From the Archives: Easter Services at Duke Chapel

Looking back at Duke Easter celebrations, from the 1930s to 1980s

Part of the From the Archives Series

 One of the most important Christian holidays has deeply rooted traditions in Duke Chapel. Celebrating Easter on campus has held special meaning within the spiritual Duke community since the 1930s, after the Chapel first opened.

In the Duke University Archives, there are photos of a Chapel Easter sunrise service held on April 17, 1938, to an Easter sunrise service at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in 1981.

Easter sunrise service at Duke Gardens is a decades-long tradition, which continues this year at 6:30 a.m., April 20, in the gardens' South Lawn.

"It's meaningful to think about all the generations of people who celebrated Easter sunrise in the gardens and of the ways that ties us to the past," said the Rev. Meghan Feldmeyer, Duke Chapel's director of worship. "It's fun to feel like we're part of that joy for people, of helping to create that sense in both word and song of the resurrection of Christ."

Will Willimon, former dean of Duke Chapel (1984-2004) and now professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School, said Chapel staff could always count on at least 1,000 people attending.

"One of the greatest joys was to be leading the service and, during the service as the sun comes up, to look up and see so many hundreds of people," Willimon wrote.

Over the years, University Archives has kept hundreds of special bulletins filled with prayers and songs and produced by Chapel staff. Some years, Duke Chapel held concerts that featured Easter music. The Duke Department of Music in 1962 brought together madrigal singers and brass players for such a concert. And a year before, in 1961, Duke Chapel produced, "The Passion of Our Lord," the story of the crucifixion set to music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Singers took on the roles of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Judas and the High Priest, among others.

Thanks to the Libraries' new Chapel Recordings digital collection, community members can listen to a 1972 post-Easter sermon held at Duke Chapel. Philip R. Cousin Sr., the first African-American faculty member at the Duke Divinity School, from 1967 to 1979, provided "Post-Easter Reflections" on April 9, 1972. Cousin was a pastor at St. Joseph A.M.E. Church on Fayetteville Street in Durham.

The Archives continues to collect bulletins and concert programs, and the Chapel still holds Easter-focused events - The Chapel Choir recently premiered "Saint Luke Passion," the work of Scottish composer James MacMillan, on Palm Sunday.