College Chaplains

Macalester College in St. Paul was founded in 1874 by the Reverend Edward Neill as a Presbyterian-affiliated institution.1 Today, long after the college abandoned its mandatory chapel requirement, the Weyerhaeuser Memorial Chapel stands as the center of both religious and non-religious programming on Macalester's campus.2 Although the chapel lies at the heart of the campus, some believe it is an underutilized resource, used by some students only as an indoor thoroughfare while walking across campus during the frigid Minnesota winter.

While the college has a small but active religious community, many students were unable to identify the location of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life on campus. In 2013, the Princeton Review rated Macalester College the twelfth least religious college in the country.3 Macalester's gradual evolution into a secular institution is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it parallels a similar trend among many private American colleges and universities that have moved away from their religious roots. In fact, "most of the colleges in the United States that started over 300 years ago were Bible-proclaiming schools."4 Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have "rich Christian histories," although they are no longer religiously affiliated.5 As such, Macalester provides an example of the realities faced by a chaplain at a secular institution.

"That's another role of a chaplain to be in those, what I might call threshold moments, when stepping from one reality into another, that sort of transition."
—Rev. Dr. Lucy Forster-Smith

While Rev. Dr. Lucy Forster-Smith is no longer at Macalester, she was chaplain for twenty years and witnessed Macalester's religious transformation during that time.

The evolution of Macalester College has led it to be a very non-sectarian, a very secular institution, and so my role is not to try to sustain some Christian overlay in the institution but it's more the opposite almost, of really understanding that we're rooted in a tradition and the particularities show up in some really interesting ways on this campus.
—Rev. Dr. Lucy Forster-Smith

Although she served as the college’s chaplain in the most secular time period of Macalester's history, Rev. Dr. Forster-Smith felt that her role on campus was still significant. Not only did she see her role as a resource for students who wished to practice and explore their religious traditions, but also to remind the secular institution of its religious roots.

To make sure that any student that comes to Macalester really has the opportunity to practice the spiritual traditions that they carry in or would like to explore, so that's part of [my role]. I think the other part of my role at the college is really, interestingly, to remind the institution of its own history, which the history of Macalester is tied to the Presbyterian Church, to the Presbyterian founder who was a Presbyterian minister and also the generosity of the Presbyterian Christian people who really understood this enterprise of, this project of Macalester College's founding arising out of a religious or spiritual, well a religious stewardship of creating a place where young people can explore the life of the mind and the life of the spirit in one place.
—Rev. Dr. Forster-Smith

Rev. Dr. Forster-Smith believed her work was not exclusively for the institution. She understood her ministry to be for both the college as an institution and to the students with whom she interacted with often on an individual level.

In a daily practice I think it's also really helpful to realize there can be support for the emotional life and the moments of great transition within the lives of individuals as well as the life of the institution itself. So in a way my role often is to stand at convocations and deliver prayers, it's less about a kind of, again, a religious act but more an acknowledgement that within institutions there are moments of pause and of sort of standing in an intersection place and when that happens often religious leaders or people with that kind of perspective are asked to step in to those transitional moments. So you think about when those happen, opening convocation at the beginning of the year, often times the beginning of the second semester launching into a new place or the transition of graduation or commencement. So that's another role of a chaplain to be in those, what I might call threshold moments, when stepping from one reality into another, that sort of transition.
—Rev. Dr. Forster-Smith

Although Macalester College is only one instance of chaplaincy existing within a secular institution, the roles that chaplains play in the lives of students, both religious and non-religious, are significant. The following pages explore the sometimes counter-intuitive value of chaplains in Minnesota colleges that have separated from their religious roots.

  1. "History," Macalester College, accessed January 25, 2014,

  2. Historical information obtained from a conversation with the former college chaplain, Rev. Dr. Lucy Forster-Smith. Unless otherwise noted, all information comes from primary source interviews conducted by the author.

  3. "A Week with Religion at one of the nation's 'least religious' colleges," Mac Weekly, April 4, 2013,

  4. Bodie Hodge, "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford—Once Christian?" Answers in Genesis, June 27, 2007,

  5. Bodie Hodge, "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford—Once Christian?" Answers in Genesis, June 27, 2007,