Wren Chapel (Williamsburg, Virginia)

Yesterday (May 16th), I visited the Wren Chapel at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. First, a little history and backstory.

William & Mary was founded in 1693 and initially consisted of three buildings – all of which are still standing – and are known as “historic campus”. These three buildings are the Wren Building (1695-1699, with various rebuildings due to fires), Brafferton (1720s), and the President’s House (1730s – and he still lives there!). Although William & Mary is the second oldest college in America (after Harvard), the Wren Building is the oldest college building still in use.

Wren Building (by clio1789)

The Wren Building was – and still is – used for a variety of purposes. It houses professors, has a few classrooms (that look just like they did when the building went up), and some halls. It also houses the Wren Chapel. The original purpose of this building was to train up young men to be educated adults, and hopefully Anglican priests. Thus, a chapel was essential.

Wren Chapel Altar

Wren Chapel Pulpit

Back of Wren Chapel

I wasn’t able to get a good shot of the entire interior of the room, but you can see one here.

Below is a closeup of the crest on the banister:


The motto along the bottom of the crest is “God and my right”. I’ve been having trouble making out what’s along the crest.

If you look further up, you can see the organ and chandelier:

Organ and Chandelier

Nowadays, the Wren Chapel is used for some events, including various religious services. As may be expected, when a public, secular university tries to balance that secularism with its religious heritage, things can get tense. Case in point, the Wren Cross controversy.

Wren Chapel Cross

Until recently, the Wren Cross always sat perched upon the altar. In 2006, Gene Nichol (then president of the university) removed the cross from its place, explaining that the chapel is an important part of campus to people of a variety of backgrounds, and that many different religious groups use the chapel to meet. Thus, leaving the cross displayed on the altar was insensitive.

This produced many negative responses, particularly from alumni. A few of the wealthier ones who were planning multi-million dollar gifts to the school withdrew their support. After a variety of meetings and compromises, it was decided that the cross should be displayed on the altar at the request of Christians for their services, as well as on Sundays.

Now the Wren Chapel Cross sits to the right of the altar encased. The plaque below explains the connection of the cross to the local Bruton Parish Church.

Wren Chapel Cross' Plaque

This cross was given to Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church in 1907. About 1940, the church offered the cross to William and Mary for use in the Wren Chapel. It is placed on the altar upon request for Christian services, and also serves as a reminder of the College’s unique Anglican heritage and of its close connection over the centuries with Bruton Parish.

One other great church to see if you’re ever in the Williamsburg area is Bruton Parish Episcopal Church (mentioned above). It’s down in Colonial Williamsburg, and from what I’ve seen of it, it is definitely worth visiting. I tried to go, but there was a funeral scheduled, so I couldn’t. Perhaps some other time…


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