances in the chapel in the spring, since the sound resonates so well.

Although the campus continues to undergo construction projects and renovations, the chapel stands almost exactly as it did upon its installation in 1938.

“Saint Saviour’s is a beautiful and tranquil space with magnificent windows,” Johnson said. “But it is more than that for me. It is a center of tradition and emotional attachment that reminds me of the history of the school, and of all schools for that matter, and of course, of my own youth, former students I cared about and miss and colleagues whom I respected and who inspired me in my own career.”  

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