About 50 members of the Vassar community stand in a large circle outside of Pratt House in the area where the labyrinth will be built. Photo by Karl Rabe.
Project Updates

Vassar’s New Labyrinth Offers a Space for Contemplation

2 minute read

Labyrinths, serpentine pathways carved into the landscape, have been found in ancient ruins and have been a component of contemplation and meditation practices throughout the world ever since. As Vassar’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices prepares to move its offices to Pratt House, a newly created labyrinth is one of the resources students will find there, thanks to a gift from Vassar alumna Mary Hyde Ottaway ’59.

The opening of the labyrinth and Pratt House will be celebrated at an Open House April 13. Vassar alumnus Gabriel Dunsmith ’15, whose senior thesis helped to inspire Vassar’s new labyrinths, will speak at the event.

Several people walking the labyrinth outside of Pratt House.

Rabbi Bryan Mann, Rachlin Director of Jewish Student Life (far left), joins Professor of Earth Science Jill Schneiderman (second from left) and students Christian Wilson ’23 and Ellie Whiteman ’24 walk on the completed labyrinth. Photo by Grace Adams Ward ’24.

During the October dedication, Rev. Samuel Speers, Associate Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices, thanked the Ottaway family for the gift. “I’m a longtime lover of labyrinths, and this self-effacing donor has used her Vassar experience to emphasize their importance as a form of prayer,” Rev. Speers said.

“The Labyrinth, that most grounding of contemplative practices, has long been a favorite of mine,” Ottaway said, “and one I know many of us have hoped for here at Vassar for a long time.”

Ottaway said she had been awed by the beauty of Vassar’s campus when she was a student and learned to more fully appreciate the landscape when she took a course in ornithology. “Our final project involved tracking banded chickadees, mapping their territories, and observing their nests,” she recalled. “I was assigned AbleBlue. His name is etched in my memory, and, as chance would have it, we are on his territory. So, today, what I bring is this cherished memory, as well as great pleasure at being able to contribute to this project and amazement that we all stand here, right now, in AbleBlue’s flight path!

Associate Professor of Psychological Science Carolyn Palmer, who is teaching a course on contemplative practices this fall, noted that some funding for the labyrinth had been provided by the Carolyn Grant ’36 Endowment Fund. Palmer told those gathered at the dedication ceremony that she hadn’t waited until the labyrinth had been fully constructed to visit the site. She said she had brought her students to the Pratt House lawn earlier in the semester.

“This labyrinth has been a dream of mine for 20 years,” Palmer said. “Part of Vassar’s mission is to help answer the question: ‘What is my purpose in life?’ The labyrinth takes you in, not necessarily to answer that question, but to provide a space for contemplation—and Pratt House will be actively engaged in purpose-driven activities.”

James Ottaway and Mary Hyde Ottaway ’59 pictured in front of Pratt House at Vassar College.

Donors James Ottaway and Mary Hyde Ottaway ’59. Photo by Karl Rabe.

Then, nodding to Ottaway, Palmer said there had been some other visitors on the tour with her students that day. “We were graced by many chickadees,” she said. “I guess they were AbleBlue’s great grandchicks, and maybe someday our own great grandchildren will walk in this space.”

Ellie Whiteman ’24, an intern in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, said the creation of the labyrinth and the imminent move into Pratt House were significant events for many on campus. “The labyrinth has been a dream of many students, faculty, and community members for far longer than I have been a Vassar student.,” Whiteman said. “It is incredibly exciting knowing that it will be a part of the Vassar experience for years to come. It can be difficult to find truly peaceful places on campus when there is so much happening all the time, but having seen the care put into this project I truly believe that the labyrinth and Pratt House will serve that purpose.”