I’ve spent a lot of time in hospital chapels. Not for personal reasons – thankfully – but as I learned in the past ten years about how healthcare organizations across the country respond to religion and spirituality. Chapels were good places to wait for meetings, write my notes, or pause to catch my breath after hiking what seemed like miles from the parking lot.
The more chapels I visited, the more curious I became about their history, uses and names – chapels, meditation rooms, prayer rooms, and/or reflection rooms. Some were in dank back corners of hospitals with plastic plants covered in dust while others were right by the main entrance with natural light streaming through and gently tricking fountains by the door. Many held donation plaques, memorials for staff, and books or boxes where people left prayers. Few had people in them though most hosted Catholic mass or an interfaith service once a week. I gradually became convinced that I could predict how integrated the chaplains were in the hospital by the location, state, and smell of the chapel.
Sometimes, while sitting in hospital chapels, I wondered about chapels in other public spaces. Like lactations rooms, that I never noticed until I needed them, I soon realized that these hidden sacred spaces are all around us and I started to visit them in airports, universities, shopping malls, retirement centers and nursing homes. I read about them on military bases and prisons – where they are harder to access – and wondered with students, colleagues and friends how they came to be and what factors explain the different shapes they take in different sectors. Trained as a sociologist I was most interested in reading and interpreting what was inside these chapels until I met architectural historian Alice Friedman and architect Karla Johnson who read and saw things in the buildings themselves that were not visible to me.
Why are chapels required in some sectors – like the military and prisons, for example – but not others, like healthcare organizations or airports? Are these spaces more controversial in certain geographies? Certain sectors? Does anyone use them or are they just relics leftover from previous generations? What do they tell us – if anything – about the institutions and geographies where they are located? And how do we make sense of the architecture, the content and the use of these spaces?
Randy and I have been talking about these questions – and others - for the past month as we drove around Boston photographing the spaces you see here. With my handy excel sheet and welcome from some exceedingly gracious chaplains, we started to list and photograph sacred spaces in buildings and institutions with non-sacred purposes. The city’s Catholic roots are evident in many of these spaces like Our Lady Of Good Voyages and in the kneelers at the Eriich Lindemann Mental Health Center’s Chapel. The city’s growing religious diversity is also evident in Muslim prayer spaces at MGH, Northeastern, Brandeis and the gradual evolution of the chapel at Children’s Hospital.
We don’t have answers to our questions yet but are on the trail of an intriguing story about religion in public settings, about the city of Boston and its changes over time, about sacred architecture and design and perhaps – most importantly – about the pause these spaces invite, just out of view.
Join us in this journey by suggesting a chapel, meditation or prayer room in a secular organization for us to photograph. By helping us meet and learn from the people who care for these spaces, or by hosting an exhibit of these photographs and inviting us to talk about them. These photos are just a beginning and we look forward to learning with you in the days and months ahead.
-- Wendy Cadge