Remembering Isabella: Her Yearly Memorial Service

Read about the annual celebration the Gardner hosts every year to celebrate the birthday of its founder.

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Yesterday was the 14th—a glorious day. The service [was] perfectly beautiful.


The Will

Morris Carter, the first director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, wrote this in a 1925 letter to Arthur F. Johnson, an original trustee of the Museum. It was the year after Isabella Stewart Gardner’s death.

The Chapel, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The Chapel, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1926
Photo: Arthur Marr (Marr24319)

Isabella was born April 14, 1840, the first child of David and Adelia Stewart in New York City. At the age of 84, Isabella died on July 17, 1924. Before her death, she created a trust that transformed Gardner’s Fenway Court into a museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” Isabella also directed in her will for the Museum to hold a yearly memorial service in the Chapel found on the third floor:

I direct that on the fourteenth of April in every year that the Trustees shall have a Memorial Service conducted by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, otherwise known as the Cowley Fathers, in the Chapel at the end of the Long Gallery in the building occupied by the Museum established under this will.

— Last Will and Testament of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Article 4:3, January 17, 1924. Probated Boston, July 23, 1924.

The Chapel

Isabella was an active and diligent Episcopalian church attendee most of her life. She was also drawn to the ceremonial and artistic aspects of religion, and created spaces within the museum and her private apartments that reflected this interest. She built a chapel on the third floor of the Museum at the far south end of the Long Gallery. She used it to celebrate Mass. In addition to the Chapel, she had a small private altar in her bedroom, and the church-inspired Gothic Room served as a private refuge that was closed to the public during her lifetime.

Just once a year, the Chapel still functions as an active sacred space with Isabella’s annual birthday memorial service. It houses a consecrated altar adorned with an early seventeenth-century Italian carved ivory crucifix and a table cover crocheted by Isabella. The most striking object, though, is the thirteenth century French Gothic stained-glass window originally from the cathedral of Soissons. Backlit by sunlight, the glass splashes reds, blues, and whites onto the floor. It creates another artwork of light, like an impressionist painting of a koi fish pond.

The Chapel, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The Chapel, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Photo: Sean Dungan

The Celebrants and the Memorial Service

As stipulated in Isabella’s will, the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) hosted the memorial service. Isabella’s relationship with the SSJE can be traced back to the early 1870s when the SSJE began their short affiliation with her parish church, High Anglican Church of the Advent in Beacon Hill, now known as the Church of the Advent. She developed a close relationship with Father Arthur Hall, who offered her advice on the matters of faith and community-focused philanthropy. In 1919 she donated $25,000 so the SSJE could purchase land to build their Cambridge monastery. After Isabella’s stroke in the same year, Father Frederick C. Powell visited her at Fenway Court to give her Holy Communion every other week for the five years before her death. In return for his loyalty and comfort she gave Father Powell the small altar used in her bedroom.1

The memorial service typically consists of a Mass, a type of Christian customary worship. The Eucharist is an integral part of the worship where bread and wine are consecrated and consumed to commemorate the Last Supper. A custom gilt silver arts and crafts style chalice and paten made by artist George Ernest Germer are used for this. The Board of Trustees and members of the Gardner Family presented these items and an illuminated book to the Museum on Christmas Day 1924. Attendees use several sets of kneelers with cushions, purchased by the Trustees in the 1920s and brought in from offsite storage.

About thirty people can attend due to the size of the space and the nature of this private event. The global world-wide COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to hold the typical service. So, along with the rest of the world, the service went virtual. In 2020, the SSJE broadcasted the service into the gallery from their monastery in Cambridge performed live by the Brothers via Zoom. Our Director of Security, Anthony Amore, was the sole attendee in the Chapel using a laptop placed next to the altar.

Chapel showing a laptop adjacent to the altar broadcasting the 2020 memorial service virtually.

Chapel showing a laptop adjacent to the altar broadcasting the 2020 memorial service virtually.

Photo: Anthony Amore

Celebrating in Fine Style

Isabella loved celebrating her birthday. She celebrated her last birthday in 1924 at the age of 84 and, although in declining health by that time, she still “celebrated in fine style.” 2 The Museum also loves celebrating Isabella’s birthday. In addition to the memorial service, we have continued with some traditions and created other ways to honor our founder. Every year, we display nasturtiums from the third-story windows of the courtyard around her birthday. Isabella started this tradition and the Museum keeps it alive. In the past, the Museum has held concerts in honor of Gardner’s birthday, also called “Founder’s Day.”

Courtyard of the Museum

Courtyard showing the annual nasturtium display

Photo: Sean Dungan

Isabella died not too long after her birthday. According to her obituary in The Boston Globe: “she passed away in the midst of the things she had loved and treasured all the years of her widowed life surrounded on all sides by the work of creative geniuses who had wrought through the centuries, the artistic impulses of their own natures in their work.” 3

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¹ Richard Lingner, “Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Spiritual Life," in The Art of the Cross: Medieval and Renaissance Piety in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, ed. Alan Chong (Boston: 2001), 29–39

² Louise Hall Tharp, Mrs. Jack: A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. (Boston: 1965; Reprint, Boston: 2016), p. 323

3 The Boston Globe, Friday, July 18, 1924: “Mrs John L. Gardner Claimed by Death: Distinguished Patroness of Arts Succumbs After Long Illness in Fenway Court


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