Candlelight Sunday Supper in the Archives
First Candlelight Sunday Supper at International House, 1925 / I-House Archives
This year has been like no other. In March of 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and New York State reported the first known case of COVID-19. It was quickly determined that the very structure that makes International House unique—a physical layout designed to enhance cultural exchange, shared public spaces to promote interpersonal interactions, and myriad activities to encourage the residents to join in shared experiences—left it vulnerable to the virus. There was no choice but to close our historic South Building to protect the health and safety of our residents and staff. As a result, International House relocated 500 residents, canceled programs and gatherings, issued social distancing guidelines, and implemented strict disinfectant measures. With what felt like a never-ending chorus of ambulance sirens across New York City, uncertainty and fear became the ‘new normal.’
Since that time, International House and our community have persevered. The institution remained open for 100 residents, providing safe facilities and health and wellness services. Events that International House usually offered in-person pivoted to virtual, which allowed the organization to connect with and engage alumni as well as residents. Facilities operations were modified to ensure a new standard of cleanliness and reflect a heightened focus on the welfare of our member population. I-House remained committed to fulfilling its mission and connecting with its global community.
World Council of Alumni at 50th Anniversary Candlelight Sunday Supper dinner, 1974 / I-House Archives
This past year, while challenging, has allowed us to reflect on and appreciate the things that matter the most. As the Lead Archivist for International House, a mission-driven organization with over 500 linear feet of records, I am surrounded by engaging content. However, as the academic year ends and we say goodbye to what I consider to be the most remarkable and resilient group of residents, I think it is appropriate to highlight one of International House’s sacred traditions.
The Candlelight Sunday Supper at the end of each year is one of the most memorable moments of the I-House experience that ceremonially closes a period of sharing stories and knowledge with friends from many parts of the world. The idea began with International House founder Florence Edmonds. In the Spring of 1913, Florence was the chairman of the Bronx YWCA membership committee and had completed the most extensive membership campaign in New York City. At the event celebrating their success, she held a lit candle and wore draping, white cloth. One by one, YWCA members dressed in similar attire approached Florence and lit their candles from her flame.
Harry Edmonds (left) at Candlelight Sunday Supper, 1968 / I-House Archives
Feeling excited and inspired, Florence shared this experience with her husband, Harry. The year prior, the pair had founded the Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club, the predecessor to International House. The Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club was a social organization that provided members with unique events and programming to cultivate and promote international friendships. To encourage international students to meet with each other and Americans alike, the club hosted events such as Sunday Suppers, dances, receptions, etc., at Earl Hall at Columbia University.
Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club Candlelight Sunday Supper at Earl Hall, 1922 / I-House Archives
Using the YWCA event as a model to close out Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club’s first official year, the Edmonds planned a program that would be equal parts memorable and dramatic. The room was encircled by as many students as there were nationalities, one student for each country dressed in their country’s traditional costume. Each representative held an unlit candle and was arranged alphabetically in a line. Albania was first, then Belgium, etc., to the end, which in the first year happened to be a student from the United States of America, dressed as Uncle Sam. Starting with the Albanian, the light was ‘passed’ on to each country. As detailed in a 1966 “I-House World” newsletter, at this moment, Harry Edmonds knew, “something has to be said, to represent, in words, what has been visible to the eye. Here it is, on the spur of the moment!”
As light begets light,
So love, friendship, and goodwill
Are passed from one to another.
We who have come from many
Nations to live in one fellowship
At International House, promise
One another to pass the light
Wherever we go.
These words became what we now know as the International House Pledge. They were recited for 12 years, from 1913-1924, during the rest of the International Collegiate Cosmopolitan Club days, and then again, in the Spring of 1925 for the first ceremony at International House. Since that time, the pledge has been repeated in Davis Hall every year until the Spring of 2020, when the event switched to virtual to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This year, as we mourn loved ones and time lost, I hope you will join me in keeping these words in your thoughts and in your heart as we look forward to better days ahead.
*Banner Image: 25th Anniversary Candlelight Sunday Supper with John Dr. Rockefeller Jr., and General George C. Marshall, 1949 / I-House Archives
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