Upon his conversion to Catholicism in 1952, Mr. Chauncey Stillman wrote to his sister that he “had finally found peace within himself.” Indeed, such was the change that Mr. Stillman transformed a first floor sitting room to become a house chapel and a place of prayerful peace. As any reader of “Brideshead Revisited” would know, house chapels were oftentimes found in English country manor homes but were quite an exceptional occurrence in America. Mr. Stillman essentially brought the Church into his home.
The room itself is u-shaped, with the rounded wall facing east. Five slate tablets are mounted on the walls, engraved with bible verses chosen by Mr. Stillman, three of which focus on the promise of eternal salvation. Father Edward Catich (1906 - 1979), a well-known engraver and friend of Mr. Stillman, carved and installed the slates in 1968.
During his lifetime, he received papal blessings from Pope Paul VI, Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II. These blessings are indicative of the priority that Mr. Stillman gave to his faith. In addition to his support of intellectual institutions and the arts, Mr. Stillman financially supported organizations associated with the Catholic Church throughout the world.
In 1972, Mr. Stillman commissioned the New York based architect, George Frederick Poehler to design a marble altar for the chapel. Ultimately, he decided to install a wooden altar in its stead and asked the decorative artist, Hight Moore, to paint a Chi-Rho symbol underneath the altar as well as add gold details to the walls. For candles, Mr. Stillman brought two 18th century French candelabras from his 5th Avenue apartment to stand on either side of the altar.
Mr. Stillman considered there to be three focal points in his (Oratory) Chapel. First, the 17th century “Madonna and Child” by the Spanish artist Bartholome Esteban Murillo (1617 - 1682). Originally, Mr. Stillman gifted the painting to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Brownsville, Texas in memory of his great-grandparents. After a firebomb was thrown into the chapel, the late Bishop Umberto Madeiros (1915 - 1983) returned the damaged painting under the Deed of Gift. Mr. Stillman recalls how, after its restoration and cleaning, the painting resembled more its original state. The second focal point is a 16th century Swabian crucifix discovered by the late Father Felix Lowenstein. Finally, the last artifact to catch the eye of the viewer as he leaves the chapel is the painting over the door entitled “Christ’s Blessing” which is from the school of El Greco.
Today, the chapel remains open to the public as part of the house tour, and Mass is offered on special occasions by visiting priests.