Guest Post: Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference Report

A Highlight of 2014 — A Trip I’m Planning in 2015!


Literary scholars amidst a backdrop of Hogwarts surrounded by Griffins….

This was the atmosphere of the third annual Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill College on Friday, October 17, 2014. The college, located in north Philadelphia, was founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1924 and is an independent Catholic institution.   The tall gothic spires and medieval architecture of St. Joseph Hall, the center point of the campus and conference, along with the griffin flags and seals around the campus, attested to the fact that the conference organizers thought this a most perfect location for a Harry Potter Conference.

And they were right!

Karen Wendling, PhD Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Patrick McCauley, PhD Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy organized the concept of the conference 3 years ago through their love and study of the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter book series and inspired by the campus of the college where they teach. The conference has since doubled in size and also served as the inspiration for the Harry Potter Festival that follows the conference that evening and the next day in the quaint old English-style town of Chestnut Hill which sits just one mile down the hill from the campus.

The day of the conference, the sun shone bright amidst the colors of autumn to welcome conference speakers and attendees.  All gathered in St. Joseph Hall where beautiful pieces of Harry Potter inspired artwork was displayed.  Tasty treats such as pumpkin juice and candied apples magically appeared during a conference break.   A bronze statue of a griffin was the perfect spot for photo opportunities as it sat majestically in the Hall of Philosophy in front of the college seal, also depicting the griffin.  It should be noted that even amidst the numerous griffins around the campus, the Ravenclaws in the crowd were academically challenged, the Slytherins put at bay with the grace of the college, and the Hufflepuffs just fit right in!

The conference, subtitled Academic Reflections on the Major Themes in J.K. Rowling’s Literature,  began with high school students presenting their analysis of Harry Potter themes such as dementors, the Mirror of Erised and one of the two winning presentations, “An Analysis of Peter Pettigrew” presented by Rieve Bule of Devon Preparatory School. The college was very generous in awarding a $10,000 scholarship to the two winners.

The opening plenary lecture was presented by the Dean of Harry Potter Scholars, John Granger (title bestowed by Time magazine), author and organizer of the esteemed Hogwarts Mr. Granger presented a topic entitled “What Cormoran Strike, Private Investigator, Teaches Us About the Hogwarts Saga”. This book series is J.K. Rowling’s newest endeavor which she penned under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith and currently offers two novels, “The Silkworm” and “The Cuckoos Calling”.   Some in the audience were surprised that Mr. Granger would present a topic not directly related to the Potter book series, but were, by the end of his presentation, inspired to pick up a copy of the Cormoran Strike novels to witness for themselves how Ms. Rowling may be connecting the two book series.

The conference continued with three concurrent sessions with the dozens of attendees finding it difficult to decide which lecture to attend. The Gender, Politics and Psychology session offered topics such as “Violence Against Women in the Harry Potter Series” presented by Professor Patrick McCauley and “Harry Potter and Nature Deficit Disorder” presented by Louise Freeman, PhD Mary Baldwin College.   In the Philosophy and Literature room, Sarajane Sein of Delaware County Community College presented “Miracles, Magic and the Murderous Crowds: Biblical Parallels in the Harry Potter Series”. David Gras, of Christ Community Chapel in Hudson, Ohio, presented “Harry Potter and the Bridge Between Two Worldviews” where thought-provoking questions from C.S. Lewis were presented on parallels between Christian and pagan references found in the Potter book series.  In the Education and History room, Denise Buzz, PhD West Chester University presented her observations on “Harry Potter and the Humanistic Learning Model”;  Karen Wendling, PhD presented “Lessons from Hogwarts: Science, Magic, and the Nature of Science Education”.

The final session of the conference included thoughts and accolades from the President of the College, Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, PhD.  The keynote plenary was delivered by Gregory Bassham, PhD, Professor of Philosophy King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA.  Professor Bassham delivered his presentation entitled “Harry Potter and the Meaning of Life”. Many in the audience had originally been inspired years ago by Professor Bassham’s thoughts in his book on the parallels of Christianity and the Harry Potter series and it was an honor and inspiration to continue in our thought process on this subject.  Professors McCauley and Wendling officially closed the conference but invited all to attend the Harry and the Potters Wizard Wrock concert that was taking place that evening at the college….we were also honored to have Keith Hawk of Mugglenet present who interviewed the plenary speakers and conference organizers for a special Mugglenet Podcast following the conference.

By the time the conference had ended, the pubs in Chestnut Hill were gearing up for the third annual “Pub Crawl” where hundreds, some in costume, roamed the quaint lantern-lit brick streets of Chestnut Hill to experience several pubs, renamed with appropriate Potter titles (ie The Leaky Cauldron and The Three Broomsticks) offering their own versions of butterbeer and various Potter style meals.


The next day, Saturday, October 18, saw the official start of the Harry Potter Festival at 10am with the arrival of Professor Dumbledore, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermoine Granger, all aboard the “Hogwarts Express”(aka SEPTA train system of Philadelphia!)  After a welcome and introductions from the Minister of Magic, Harry (an astonishing look-alike!) pulled several winning raffle tickets and many posed for photos with the “stars”.  The hundreds gathered at this opening event then scattered to experience the shops and events that the proprietors of Chestnut Hill had conjured up!  Offerings including a “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class presented outdoors on this warm and sunny day on the grounds of the local theatre;  Professor Trelawny told fortunes;  lightning bolt scars were affixed to foreheads; butterbeer abounded in the streets.  “Mrs. Weasley’s Kitchen” served Potter-themed meals; “Professor Sprout’s Sweetshop” (located in an old greenhouse) offered delectables such as chocolate cauldrons;  “HoneyDukes” offered a variety of candies; “The Shrieking Shack” offered scarves and incense; “Diagon Alley” offered a sorting hat ceremony and a costume contest.  Other events included a straw maze and numerous other activities for children.

One of the highlights was the Quidditch tournament for the Brotherly Love Cup held on the grounds of Chestnut Hill College – the Snitch was luckily not blown away in the wind as all players were human – yes, including the Snitch!   Players “flew” on their brooms dodging the bludgers as Chasers aimed their quaffles at the goal hoops.  The backdrop was majestic St. Joseph Hall (aka Hogwarts) which set the perfect theme for the games!

The residents and college faculty of Chestnut Hill come together to create a magic that cannot be experienced too many other places. Presenting literary offerings as well as fun-filled activities for the entire family, Chestnut Hill has proven itself to be a leader in Harry Potter themed events.  As Professor Dumbledore has stated,It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”, it is evident that it was the choice of the thousands of attendees to be immersed in the magic of Harry Potter as Chestnut Hill town and College had offered this wonderful October weekend.

We are looking forward to next year!

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