Embodying the College’s commitment to religious freedom, the Chapel was built in 1935 as a plain, neutral space with no cross or crucifix.
The creation of the Chapel was made possible following a generous and, at the time, anonymous donation from former student Emily Georgiana Kemp. Kemp was an adventurer, writer and artist, and came from a wealthy Baptist family. Through her extensive travels she developed an interest in the world’s religions and a wide, inclusive vision of faith. It was her desire that the Chapel would be a place where members of all nationalities and religions could pray. The inscription on the outside of the Chapel in Greek translates as ‘A House of Prayer for all People.’ This is a verse from the Book of Isaiah, which is referred to by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
However, the genesis of the Chapel was not without problems. Despite Kemp’s request for a building to promote ‘the spiritual life, mainly by prayer and meditation, for those of all creeds and nations’, there was strong resistance. The ASM (Association of Senior Members, or former students) was especially determined to maintain Somerville’s non-sectarian character and Miss Darbishire, the then-Principal, went so far as to describe one meeting with the ASM in 1932 as ‘lively’.
A compromise was eventually reached: the chapel was carefully situated so as not to dominate the grounds and the architecture and interior of the building were both designed to avoid conventional religious archetypes.