Warren Wilson College News

The Building of the Chapel: Beverly Ohler remembers

The Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church and College Chapel resides in a beautiful A-frame structure made of wood and rock, as beautiful as it is holy.  A campus treasure, it seems as new today as it did in 1964 when we opened its doors.

On Sunday, May 18 we observed the 50th anniversary of its dedication. It was a wonderful day of celebration led by Steve Runholt, and many alumni were in attendance. Kathy Campbell took part, Billy Edd Wheeler wrote an original song performed by the choir and Jack Allison sang the song he wrote for the occasion. The service was followed by a potluck dinner at which time Warren Wilson College President Steve Solnick, Doug Orr, Georgena Millar and Rodney Lytle shared their thoughts.

From the beginning our chapel has been an accepting place, open to all, honest in worship, with a kind and giving congregation of loving friends. So much has happened under its beams in those fifty years, and I am one of the few left to remember it all. I won’t recount here the whole history of the building that occupies a special place on campus (where a tennis court once stood), since Kay Stockdale and I have just published a *book telling many of those details, accompanied by some exceptional photography.

The building itself never seems to grow old. It was that well designed and planned and has been so tenderly cared for. We felt from the beginning that the building should be an expression of where it resides, using as many  local materials as possible. Everything inside its walls, under its mountain-like roof, should be carefully chosen to express this region and celebrate its beauty. Local craftspersons were commissioned, and artists graciously added their talents to its walls over the years.

The building’s designer, a young architect named Charlie Sappenfield, learned everything he could about the college and the church before setting pen to paper. He spent many hours in our living room learning symbolism and theology. The result of that careful study was our award-winning structure, expressing so perfectly what we are and hope to be. The building ages well and still elicits a feeling of awe when entering its doors.

Almost everyone on campus in the early 1960’s was involved in building the chapel–members of the congregation, students on work crews, teaching and work staff volunteering their time, wives and friends serving on committees and pitching in with manual jobs such as rock gathering and laying, applying the original wood shake shingles to the roof, assisting the carpenters, selecting furniture, hanging pictures, painting, staining, color choosing, cleaning, spending countless hours in innumerable decision-making meetings, and taking on the plethora of tasks that needed extra hands.

I have a special memory of being with a huge gathering of campus friends, including children, on the top of a high hill off Bee Tree Road, throwing rocks down to the bottom. There a truck was waiting to haul them to the building site to erect those wonderful rock walls that haven’t seemed to move an inch through all these decades! We had an experienced rock mason who worked beside and taught many young students the precise way to build with stone. Many alumni now, when they return to campus, try to find the rocks they carefully laid in just the right place.

The graduation of the class of 1963 was held under the newly raised roof before the building was finished in 1964. It seemed like we were under a gigantic tent, and it was a perfect setting for that ceremony. The Warren Wilson College Class of ‘63 has fond memories of being the only class to have graduated in a place that was there only for them.

We ended all our campus-wide festivals in a most celebrative way imaginable, in the chapel. Innovative worship using all the arts, even dance, became the norm. The reaction to such creativity in “church” at first was dubious, but it wasn’t long before it was not only accepted, but anticipated. The memorial services for most of our college founders, who were our mentors, friends–family, really–were honored within the chapel’s walls, and so many varied college and church events–weddings, baptisms, award ceremonies, commencements, theatrical events, plays, blessings of the animals, incredible musical performances, celebrations with an assortment of themes, have taken place there. The Thanksgiving harvest has brought the bounty of the farm, including animals, into the chancel on each Sunday before Thanksgiving for fifty years. It was common to see multitudes of balloons, flowers, and banners on many occasions, but mostly I remember the meaningful services every Sunday morning.

We should have kept a list of notable people who have spoken in our chapel. I think it would amaze our present faculty and administration. They include famous authors, academics, churchmen and women, and theologians, but also actors, dancers, poets, musically talented artists both vocal and instrumental, politicians, governors and even a president of the United States. The music, especially, has been memorable. How fortunate we have always been to have had such extraordinary musicians sharing their time between the college and the church.

In this building I experienced moments so beautiful that I found it hard to breathe, or made me gasp in wonder.

In this building I experienced my most profound sadness, when tears freely flowed down my cheeks and the ache in my heart was palpable.

In this building there was a divine presence sensed, a spirit felt.

It’s just a structure. Mortar and stone, wood and nail, built by professional builders, students and staff and friends, but when those things house a community in such important events, in such a significant way, something miraculous happens. It becomes a holy place–a holy place, indeed–like no other.

*If you would like to order one or more copies of the “Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church and College Chapel Book,” please send your request along with a check for $7 per copy, which includes shipping and handling, to Church Administrator, Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church and College Chapel, CPO 6355, P. O. Box 9000, Asheville, NC 28815-9000.

 

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