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Phelps Stokes Chapel Turns 100

In the midst of all of the events and activities of Berea College’s 150th anniversary during the 2005 -06 academic year, another milestone “birthday” takes place. Phelps Stokes Chapel, a well-known Berea College landmark turns 100 this year. Built by Berea students and named in memory of Miss Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes who provided the funds, the century-old Chapel has hosted many historic events and was the site of a special ceremony on Wednesday, March 8 to mark this latest milestone and to unveil a newly acquired portrait of the lady for whom the chapel is named.

Phelps Stokes

The ceremony, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, included remarks by Larry D. Shinn, Berea College president. College First Lady Nancy Shinn unveiled the portrait of Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes. The unveiling preceded the Women’s Studies “Peanut Butter and Gender” lecture program at noon that featured Joan Callahan, a Professor of Philosophy and the Director of Women's Studies at the University of Kentucky.

Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes, as well as her sister Miss Caroline Phelps Stokes, shared philanthropic interests that advanced the Christian religion by giving money for the construction of chapels at such diverse locations as Columbia University, Berea College, and Tuskegee Institute. They also provided financial support for advancing the cause of women and of American minorities (especially African-Americans and Native Americans), strengthening education, and improving housing for the poor.

The story of Phelps Stokes Chapel begins in 1902 when a fire destroyed the previous chapel of Berea College. That chapel, built in the Gothic style with “double lancet windows, a beautiful bell tower, a furnace, and gas lights,” and able to seat about 500 people, was near Chestnut Street, (on a site roughly in front of the present-day Frost building). However, on the afternoon of January 30, 1902, fire destroyed that chapel, in spite of gallant efforts by Berea’s students who carried water hand over hand in a bucket brigade to fight the fire.

Upon hearing of the loss, Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes of New York, one of the first independent women philanthropists in the United States, determined to turn tragedy into triumph. She offered to pay for construction of a new “plain, commodious chapel as soon as it can be erected by student labor.” Use of student labor was the first proviso that accompanied Miss Phelps Stokes offer. The second was that her gift be anonymous until after her death. This second restriction was easily honored, and the new building was known during its earliest years simply as “the Chapel.” However, since most student labor at the time was unskilled, such as pumping and carrying water or chopping wood for furnaces and stoves, Miss Phelps Stokes’ requirement of using student labor presented more of a challenge to the College.

In meeting Miss Phelps Stokes’ challenge, the Chapel truly became Berea’s own, having been built with student labor and College materials. The student-made bricks came from Berea’s kiln in the brickyard at Rucker’s Knob and were used by the bricklaying students to construct strong walls in the Flemish Bond pattern. Other students hewed the stones for the foundation from rocks 12 miles south of the Berea Ridge. The lumber for the oak flooring and woodwork was felled by students in the College’s forest. The wooden wall paneling and the deeply coffered ceiling were made by young men in Woodwork. They took each section as it was made, carried it over to the new Chapel, installed it, and then measured for the next section.

The students were superintended by Josiah Burdette, then-head of the Woodwork department, with T. H. Horton, foreman in carpentry. Mr. G. T. Spencer was foreman in the brick and stone work. They followed the design created for the Chapel by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a noted New York architect with the firm of Howells and Stokes, and the nephew of Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes. His plans called for the structure to be 83 feet wide by 150 feet long with a bell and clock tower 105 feet high. The original bell in the tower was cast by the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, New York. Later, in 1917, when Miss Phelps Stokes gave Berea College a set of chimes to commemorate the 25th anniversary of William Goodell Frost’s presidency, the bell was removed and given to the Middletown School.

The cornerstone was laid at Commencement in 1904 by Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, who had been present when the original College Chapel had been built. When the Chapel was completed and dedicated two years later, her husband, John A. R. Rogers made the prayer of dedication, his last public service for the College which he had helped to found before the Civil War.

Following is President Shinn's speech from the portrait unveiling ceremony.

