"This Masterpiece": St. Joseph Memorial Chapel at 100

Photo of the inside of a church from a second floor.
A view of the interior of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel from high above the altar.

Get up-close views of the chapel you’ve never seen before, learn the history (and some mystery) behind it, and much more.

The Great War was over and Holy Cross was facing an enrollment boom, but had nowhere to house all its students, nor a worship place large enough to accommodate its daily Mass requirement.

In response, then-President Rev. James J. Carlin, S.J., launched a fundraising campaign, the Million Dollar Drive, which would result in, among other projects, Carlin Hall, Kimball Dining Hall and St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, which in April celebrated the 100th anniversary of its dedication.

The chapel is the spiritual heart of Holy Cross, built to hold 1,000 people and home to everything from Masses, lectures and concerts to annual traditions, such as Lessons & Carols. The building is a staple in the lives of the Holy Cross community and 10 decades of alumni, yet there is so much history and significance in its design, it’s easy to miss much of the detail that makes the building so meaningful.

Aerial view of a church
An aerial view of the east side of campus, featuring St. Joseph Memorial Chapel and the adjacent Jesuit cemetery.
Close up view of the top of Corinthian columns
The top of the Corinthian columns, known as the capital, are echoed on the chapel's exterior and interior pilasters, columns integrated into the walls, as well as in its interior columns and baldachin.

Architectural inspiration

Boston architectural firm Maginnis and Walsh designed the chapel in the form of an Italian Renaissance basilica, using the Jesuits’ mother church in Rome, the Gesù, as inspiration. The choice was a departure, as most college churches built at this time, including Boston College’s, were designed in the gothic revival style. “But St. Joseph Memorial Chapel architects chose Renaissance revival, this great humanist style with these four great Corinthian columns,” says Laurence Rosania, director of liturgy and music. 

An aerial photo of a top of a church.
Underneath the pediment and top the columns of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel sits an inscription from Psalm 43.

Inscription and pediment

Atop the four columns sits an inscription from Psalm 43: “INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI AD DEUM QUI LAETIFICAT JUVENTUTEM MEAM” (“I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth”), the first words the priest would state when beginning Mass, prior to Vatican II. 

When you entered this building, it prepared you for Mass,” Rosania says. “I think this was particularly well chosen because it says ‘to God who gives joy to my youth.’ What better for a school of young boys and men?” Above the inscription sits the pediment, featuring a 10-foot-tall Christ triumphant, flanked by two angels.

Black and white photo of church exterior
One of the first known photos of the St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, upon its opening
A printed invitation
The schedule of events on the 1924 dedication day for St. Joseph Memorial Chapel.
Black and white photo of men standing outside a church entrance
St. Joseph Memorial Chapel architect Charles Maginnis (third from left) and Holy Cross President Rev. James Carlin, S.J. (fourth from left) stand outside the chapel at its opening.

The firm that built Holy Cross

While several College presidents combined to expand the campus over the decades in response to a growing student body, only one firm provided the designs from 1904-1954. Boston architectural firm Maginnis and Walsh designed every major Holy Cross building during that period (Alumni, Beaven, Brooks, Carlin, Kimball and Wheeler halls, Dinand Library and the chapel), as well as Commencement Porch, the Linden Lane gates and the fence along College Street.

A native of Ireland who immigrated to Boston in 1898, Charles Maginnis was noted for avoiding excessive Victorian ornamentation of the time in favor of “a refined and structural beauty,” according to the firm’s 1898 promotional brochure. Specializing in the design of churches, convents, schools and hospitals, Maginnis buildings can be found all across New England, including 50 miles east in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where the firm designed Boston College’s campus and nearly two-dozen buildings in Collegiate Gothic style.

Gold-painted area over an altar
The altar area is nearly unchanged over its 100 years and stands under a wooden baldachin (canopy) supported by four tall marble columns. Its top features a cross bursting through the pediment.


The medallion on the pediment bears the the letters IHS, which appear on the Society of Jesus’ seal and represent the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. Surrounding it, inscribed on the apse (the semicircular dome) are words from Psalm 42: QUEMADMODUM DESIDERAT CERVUS AD FONTES AQUARUM ITA DESIDERAT ANIMA MEA AD TE DEUS (“As a deer longs for fountains of water, so longs my soul for you, O God”).

Black and white photo of a church interior.
An early photo of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel.

In the above photo, note the stained glass windows had yet to be installed. The windows would arrive in 1926, two years after the chapel's opening.

A row of nine, tall stained glass windows
Seven of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel's 14 stained glass windows.

The stained glass

“The crowning glory of this space are the windows,” Rosania says, noting that when the sun shines through them, it paints the interior with color. “When the sun is really coming through, you will see intense color all along these columns.”

While the chapel opened in 1924, the 14 windows were installed in 1926. Every window honors a saint — seven doctors of the church on one side, seven martyrs on the other. The choice of the two categories was intentional, as it reflected two concepts about Christian life College leaders wanted to communicate.

"One side was that you gave yourself to this higher purpose as the martyrs did, and those who were lost in the war were seen as martyrs to a greater cause,” Rosania says. “And the doctors were scholars of the church. The idea was your faith was not enough; your faith had to be informed by your intellect. Faith informed by intellect and a life given to a greater purpose; they wanted their students to understand that when they came to this space.” 

Each window was intricately designed by Walter G. Ball of Boston, featuring a saint along with the imagery, symbols and icons associated with their lives. Total cost: $20,000 (about $346,000 today).

Wood plaque engraved with names.
St. Joseph Memorial Chapel was built to honor the men of Holy Cross who died in World War I. The plaque was later expanded to honor those who died in all wars.


While the precise reason why the chapel was named for St. Joseph remains something of a mystery, it is well-known that the chapel was built in honor of Holy Cross men who died in World War I. The plaque inside the entrance to the nave lists those who died in the Great War, in addition to those from subsequent 20th-century wars. The first name listed is that of Rev. William F. Davitt, a graduate of the class of 1907. A chaplain who volunteered to join the war effort, he was the last U.S. officer to die in World War I, just 90 minutes before the armistice was declared.

metal medallion inscribed with names installed in a brick plaza
Located in Martyrs' Plaza, a medallion was installed in memory of Jesuits and staff murdered in 1989 in San Salvador.
Aerial photo of an outdoor plaza.
An aerial view of Martyrs' Plaza outside St. Joseph Memorial Chapel.

Martyrs’ Plaza

On Nov. 16, 1989, armed men burst into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador and killed six Jesuit priests, along with the community’s cook and her daughter. In the early 1990s, a medallion was installed in the chapel plaza in memory of the Salvadoran martyrs, whose murders brought international outrage and condemnation onto the country’s government, ultimately pressuring its leaders to end the civil war.

Design plans for a gothic chapel
The proposed design of a gothic chapel, designed by Henry H. Braun.
architectural drawing of a church
A 1905 chapel design proposal submitted by the Rev. F.I. Shroen, S.J.

Alternate designs

While the chapel was designed as the Italian Renaissance basilica, there were alternate options submitted for consideration, such as those above.

Mary chapel

Small worship space featuring a baptismal font, chairs and an altar
Located in the lowest level of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, Mary Chapel was created to offer more worship space for students.