Ten years before he was elected president of the United States, Barack Obama spoke at Carleton's Skinner Memorial Chapel on “Politics, Race, and the Common Good.” His address on February 5, 1999, was part of the college's series of weekly convocations, a tradition that has presented such luminaries as poet Maya Angelou, writer Sherman Alexie, the a cappella singing ensemble Chanticleer, and the improv comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade.
But the chapel is not simply the location of fascinating speeches and performances. It also serves as a physical link between the town of Northfield and the Carleton community. Built in 1916 out of gray Bedford limestone, with a tower rising 118 feet, the chapel was dedicated to Miron W. Skinner, a former trustee of the college and an active member in Northfield public affairs. Skinner embodied the intertwined relationship between college and community. At the chapel’s dedication, the student newspaper, the Carletonian, celebrated it as a “common meeting place for the townspeople and college folk” that will “strengthen and preserve the happy relationship which has always existed between them.” Appropriately, the chapel’s main entrance faces the town rather than the college.
From the start, the chapel has served as the religious, intellectual, and artistic hub for the campus and community. Currently, eighteen different religious groups hold services there weekly. At the start of fall term, Carleton’s new students gather for a talent show that showcases acts ranging from freestyle raps to virtuosic electric violin performances. Each term, the Carleton choir performs a concert on the chapel's spacious stage and in the spring, student honors and awards are presented in a special ceremony.