Jay Blossom spoke with the former chair of the board of visitors at Duke Divinity School and trustees from United Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary about their new chapels.

Why build a chapel? Why now?

ERIC LAW, former board of visitors chair, Duke Divinity School: The new chapel at Duke Divinity School, which was part of a building addition project, actually took 40 years. It's been under discussion since the late '60s. But up until 2000, we couldn't see our way through to funding the building addition, so it remained on the drawing board as a wish for a long time.

Work started in earnest in 2001.

Most of the money had not been raised. The final decision to proceed with the chapel was the addition of the building to a capital campaign that was already underway. We had surpassed our goal and decided to raise the goal and, among other things, added the building addition to the campaign.

LINDA MACK, trustee, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities: There had been an idea of a chapel on the campus of United — which was built in the '60s. The original plan included a chapel but, as you can well imagine, it wasn't built at the time because there wasn't enough money. So there'd always been this idea of a chapel. In the meantime, a characterless multi-purpose room had been used as the chapel.

Then in December of 2000, Mary McMillan, who's a good friend of the seminary, also a former student, and a former interim president, came in with a million-dollar check and said she would like to help get the chapel going and name it in honor of her parents. That, of course, was the impetus. Now, I think she thought a million dollars might do it, which was not the case. So another campaign was launched, and, as things happen, the cost tended to go up rather than down and it ended up being a four-and-a-half-million-dollar campaign, which was concluded and the chapel opened in September of 2004. So it was a big gift that kicked it off.

VIRGINIA SNODDY, trustee, Gordon- Conwell Theological Seminary: Our campus [the extension campus in Charlotte, North Carolina] was meeting in rented facilities for 10 or 11 years. So we really needed everything. And the chapel was the main place in the center of the building where people would be able to gather.

Our overall money-raising took a couple of years. Our board made some very clear statements that we couldn't begin until we had X number of dollars, which was good. And it's all paid for.

How did the board justify the expense?

LAW: The board basically said, this is the only shot we're going to get, and if we make it too small because we're nervous about the money, we'll be sorry later. We need to right-size it for what the school needs, and we'll just go find the money for it. So there was a great deal of unanimity there.

The building is in close proximity to Duke Chapel [the 1930s Gothic revival University Chapel], and it's a highly visible location on campus, and the university has over the years had some buildings built that, in retrospect, perhaps should have looked differently. What the board was unanimous on was that, because of its location, it had to be done right. So we were of one mind on those two points.

MACK: Very early on the architect said, "Well, you know, I like to do signature architecture. I hear you saying that you would like a signature chapel, and signature architecture costs more." Everybody sort of held their breath and thought about it and said, well, we do want to go this route. We understand it will cost more. But the seminary had used as a chapel this multi-purpose room, which was just a glorified classroom, for all those forty years. United is known for its religion and arts program — having a kind of iconic, beautiful chapel was seen as a way to really enhance its visibility locally. It's kind of stuck in a small suburb where it doesn't have much public visibility, so it was a way to really bootstrap its reputation.

SNODDY: I think as far as the Charlotte program was concerned, we were awash in red ink for a long time, and this was a great concern to many on our board in South Hamilton. It was very iffy as to whether or not we would continue here for a period of time, but they finally decided to get behind it as we began to plan for the building. My husband is a retired hospital architect, and he did what he calls programming. He went around and talked to all the people in every department about what their needs were and so on. So, he did the program for the whole thing and then worked with the architect who put it together. And I'm happy to say now that we no longer have red ink down here and our friends up in Boston and South Hamilton are extremely pleased about that.

How is your chapel used?

LAW: Our chapel is devoted almost exclusively to worship. It's not a multipurpose space. There are currently eight services in the chapel for the divinity school community per week. There's daily morning prayer. There's a service of the word on Thursdays. There's Eucharist on Wednesdays. There's a worship service that draws from a variety of traditions — evangelical and contemporary and African American — that happens on Friday. I'm sure there will also eventually be some additional Friday evening or Sunday morning services for undergraduate religious groups on the campus.

MACK: What we were aiming for was a chapel where everyone who is at the seminary, or might come to the seminary, would feel comfortable. That did not mean a plain vanilla space, but it meant creating a spiritual space architecturally — that speaks architecturally rather than in traditional symbols. Although we're a mainline Protestant denomination, we've always had an ecumenical focus. So we wanted everybody to really feel comfortable bringing their own worship traditions into the space. I think we have achieved that.

The chapel brings the world inside. What's visible are the curving wood panels that are very enclosing and womb-like, but what you experience in the chapel, as well, are the views in between those [curving wood panels]. There's glass that is looking out to the west, and then it comes up to form the ceiling. So you have not only the view out, you have the view up. The dedication night there was a little, gentle fall thunderstorm that came through at the very end of the service and you could hear the thunder, you could see the lightning, and you could hear and see the rain on the ceiling. It was really extraordinary.

SNODDY: Well, we just need to use our space for a lot of things wherever we are. And I think the fact that we are, frankly, an evangelical school probably makes some difference in the way we worship. Spiritual formation is a great goal for our institution, so "sowing the seed" is kind of significant as we look at that.

And, of course, we're a nonresidential school, and so we have people come in from all over, and some of them do stay in motels nearby. Our usual time period [for instruction] is Friday evening and all day Saturday. So, we use the space sometimes for other purposes. We have a huge divergence of activities that take place in this space. It is worshipful but it's also useful for lectures and concerts.

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