California Catholic Daily exclusive by Roseanne T. Sullivan.
On Dec. 20, California Catholic Daily published an article about the 54-year history of the St. Ann Choir, which began at the St. Ann Chapel at 541 Melville Ave in Palo Alto. That chapel has a remarkable history of its own.
When the choir started singing there, the chapel was twelve years old and was the worship space for the Stanford University Newman Center.
In 1998, the diocese decided to move the Newman Center to Stanford Memorial Church and an on-campus office. After efforts to keep it as a place for Catholic worship failed, the St. Ann Chapel was sold to a conservative Anglican offshoot in 2003.
Part of what makes St. Ann chapel extraordinary is that it was erected under the patronage of the rich and famous writer and politician Clare Boothe Luce.
The chapel came into being because of the accidental death in 1944 of Luce’s 19-year-old daughter, Ann Brokaw, when Ann was a Stanford senior on her way back to campus after Christmas vacation.
The loss of her daughter precipitated a crisis that showed Luce the meaninglessness of her own life. After months of instruction and counsel from then-Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, Luce converted to Catholicism. Sheen at the time was professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and gave weekly talks on The Catholic Hour radio program in New York.
“On the second anniversary of Ann’s death, Clare at last had the revelation for which the catechism had prepared her. She described it as the ‘Coming of Faith,’ a melting of the heart into love for God, elusive yet unmistakable as the moment when dawn breaks or ice thaws. She still had questions to ask Sheen. But this was undoubtedly an epiphany, forced upon her by the totality of her experience. ‘It finally took two world wars,’ she wrote in an account of her conversion, ‘the overthrow of several dozen thrones and governments, the Russian revolution, the swift collapse of hundreds of thought-systems, a small number of which collapsed on me, the death of millions, as well as the death of my daughter, before I was willing to take a look at this extraordinary institution, the Catholic church.’ ”—Clare Boothe Luce, “The ‘Real’ Reason.”
After her conversion, Luce decided to erect a chapel as her daughter’s memorial. It was dedicated in 1951 to St. Ann.
Luce intended the chapel to illustrate her conviction that modernism and sacred art are compatible. She commissioned artists to decorate the chapel with expressionistic (and experimental) painted windows instead of stained glass, painted Stations of the Cross, a cubist-inspired mosaic of the Madonna, and a steel mesh flat baldachino decorated with mosaics and Cubist-inspired angels.
At St. Ann Chapel now, the experimental paint is peeling from the painted windows, and the colors have faded with age. The modernist style of architecture and art has lost its appeal over the decades, but the choir has been able to maintain its own nostalgic attachment by continuing to sing Sunday Vespers at the chapel, by invitation of the chapel’s new owners.