UPDATED: Feb. 15, 2014, at 4:43 p.m.
At 2:30 p.m. every Sunday, approximately 30 Harvard undergraduates shuffle into an unassuming red brick building on the corner of Longfellow Park and Brattle St., arriving from across campus in groups of three or four. On this chilly February afternoon, the students remove their coats to reveal conservative church attire—dresses and skirts for women, slacks and button-downs for men. They gather in the foyer, chat with church members, and slowly stream into the chapel, filling in pews row by row until the entire room is packed with young adults. This is the Cambridge congregation for unmarried Latter-day Saints, known better to non-members as Mormons.
The congregation on Longfellow Park primarily consists of students—mostly undergraduates—from Harvard, MIT, and other Boston-area universities. The building houses three worship meetings on Sundays, the first of which is called the Sacrament Meeting, that together last until approximately 5:30 pm. The chapel walls are white and unadorned, disrupted only by large glass windows that allow soft, yellow sunlight to fill the room. The unobtrusive appearance of the chapel aptly reflects the Sacrament Meeting’s tone—quiet, dignified, and above all, humble.
Mormons at the College consider this building a sort of haven, a space that fosters a student-based community and provides a restful atmosphere that departs from the bustle of their everyday lives at the college. The students come from all over the country—Maryland, California, Utah—but have continued to practice their faith while attending Harvard.
“This is a very unique place to be a Mormon,” says Philip M. Ngo ’14. “If you are here, you decided not to go to [Brigham Young University], so already you have a fairly interesting cross section of Mormons.” Ngo, who grew up in Utah and has many friends who attended BYU says that living in this environment, among a diverse population of ambitious students, has tested but ultimately strengthened his faith.
Other Mormon students agree, noting that Harvard’s predominantly secular environment is sometimes at odds with their devout lifestyle. While their religious activities may constitute a significant portion of any given week, larger commitments, from missions to marriage, also have immense effects on their Harvard experiences. Yet students also noted that the challenges at Harvard provide an opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with Mormonism, pushing them to explore and further understand their own beliefs.
In 1830, Joseph Smith, who according to Mormon doctrine was received as a prophet by God and Christ, founded the Church of Christ, a congregation that would later evolve into the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the church believe God’s will is channeled through an earthly prophet, the President of the LDS church. In addition to the Old and New Testaments, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon serve as sacred scriptures in the church.
Today, there are approximately 15 million Mormons serving in nearly 30,000 congregations worldwide. Harvard’s Mormon community numbers only 30, but according to Caroline M. Trusty ’14, a Mormon student from Baltimore, the undergraduate congregation is very tight-knit.
“There’s just a structure in place, you never have to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m a Mormon, where do I go?’ There’s always some place to go,” Trusty says.
Harvard Mormons have the opportunity to spend time together during the week through church activities and group events sponsored by the Harvard Latter-day Saint Student Association. Students meet for three-hour church services on Sundays and can attend a Bible study session called Institute on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. Additionally, students gather in the Dunster dining hall every Monday evening for Family Home Evening, which involves games and dinner. Often, Dunster House Master and Kennedy School professor Roger B. Porter, who also serves as Bishop for the students’ congregation, joins the students in this weekly gathering.
“What’s great about the church is that everywhere it’s the same,” says Trusty, noting that her family practiced Family Home Evening in Baltimore every Monday night when she was in high school.