The Helen Hughes Chapel

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In the past when I thought about the Helen Hughes Memorial Chapel, I always imagined Helen Hughes to be someone who lived for a long time, a long time ago. I was surprised to learn that she died young, and that her father was almost the President of the United States.

Charles Evans Hughes ( 1862-1948 ) was a man with a serious work ethic who served as Governor of New York (1907-1910), Republican candidate for President (1916), U.S. Secretary of State (1921-1925), and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1930-1941). He lost the Presidential election of 1916 when the last state to be tallied, California, went for Woodrow Wilson. Hughes also practiced law in New York, taught law at Cornell University, and, after his death, appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.

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His abilities shone early. He was reading before he was four. By the age of six, he was studying French and German. He graduated from high school at the age of 13, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University, was first in his class at Columbia Law School, and received a grade of 99.5 on the New York Bar Exam. With his photographic memory, he could read a paragraph at a glance, a treatise in an evening. Hughes had no personal or political advisers, no favorites, no confidants. Herbert Hoover once said that Hughes was the most self-contained man he had ever known. He made his own judgments based on his own analyses. At work, he was organized, intense, and serious, and had little time for pleasantries. By the time he became Chief Justice his beard was pure white, which led to comments such as Solicitor General Robert H. Jackson’s, “He looks like God and talks like God.”

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While serving as Governor of New York, Hughes came to Silver Bay on August 27, 1909. He arrived on George Foster Peabody’s yacht “Pocahontas” and walked up to the Inn between rows of young men in white shirts and bow ties; as he passed, they fell in behind him singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Hughes reviewed the young men as they sang and paraded past the Inn porch, decorated with American flags and bunting, and addressed them in the Auditorium before returning to Albany.

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The Hughes family in 1916: Charles, Elizabeth on his knee, Catherine, Helen and Antoinette Carter Hughes

His eldest daughter, Helen, spent much more time at Silver Bay, both as a Vassar student (Class of 1914) and while working for the YWCA. She served as a volunteer for the YWCA in Washington, D.C., and later as a Field Student Secretary. She pioneered the formation of YWCA clubs for high school girls, and through an interpreter spoke to deaf students at Gallaudet College. “She loved girls, understood them, was one of them,” wrote one author. “Her irresistible sense of humor smoothed out many a troublesome situation.”

Helen Hughes grew into her father’s ideal of womanhood, dedicated to the service of others. She shared her father’s work ethic, but unfortunately she was not gifted with his constitution. While working in Boston in the fall of 1918, she fell ill with influenza, which was followed in the spring by pneumonia. Back at the family home in Glens Falls, she struggled to get well. In July of 1919 she felt well enough to attend a Vassar reunion, but became ill again and was brought home where the doctor informed her parents that Helen had advanced tuberculosis.

Sleeping through the hot nights of July and August, she dreamed of being at Silver Bay, walking across the green lawns, easily breathing the fresh air. After such dreams, she felt that she had actually been there. She desperately wanted to go back to Silver Bay, but could not travel as far as the front porch without triggering a crippling fit of coughing.

On January 11, 1920, Helen turned 28 years old. She was too weak to blow out her birthday candles. The end came on April 18, 1920. She was buried in a family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, New York. Her father, so cool, self-contained and aloof in public life, could never again speak of her without his voice quavering.

By August of 1920, Vassar alumnae and co-workers in the YWCA had raised more than $2,000 for a chapel at Silver Bay to be dedicated in her name. By March of 1921, the amount had grown to $20,000. Among those who contributed were President Warren G. Harding and John D. Rockefeller.

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The site chosen was said to be one of Helen Hughes’ favorite resting places. The chapel was designed by the firm of Allen and Collens of Boston, to be built of granite taken from nearby hillsides. On June 19, 1921, at the laying of the cornerstone, Vassar women in white dresses sang, and Helen’s mother, Antoinette Carter Hughes, set the stone. The chapel was dedicated on June 25, 1922, with Charles and Antoinette Hughes present; a choir from Vassar again sang.

The stained glass windows, gifts of the Welsh people of the United States, symbolized the three virtues of steadfast Faith, eternal Hope and unselfish Love. The windows’ central figure, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, served the poor and died at the age of 24; she is flanked by angels. The altar, the Lord’s Table, was contributed by the young women who dined at Helen’s table at Vassar. Altar hangings were donated by the Calvary Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., and others were made in New York City by blind workers at Lighthouse No. 1.

It has been said that the dedication tablet — “This chapel is erected in loving memory of Helen Hughes, 1892-1920″ — should include the phrase, “by the 32,000 friends who in the stones of this building count a few of the kind deeds that made her life an ideal for them to follow.”

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In August of 1933, Chief Justice Hughes and his wife, while vacationing at the Sagamore resort in Bolton Landing, came to Silver Bay one more time to visit the Chapel dedicated to their daughter.

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Photos of the YMCA men waiting for the Governor, the laying of the cornerstone, and the recently completed Hughes Chapel are by Jesse Sumner Wooley.

This is a revision of a post from August 27, 2008, prompted by new and better information and images.

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