The Chapel

Built in 1904, the Chapel has served as a gathering place for many sermons, lectures, concerts, and other events by African Americans—from Nina Simone to Earth, Wind & Fire; from Dick Gregory to Audre Lorde. The Chapel serves as the site of the Baccalaureate service organized by the ALANA Senior Council (formerly the Council of Black Seniors) the day before Commencement and was the home of the Vassar Gospel Choir for several years.

In 1954, the Baccalaureate address was delivered by the Rev. Howard Thurman, a theologian and civil rights leader, who served as an important mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The address was just one of more than a dozen visits Thurman made to Vassar and this Chapel between 1928 and 1957. He was the father of Olive Thurman Wong ’48, one of the first openly acknowledged Black students to attend Vassar.

Thurman’s career was devoted to the practice of interracial fellowship. In 1941, years before his daughter was admitted, Thurman brought a group of students from Howard University to visit the College. The Chicago Defender reported they had been welcomed warmly and that the student exchanges had been positive.


During my freshman year, in the spring semester of 1969, Nina Simone and her trio performed in the Chapel. Maybelle Taylor Bennett ’70 recalls that Miss Simone paused when she first walked on to the stage. She looked around the audience and said, “I’m just doing a spot check.” Then she took her seat at the piano … and the rest is history. What a wondrous evening of stellar entertainment and moving messages! After the show, when several African American students greeted her in the Chapel basement “dressing room,” Nina Simone very warmly smiled and said, “You girls keep those Afros; they’re beautiful.”

Also, during my freshman year, my classmate Karen League ’72 formed and directed our Gospel Choir. The Black church experience was absent on the Vassar campus, but the choir allowed us to spiritually fellowship together via songs. The regular Chapel congregation was not familiar with our music and very few clapped along with us whenever we marched down the center aisle singing, “Oh, Let Us Walk.” Nonetheless, we were respectfully received. We sang from the choir loft in robes supplied by the Chapel. I’m sure my classmate and Vassar musician LaFleur Paysour ’72 played an integral role in getting us on the Chapel calendar.

Karen, an outstanding singer from a Chicago church, had a strong musical background. Some of the songs we sang in the Chapel included “We’ve Come This Far By Faith,” “I Had a Talk with God Last Night,” “Sweeping Through the City,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “The Train.” My parents took this photograph after the Gospel choir sang at a Chapel service one Sunday morning.

Vassar’s Gospel Choir performs on the Chapel lawn, circa 1970-71.

Perhaps my most memorable Chapel experience was the Earth, Wind & Fire concert during my junior spring semester in 1971. This new multi-talented, young group amazed us with their voices, their choreography, and their dynamic showmanship. At that time, they had a female member who was the lead singer on their first hit single, “I Think About Loving You.” She left the group shortly afterward.

Decades after the concert in the Chapel, Paula Madison ’74, Donna Knight ’74, and I again enjoyed their performance on a Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage cruise. When we saw them on the promenade one afternoon, we shocked them when we sang the chorus of that first hit single from 1971. They had not performed it in over 30 years. During the cocktails, conversation, and laughs that followed, the group nostalgically recalled that Vassar was on their very first college tour. They also reminisced about the party in Kendrick House that followed that concert!

—Pat James Jordan ’72, P’17

Old black and white portrait of a man in a suit and tie.

Painting of Olive Thurman.

The Rev. Howard Thurman and a portrait of his daughter, Olive Thurman Wong ’48, painted by Phyllis Lambert ’48.