Elmhurst College In Depth

The Chapel at 50

For a half century, Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel has been a place of comfort and challenge on campus.

When the people of Elmhurst College get together for some important occasion, there’s a good chance they will be gathering at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. Since its dedication fifty years ago, the chapel has occupied an unrivaled space at the center of the campus’s intellectual, social, and spiritual life.

It is, as you would expect of a college chapel, the scene of worship services and baptisms, of weddings and funerals. But it is also—and this is the more unlikely part—a lecture hall that has hosted speakers as renowned as Martin Luther King Jr. and Elie Wiesel; a performing arts center that presents rock shows, orchestral concerts, and the nationally acclaimed Elmhurst College Jazz Festival; and an academic building where students and professors meet every day to do the unheralded but essential business of higher education.

“It’s a special place, a big place in the life of the College,” says Ken Bartels, Elmhurst’s vice president for college relations.

“It’s a place to engage in the fullness of humanity,” says H. Scott Matheney, the College’s chaplain. “The intellectual, the artistic, and the spiritual are all embodied there.”
Four Elmhurst presidents, with a combined service of forty-four years, have been inaugurated in the chapel. New students begin their years at Elmhurst with a convocation there. Four years later, they return for a baccalaureate service, then receive their degrees in the building’s shadow. Students take classes in the chapel, play instruments in the chapel, visit professors in faculty offices in the chapel’s basement, and attend worship services in the sanctuary. When they need to comfort one another, as they did in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they gather in the chapel. When members of the community confront and challenge one another—as happened notably during a tense standoff over racial issues in 1970—that, too, happens in the chapel.

The list of luminaries who have spoken at Hammerschmidt Chapel is eclectic and impressive. In addition to the Nobel laureates Wiesel and King—a plaque at the chapel’s entrance marks the occasion of Dr. King’s address on July 8, 1966—it includes theologians (Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich), writers (Edward Albee, Studs Terkel), journalists (William Buckley, David Gergen), historians (Taylor Branch, Robert Dallek), social activists (Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman), religious leaders (Cardinal Francis George, Sister Helen Prejean), politicians (Edward Kennedy, Paul Simon), and the occasional icon (Muhammad Ali). Jazz greats like Cannonball Adderly, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clark Terry have performed in the chapel as part of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. This year’s spring season will include not only the forty-second annual Jazz Festival but also appearances by the historian Michael Beschloss and the novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

On occasion, the chapel has been the scene of inspired foolishness. Mickey Mouse gloves have sprouted from the hands of the steeple clock. In the 1970s, enterprising vandals unscrewed every pew, turned them to face backward, and screwed them back into place. The incident became an essential part of chapel lore. “You wouldn’t believe how many alumni I have had tell me that they were behind that prank,” says Bartels.
Of course, for many, Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel primarily has fulfilled its essential function as a place for quiet prayer or reflection. “I’ll go in there on some errand and so often find someone in the sanctuary who just needs that place at that moment in their lives,” says Chaplain Matheney. “It is a safe place for people.”

Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel is so much a part of campus life that it’s easy to forget that it is only the most recent and most enduring of several chapels that have served the College. For most of Elmhurst’s early history, daily worship was a required part of student life; the earliest chapels were in Kranz Hall and Old Main. Another chapel was located in Irion Hall, built in 1911. Part of that chapel has been repurposed as Buik Recital Hall; it still contains stained-glass windows depicting Moses, St. Paul, Elias, and Jesus. 

The construction of Hammerschmidt was part of an ambitious building program begun under the leadership of Henry Dinkmeyer, the College’s eighth president. Dinkmeyer never let a lack of funds deter him from big plans. He announced his intention to build a new chapel, then had construction crews begin excavating a site at the west end of campus. A sign sprouted nearby announcing, “A Hole to be Filled by Faith.”

The new chapel was to meet a pressing need for suitable space for worship services. For several years, with the College’s enrollment growing and space at a premium, worship services had moved to the gymnasium (now Goebel Hall). A brochure from the period describes the scene: “Here amidst physical education equipment, parallel bars and swinging rings, we pray. Instead of incense there is the unmistakable odor of a gym. As soon as chapel is over the chairs are removed and a class is doing push-up exercises.”

The first funds for the new chapel came from Louis Hammerschmidt, a member of the Board of Trustees from South Bend, Indiana, who contributed $300,000 to launch the project. More support followed, with more than 1,900 donations coming from 1,208 individuals, 388 churches, 312 church organizations, and 10 companies and corporations. President Dinkmeyer didn’t live to see the completion of the project he had launched “on faith.” He died in 1957, a few weeks after announcing his retirement. His successor, Robert Christian Stanger, dedicated the chapel on September 21, 1959. “It was the culmination of a dream when the chapel was completed,” Bartels says. “What a great moment for the institution.”

The new chapel featured rose-tinged Tennessee marble and a center aisle of “bouffant wedding-gown width.” It offered seating for about 1,100 people, with room for 200 more in the balcony. Its steeple climbed 115 feet high and was topped by a five-foot-high cross.

From the beginning, the building was “devoted to the spiritual and cultural needs of our student body.” In addition to the sanctuary, there were a prayer chapel, classrooms, and offices for the College’s admission and public relations offices. The chapel also helped realize part of a grand campus master plan that dated to 1926 and the seminal presidency of H. Richard Niebuhr. It called for a building much like the future Hammerschmidt at the west end of a campus mall.

The chapel has always meant different things to different people. What one chapel-goer might call the sacristy—the small room off the altar where sacred vestments are stored—is to someone else the green room, the place where performers or speakers wait before taking their turn in front of the audience. Same small room, two distinct purposes.

Today, the chapel serves several faith traditions. An ablution room has been added to allow for the Muslim custom of washing before prayer, and daily Muslim prayers are conducted in the small prayer chapel south of the altar. Jewish students and faculty gather in the chapel to light Shabbat candles. An ecumenical Christian worship service starts at 10:00 p.m. each Tuesday. 

For Chaplain Matheney, even those who enter the building for reasons that have nothing to do with religious faith can find some spiritual meaning there. “In the end, this must be a spiritual space in the broadest sense of the word,” he says. “It must be a place of comfort and a place of challenge.”

When President Stanger dedicated the chapel fifty years ago, he called it a “graceful and distinctive edifice.” It may be that what has been most distinctive about the building over its first half-century has been how smoothly it has served its myriad purposes.

“I think it has done its job,” says Bartels, “as well as any building we’ve ever built.”

Photo courtesy of the Elmhurst College archives.

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