Bernard ‘Bernie’ O. Brown, former dean of Rockefeller Chapel who fostered community, 1930-2023

Divinity School alum, faculty, DB'55, AM'65, PhD'73, remembered for compassion, spiritual leadership of University

The Rev. Bernard “Bernie” O. Brown, retired dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and associate professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School and the College, died peacefully Oct. 7 at his home in Hyde Park. He was 93. 

An active member of the University and Hyde Park community for over 60 years, Brown is remembered for his leadership as the fourth dean of Rockefeller Chapel. From 1979-1995, Brown guided the historic building through several renovation projects and strengthened the chapel’s diverse community through his personal relationships and steadying presence.

“I have talked to a number of people in the university who have been here since he was dean of the chapel,” said Maurice Charles, MDiv’90, PhD’13, current dean of Rockefeller Chapel. “They all tell me the same thing, that Bernie Brown was the kind of old-fashioned country parson who, when there was a crisis in the university, would come and knock on the door of your office and see how you're doing.”

A graduate of UChicago’s Divinity School, Brown served the University in a number of roles and joined as faculty member in 1973, teaching courses in the Divinity School and the College. 

Brown and his wife, Carol Jean Brown, were active in the community for decades, serving and leading several local Hyde Park organizations. The couple were also heavily invested in student life at UChicago, serving as Resident Masters for seven years for the former Woodward Court and Shoreland dormitories. 

Brown was a lifelong musician and champion of the traditional choral and organ music that is a hallmark of Rockefeller Chapel. The Bernard O. and Carol Jean Brown choral scholars endowment gives students leading roles in their sections and opportunities for solo performances.

The chapel “is a place not only with a firm core but also with the ability to reach out to the wider, ever-changing population of the University,” said Brown in a 1995 Chronicle article commemorating his retirement as dean. “I feel proud to have helped the chapel community live out this meaning through its numerous activities and events."

Dean of Rockefeller Chapel

Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 24, 1930. Raised in North Dakota, Brown first encountered Rockefeller Chapel while hitchhiking across the country to a summer job at a music camp. The chapel left "an indelible mark” on Brown, who returned to the university a few years later as a student at what was then called the Federated Theological Schools of the University of Chicago. 

As a student, he lent his voice to the nationally acclaimed Rockefeller Chapel Choir. He received his B.D. in 1955 and was ordained as a Methodist minister the following year. Afterward, Brown served as chaplain at the University of Minnesota and the University of the Philippines.

In 1963, Brown returned to Chicago to study at UChicago’s Divinity School where he received his A.M. in 1965 and Ph.D. in 1973. Brown was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1970. 

During his time at the university, Brown held a variety of roles including campus minister, program director of the International House and associate chapel dean. He joined the faculty of the Divinity School in 1973 and served as coordinator and director of ministerial studies. In 1979, he was named associate professor and became the dean of Rockefeller Chapel. 

As dean, Brown had an instrumental role in shaping the religious, musical and ceremonial life of UChicago. A central hub of university life, all students pass through the doors of Rockefeller as they reach key milestones. The chapel is also the spiritual home for many Hyde Park dwellers, university members as well as a popular stop for sightseers and out-of-towners. 

“I always liken this to a chapel on a military base,” said Brown in a 1995 UChicago Magazine interview, “where people are away from where they usually are, and look to us to provide a sense of community, a place of reflection, during their time here.”

A citizen of the university

Dean Charles first met Brown during a visit to Rockefeller in 1985. Expecting a bombastic, unapproachable presence at the pulpit, Charles was surprised to meet a polite, thoughtful figure at the back door of the chapel.

“When you encountered him personally, through the relationships that he took the time to build,” Charles said, “that's when you felt his impact.”

Though they interacted briefly during Charles’s time at the Divinity School, he was surprised to discover that Brown remembered him when he returned to UChicago in 2019 to serve as dean.

“He and Carol Jean were sitting right there in the Sunday congregation. He would always ask for a copy of my sermon so he could go home and read it,” Charles said. “I will never forget this moment when he said to me, ‘I am so proud to have you as my pastor.’”

Even after retirement, Brown was committed to his connection and service to students. He continued to teach social science and humanities courses in the College’s famed Core, a responsibility he cherished. 

“He always liked working with the undergraduates, because they're not afraid to say the wrong thing,” Carol Jean Brown said. “He thought the Core courses were really important to broaden the students, especially in things that they might not have chosen.”

Four-time UChicago alum Robert Behar, LAB’81, AB’83, MD’87, MBA’11, cited Brown as his favorite professor for this very reason. “His Core course introduced me to Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner and Lévi-Strauss and Freud,” said Behar in an interview with UChicago Magazine. “He introduced me to a series of ideas I would not have otherwise come across.” 

Brown was equally devoted to the Hyde Park community, where he served as director of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, as a consultant to Crossroads International Student Center and as a representative of the Ray School PTA. 

“I have an especially deep appreciation for the number of people who work here largely behind the scenes, and quietly bring compassion and joy to this place,” Charles said. “He's certainly on that list.”

Brown is survived by his spouse of 72 years, Carol Jean Brown, and was a devoted father to his children Lizbeth (Van) Bistrow, Christopher (Johanna Poethig) Brown, Julia (Paul) Sutter, the late Jonathan (Rebecca Loew) Brown, Peter (Rebecca) Brown and Lincoln (Sara Diwan) Brown. 

He also is survived by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren: Douglas Bistrow, Ruth Bistrow, Laura Sutter, Rachel Sutter-Leve, Megan Sutter, Monica Brown, Malcolm Brown, Amelia Loew, Adam Loew, Max Brown, Ray Bistrow, Ella Bistrow, Sienna Sutter-Leve, Brooks Sutter-Leve, Camden Sutter-Leve, Nicholas Sutter and Bernard Meyer.

—A public memorial, featuring music by the Rockefeller Chapel Choir and current and past University Organists, is scheduled for Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.