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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Local houses of worship unite students, community

When asked to describe Hanover's local churches, Jerry Mitchell '51 responds that these churches serve as quintessential "melting pots of the town-gown relationship."

These local churches indeed have a rich history of furnishing spiritual homes for Dartmouth students and bringing together the broader Hanover community.

Eleazar Wheelock's White Church

The most visible church in Hanover is The Church of Jesus Christ at Dartmouth College, located on 40 North College Street and familiarly referred to as "the White Church." Contrary to what its name may suggest, the Church and the College today share no official relationship.

Originally, though, the church and the College were much closer. When the College was founded, Eleazar Wheelock "drove into town with a Bible, a drum and 500 gallons of New England rum," according to an old Dartmouth song.

On January 23, 1771, Wheelock led the White Church's first religious service and retained the posts of both Pastor and College President until his death eight years later.

Pastors were then chosen from among the Dartmouth faculty, mostly from the Theology department, the church reserved pews for students and church attendance was compulsory until 1903.

The famous Dartmouth College Supreme Court case of March,1818, in part related to differing viewpoints on Church matters.

President of the College John Wheelock, Eleazar's son, disagreed with the Trustees disagreed over procedures on choosing the church pastors.

Ties between the Church and College gradually began to loosen following the outcome of the case, and the last professorial pastor was chosen in 1827. Current pastor Carla Bailey cited the expansion of the student body, the College's gradual embrace of secularism and its desire for its own religious life as other reasons for the eventual split.

Nonetheless, College financial support continued until the 1960s, and Hanover resident, Nancy Hayward Mitchell, daughter of a member of the class of 1919, wife of a '51 and mother of a '79, described the church as the "focal point of social life" in Hanover during the 1940s and '50s.

In particular, Nancy Mitchell fondly remembers childhood days spent performing at the Church in the Hanover Rhythmic Choir with her sister and square dances, called by then Pastor Chester Fisk (1938-1951) that took place in the church every Friday and Saturday evening.

The White Church Today

Today, music groups such as The Baroque Players of Dartmouth College, a group of student musicians under the direction of renowned Baroque musician Beth Hilgartner, perform at the church sanctuary. All events are free of charge since, as Bailey explains: "the Church is shaped by its closest neighbor and, in return, the Church is invitational to its closest neighbor."

Students further participate in the life of the church in many ways: worshipping, teaching Sunday school, partnering with church host families, participating in music programs.

Bailey is especially pleased that the Church provides students with a "respite from campus life." With an open sanctuary 24 hours, seven days a week, any student is welcome to come pray and meditate anytime.

Boy Scout Controversy

The church was the focus of extensive media attention recently when the Boy Scouts, whose local chapter held regular meetings there, dismissed a Hanover scout for being gay.

This act went against the Church's open policy and incited months of deliberations among Church members, resulting in the Church asking the Boy Scouts to find another meeting location in March 2002.

The incident sparked a national media frenzy, with letters and opinions, and in some cases, anonymous donations in support of the Church's ultimate decision, pouring in from all over the country, according to graduate student Dominic Klyve, who resides in the student apartment within the Church.

St. Thomas Episcopal: Born In Conflict

St. Thomas Episcopal Church is another one of the College's closest neighbors, located on 9 West Wheelock Street, right behind Thayer Dining Hall. Built in the New England Gothic style, St. Thomas still lacks the bell tower originally included in the designs, recounts parishioner Jerry Mitchell.

Due to the College's original Congregational affiliation, the other churches in the Hanover area share shorter histories and, as in the case of St. Thomas, also a tumultuous origin. From 1831to1835, chemistry professor Reverend Benjamin Bale, held secret prayer services for interested students and community members, resulting in the trustees expelling him from his academic position.

Such an incident encouraged the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire to send a full clergy to start a parish in the Hanover area.

The church was consecrated at its current location on September 19, 1876 and cost $30,000 to build, with funds coming in mostly from New York parishes.

The parish's relationship with the College has always been a "cordial and cooperative" one, according to Jerry Mitchell.

The church organist has for many years concurrently taught music at Dartmouth and at one point the College organist formerly worked at St. Thomas. Two previous leaders of the Tucker Foundation were Episcopal priests, and currently the parish prays at Rollins Chapel while St. Thomas undergoes renovation.

St. Thomas' dedication to students and emphasis on student ministries predates the founding of the Tucker Foundation. Jerry Mitchell describes Father Leslie Hodder (1932 - 1954) as "an effective predecessor to the Tucker Foundation," with goals and aspirations that eventually got incorporated into the realm of aims of the Tucker Foundation.

History professor Gene Garthwaite mentions that as of 10 years ago, 47 of the current priests and four of the current bishops at St. Thomas had come from Dartmouth College, after having been involved in student ministry programs like the ones organized by Father Hodder.

Another one of Father Hodder's achievements can be familiarly referred to as "The Edge," a student center located on School Street, across from Panarchy, formally known as the Edgerton House, named after parishioner and financial supporter Halsey Edgerton, explains current campus minister Erik Turnberg.

Activism and "Quiet Social Outreach"

Garthwaite describes the parish's historical role of providing assistance to impoverished families in Hanover as "quiet social outreach," which includes aiding in paying for prescriptions, eye glasses and supporting AIDS-afflicted single parent homes in the area.

St. Thomas holds monthly prayers for peace and, according to Garthwaite, "a disproportionate number of pro-peace demonstrators," usually encountered at noon on the corner of Main and Wheelock Streets, are St. Thomas parishioners, including the rector. Garthwaite continues that "social activism [initiated by parishioners] goes beyond the confines of the parish."

Hanover's churches have work together to serve the community and the needs of each parish.

Nancy Mitchell, a parishioner at St. Thomas, recounts the Young People's Fellowship of the 1930s and 40s, a joint program between the White Church and St. Thomas in which Dartmouth students served the roles of teachers.

Interim rector, Henry Atkins, has organized a joint service with the College Chaplain to take place at Rollins Chapel during the upcoming Freshman Family Weekend. Turnberg, too, cited the cooperation between all the different campus ministers as a wonderful example of supporting students in their respective spiritual lives.