One of the more enduring missionary legacies here in Chiang Mai is buildings. On this Palm Sunday I’d like to share reflections on two impressive chapels, The Prince Royal’s Chapel and the McKean Chapel. They are important architectural landmarks and symbols of their institutions, but also expressions of the vision of the Church at the time they were constructed in the first quarter of the 20th century. In that respect they are worth considering in this era of increasing uncertainty about the role of the Church in the world.
The Prince Royal’s College Chapel was built of bricks covered with stucco with teak rafters, struts and beams creating a fascinating web overhead. The roof was baked tile. The architectural style is neo-Gothic with cruciform interior design. Seating is on substantial teak pews in the nave, with similar pews for the choir in the chancel on either side of a communion table in the style and position of an altar in a Gothic church. The pulpit is elevated prominently on the left side (from the congregation’s perspective) with a lectern opposite. Windows high in the walls let in light and lower down provided ventilation. The design was intended to rivet attention on the front, while keeping the audience as immobile as feasible. This was not only the best chapel plan for a school for little boys, it was how all neo-Gothic churches were constructed.
The chapel of McKean Leprosy Asylum, as it was called at the time its chapel was built, was also made of large bricks covered with stucco, heavy teak structure overhead, and tile roof. The architectural style, unlike most other chapels and churches the missionaries built, was Moorish. The chapel essentially had no walls but entrance was through a large portal at the south end of the rectangular building. The chapel was on a small island surrounded by lotus ponds. McKean (for short – the institution has had many names) is on a large island in the Ping River, so the chapel suggests that the church is the heart and purpose for the whole institute. The chapel has a bell in a belfry over the narthex that actually served to call the large community. The nave has teak pews for the congregation, with spacious side aisles that could accommodate extra seating. The chancel was in the basilica style, complete with side aisles, flying buttresses and a rounded apse in front. The apse was rather shallow and hung with drapes rather than having mosaics, carvings or stained glass windows above a formidable altar. Chancel furnishings are small, even (if I may say so) out of scale, but consistent with the intention to accommodate an unadorned Presbyterian form of worship. The chapel essentially has no windows, but the many-layered roof with wide overhangs thwarts the worst effects of sun and rain. McKean was a leprosy refuge, hospital, vocational development facility, large residence community and medical research institute. It provided holistic care, and some who crossed the bridge onto the island spent decades there without ever leaving. The church grew to be the largest Protestant church in Thailand, and is the “mother church” for a network of more than a dozen congregations planted as the McKean community disbanded to be re-integrated in larger society in the 1980s as leprosy was conquered and stigma diminished (that’s another amazing “resurrection” story).
Aside from their primary function as gathering places for traditional worship, the two chapels were meant to communicate the stability of the church’s mission. The buildings were built to last, with no thought of flexibility of function. In fact, both chapels have multi-purpose halls right beside them for whatever community events might not be worship. The chapels stand for one thing above all: “THE MAIN ENTERPRISE OF THIS INSTITUTION IS GIVING GLORY TO GOD AND DIRECTING ATTENTION TO JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD AND SAVIOR.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.