Bahai News -- Mercury News - CHURCH REMAINS AT SCHOOL'S HEART Posted on Sat, Jan. 25, 2003




By Kim Vo
Mercury News

When Leland and Jane Stanford decided to place a church at the center of campus, the faculty balked. A library -- a place of books and thought -- would be more appropriate, the professors opined. But Jane Stanford stood firm.

"The church is the only institution that makes or has made or pretends to make a stand against immorality in all its forms," she said. "Education does not; nor does that science in which you are interested and which you consider all-powerful."

Exactly one century and two major earthquakes since it first opened, Stanford Memorial Church has remained true to Jane Stanford's vision of having a spiritual center that caters to a diverse community.

It's where students knelt at the Dalai Lama's feet when he visited the campus in 1994; where a thousand people gathered Sept. 11, 2001, and held a vigil for those killed in the terrorist attacks; and where every year students sway and strut down the aisles, to the thump of African drums, during the Black Graduation Celebration.

It's also where babies are baptized, couples wed and the deceased -- from bright lights like David Packard and Wallace Stegner to everyday folks -- are memorialized.

MemChu -- as it's called in abbreviated Stanford-speak -- has played a unique role in this academic mecca since it first opened on Jan. 25, 1903.

The Stanfords understood how religion and education are intertwined, said the Rev. Scotty McLennan, the university's dean for religious life.

"The questions of life -- Why are we here? How do I live a good life? Those are central questions a university dare not ignore," McLennan said.

The questions are not limited to individual introspection. In the 1960s, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and the Rev. William Sloan Coffin preached powerfully here against the Vietnam War. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, with the sandstone church and its shimmering mosaic as a backdrop, religious leaders held a memorial service in the campus quad that began with a Muslim call to prayer and ended with the ringing of a Buddhist bell.

And today, Stanford is hosting a daylong conference to discuss different religions and how to mediate the conflicts between them. "There is no more important time than now for serious, committed interreligious dialogue," said McLennan, who likes to note that Stanford has every religion from Baha'i to Zoroastrianism.

This is in keeping with the original vision of the Stanfords, who were Christian and progressive for their time. The church has always been non-denominational, an unusual position in the early 1900s. Indeed, when the church first opened, there were 14 officiating clergy members, including a rabbi.

"I like to say the theme of this church is unity. So many people from so many different faiths were involved and so many media," docent Pat Baker said, referring to the church's mix of stone, tile and glass.

Stanford Memorial Church is a monument to faith, love and grief. Jane Stanford had the church "erected to the glory of God and in loving memory of my husband Leland Stanford," a large inscription across the front of the church once proclaimed. Leland Stanford, the railroad tycoon and former governor, died in 1893, two years after the university opened. The Stanfords built the university as a tribute to their son, who died from typhoid at age 15.

It is an ornate building of swooning cathedral proportions decorated with 140 stained glass windows and countless mosaics. As the sun circles the campus, different windows come alight, showing off the violet streaks in the angels' milky wings and giving Christ's robes a velvet lushness.

The afternoon, when chancel windows glow and make Jesus' ascension resplendent, is a favored time to give tours. Some are partial to Sunday night compline service, when candles provide the only light. As congregants meditate and chant, music from the choir loft rises behind them.

The church inspires both awe and serenity. Ashley Ivy, an earth-systems major from Texas, brings her visiting family members here; it reassures them she's going to a good school. She also goes by herself.

"If I want to go think," she said, "I feel safe there."

It's also a popular place to celebrate. During the height of wedding season, there are up to five ceremonies each weekend, though one must have a Stanford connection to hold a ceremony here.

Wedding guests focus on the bride and groom during the ceremony, of course, "but around the edges people do talk about" the artwork, said docent Susan Christiansen. She graduated from Stanford in 1960 and got married at the church in 1962. She sat on the oak pews in 1976 when her father was memorialized, and again in 1994 when her daughter was married.

For some, the church is a community treasure more akin to a museum than a religious institution.

Minoti Pakrasi, an art historian from Mountain View, first visited Memorial Church in 1992 and has returned so many times she's lost count.

"Each time I come here I see something new," said Pakrasi. "It's so intense."


The ``Exploring Religious Boundaries and Conflicts'' conference begins at 11 a.m. today in Room 2 of Building 200 of the Stanford campus. It is free and open to the public.

The church's centennial will be marked by a gathering scheduled for 4:30 to 5 p.m. today at the church, located next to the Main Quad on the university campus. Admission is free. An a capella performance by Talisman will be featured. The church's history and Jane Stanford's vision for the community will be discussed.

Regular services: 10 a.m. Sundays. Catholic Mass: 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Jewish services are held in another campus building. Information: (650) 723-1762.

©Copyright 2003, Mercury News

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