Our History - St. Elizabeth's Chapel, Sudbury, MA
The little stone chapel of St. Elizabeth of Hungary was designed and built between 1912 and 1914 by Ralph Adams Cram, the world famous architect of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and many other churches, as a place of worship for himself, his family, and his neighbors.
The Crams had purchased a rundown farmhouse and 140 acres of land in 1911 as a family seasonal and spiritual retreat from their primary residence on Beacon Hill. This house, restored and expanded by the Crams, was named "Whitehall" and sits immediately to the east of the chapel today, under private ownership.
There were no working plans for the construction of the chapel until it was practically finished (indeed, one wall of the nave is inches longer than the other). All the stones came from field walls on his estate, split and installed by two local labourers, Christino Alberico and John Smith.
Mr. Cram explained the chapel's building later: "The guiding idea was to think and work as would pious peasants who knew nothing about architecture except that a church has round topped windows and that the altar end was finished in the form of a semi-circle......Reliance was placed on form and proportion to the almost total exclusion of ornament.....the stone and brick have been blended into each other in a more or less casual yet rather carefully studied manner, after the fashion that is to be found in the Italian and Spanish buildings of the earlier Middle Ages."
Each member of the Cram family had a part in the chapel's building. Father, mother and the two older children mounted the scaffold to place a stone each in the arch over the doorway. Because Betty was too young to climb a ladder, a nurse marked a cross on a tiny pink stone with her little finger, then climbed a ladder to place it for her.
The little chapel was completed just as World War I broke out. and was blessed by Father Powell, Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (aka The Cowley Fathers).
Cram had been converted from Unitarianism to Anglo Catholicism, a movement that would be considered "high church" Episcopalianism and from 1900 or so the Cowley Fathers had been "intimately associated with my family and professional life."
The final product deviated but slightly from his ideal of "simplicity and lack of ornamentation." The intricate ironwork of the exterior doors add to the overall beauty of the structure and provide a hallmark to its architect and the chosen name.
Since both Mrs. Cram and the Cram's second daughter were named Elizabeth, St. Elizabeth of Hungary was selected as the patron saint. The large and small crowns on the front entrance attest to Elizabeth being both saint and queen. The roses in the overall design are hers also, but the fleur-de-lis comes from ihe Cram coat of arms. This ironwork, along with the balcony inside, were the work of Harry Dean from Mr. Cram's architectural firm, his last project before being killed in World War I.
The leaded opaque windows were designed and made by Charles J. Connick. The original window over the front door was replaced by the beautiful stained glass Rose Window in 1943, I memorial gift by Betty Cram for her father and mother, and also designed and made by Connick. The beautiful color of the window are best seen from inside the chapel prior to sunset. It shows the Nativity in the center, the Annunciation on the left, the Archangel Raphael in the top center, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary in the lower center.
The Crams traveled extensively, and obtained many items of art over the years to furnish the Chapel. In addition, friends contributed a number of items in keeping with the Cram's personal tastes. Hie result was a mixture of useful and beautiful object d'art which mirrored Ralph Adams Cram's deep feelings of a close relationship between the Middle Ages and the present. Some items have disappeared over the years, but most survive and are on display in the Chapel today, including:
The retablo, a 16th century Spanish triptych (three panelled object of paintings on wood) stands behind the altar. It was brought back by the family from one of their trips to Spain.
Six gold painted wooden candlesticks and crucifix with matching base, also "old Spanish", sit on the altar.
Also resting on the altar is an extremely old (perhaps 9th century) door to a wooden box called a tabernacle, which was used in the ritual of the church. It is carved with a primitive figure of Christ arising from the tomb.
At the right of the altar is a brass Abyssinian processional cross, given to the Chapel at the time of the Italian invasion of that country (now Ethiopia).
The Madonna statue on the right pedestal is of chalkware and unmarked, reportedly made by Sterling Calder. A larger copy in white marble is said to be in one of Cram's larger churches, and the face was "always said that it looked like Betty, and somewhat like me", according to Mary Cram.
A walnut crucifix hangs on the right wall, its style suggesting it dates from about 1400, when the Renaissance in art began.
The wooden statue on the left pedestal is a likeness of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, showing her with the roses in her skirt which changed miraculously from the contraband bread she was bringing to starving prisoners. It is marked "Joseph Sibbel Studio", carved allegedly by Kirchmcycr (according to Mary Cram).
Hanging on the wall to the left of the Sacristy door is a Russian icon with mirrors, which was given to Mrs. Cram by a grateful refugee from that country.
The Holy Water stoop near the front door is "very ancient", French or Italian, rescued from a French church destroyed in World War I.
The bell came from an old Gloucester fishing vessel, and was rung enthusiastically to celebrate the end of World War I on November 11. 1918
The brass crucifix in the Sacristy is shown in the center of the altar in early (1915) photos.
Hanging on the wall in the Sacristy is a framed French tapestry, reputed to be the work of the Ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette.
There are two other tapestries which were displayed for many years on either side of the altar, but are so fragile they have been retired from active display They are in a chest in the main church along with early vestments and a reliquary.
During the more than twenty years following completion of the chapel, the Crams used it during the warm months (it had no electricity nor heat) with the Cowley Fathers coming out "from time to time to say Mass and to administer the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Matrimony." When priests were not in attendance, Mr. Cram would celebrate Morning and Evening Prayer. The Chapel was open to neighbors and others from outside the community too:
There is not a day in summer when visitors, sometimes from far states, do not find their way to this Chapel of St. Elizabeth of Hungary"
In 1936 the Crams deeded the chapel and seven acres of land to the Cowley Fathers, requiring them to hold services at least six times a year, and preserving burial plots for the Crams and their offspring, where they were buried following their deaths in 1942 and 1943. If one stands inside the Sacristy, the beautiful blue slate head and footstones can be viewed on a direct line with the "altar rock" a natural foundation that forms the focal point of the Memorial Churchyard, built in 1995. Perhaps Cram had a vision of this in mind when he picked out the site for his final resting place!
It is due to the generosity and kind cooperation of the Cowley Fathers that St. Elizabeth's Mission came into being in 1947. The Society leased the chapel for $1 for a ten year lease to a group of local Episcopalians who wished to start a church in Sudbury but had no meeting place. The first service was held on May 11, 1947 and the chapel was used as the primary place of worship until 1964 when the new sanctuary was built.
On October 30,1983 the long association with the Society officially came to an end with the chapel being gifted to St. Elizabeth's Parish at a candlelight service celebrated jointly by Father (now Bishop) Thomas J. Shaw, Superior of SSJE, and St. Elizabeth's Rector, The Rev. Robert G. Trache. The chapel is still used year round (weather permitting) for early services and for occasional weddings, funerals, and quiet days. The Memorial Churchyard forms an intricate part of the chapel and surrounding grounds as a resting place for the ashes of members of the St. Elizabeth's community.
People of many creeds, as well as parishioners, continue to worship at the chapel as well as use the grounds and Churchyard for quiet contemplation and reflection. Mr. Cram would have been pleased, for he wrote that any true church "should express the great idea of unity" in the worship of Almighty God. Strangers climb the winding paths under the towering pines to the door of the little chapel, and the sense of worship is so strong within its quiet stone walls that many kneel to pray. Young and old, of many diverse nationalities.....all these elements of beauty and worship blend together in a strangely harmonious way. So also all tongues are one in this House of God.