"Sometimes out of tragedy, great good can come. Such is the story of Phelps Stokes Chapel, which begins when a fire destroyed a previous (the second chapel) of Berea College in 1902. That chapel, a fine Gothic style structure, had replaced the college’s original chapel which had been “. . . a rough frame building, whitewashed inside and outside . . .” The first chapel, built in 1867, was of simple “box” construction, measuring 32 feet by 64 feet, with a sloping roof and a shed on one end, on top of which was a small wooden structure housing a bell. An account in the 1931 Berea Alumnus records that the interior of the original chapel had “more the appearance of a school room than a chapel." During the week it served as 2 classrooms, with a partition which could be drawn up to the ceiling, thus transforming the 2 rooms of week days into the one of Sunday.” The roof was supported on wooden beams “neither rounded nor ornamented.” “Within its walls might have been heard good teaching, good preaching, good singing, and fervent prayers.” Located in the general vicinity of the present-day Jesse Preston Draper Memorial Building, the original chapel burned to the ground on New Year’s Eve, 1878.

As a result of the fire, a second wood-framed chapel, built in the Gothic style with “double lancet windows, a beautiful bell tower, a furnace, and gas lights,” and able to seat about 500 people, was constructed closer to Chestnut Street, (on a site roughly in front of the present-day Frost building) thus offering easier access to the campus and community. However, on the afternoon of January 30, 1902, a fire also destroyed the second chapel, in spite of gallant efforts by students who carried water hand over hand in a bucket brigade to fight the fire. Portraits (of some of the Colleges founders) and some furnishings were rescued, but the losses far exceeded any insurance coverage. Since President Frost was away from campus at the time of the fire, Howard Murray Jones, the College Dean, assigned carpenters to work on the old Tabernacle, making it suitable as a temporary venue for chapel services which were held there for the next four years.

Upon hearing of the loss of that chapel, Miss Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes who was one of the first independent women philanthropists in the United States, determined to turn tragedy into triumph. She sent a telegram to then-President William Goodell Frost stating, “I will build a plain, commodious chapel as soon as it can be erected by student labor.” Use of student labor was the first proviso that accompanied Miss Phelps Stokes offer. The second was that her gift be anonymous until after her death. This second restriction was easily honored, and the new building was known during its earliest years simply as “the Chapel.” However, Miss Phelps Stokes’ requirement of using student labor presented more of a challenge to the College since most student labor at the time was unskilled, such as pumping and carrying water or chopping wood for furnaces and stoves.

The College had a few men who taught some carpentry and construction classes at that time, but not to the point of building and finishing a structure as great as the Chapel was to be. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a noted New York architect with the firm of Howells and Stokes, and the nephew of Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes, drew up the plans which called for the structure to be 83 feet wide by 150 feet long with a bell tower 105 feet high. The preceding year, the College had started a small brick- and tile-making plant in a nearby field, but it was only a fledgling industry. An ample supply of clay and a brick-making machine were on hand, but sufficient water, some 10,000 gallons per day, would be required to make all the bricks for the College’s new Chapel. Two large wells were dug, and a pump secured that could raise all the water needed.

Miss Phelps Stokes telegram to President Frost also stated, “Am sending $500 to hasten your Men’s Industrial Building.” That contribution, along with nearly $40,000 in additional funds raised by President Frost, allowed for the construction of an industrial trades building (now known as the Edwards building) to move forward. There, through its construction and later in formal classes, students learned the practical skills needed to build the new Chapel.

It has been said that Phelps Stokes Chapel is truly Berea’s own, having been built with student labor and College materials. The student-made bricks came from Berea’s kiln in the brickyard at Rucker’s Knob and were used by the bricklaying students to construct the strong walls in the Flemish Bond pattern. Other students hewed the stones for the foundation from rocks 12 miles south of the Berea Ridge. The lumber for the beautiful oak flooring and woodwork was felled by students in the College’s forest. The wooden wall paneling and the deeply coffered ceiling were made by young men in Woodwork. They took each section as it was made, carried it over to the new Chapel, installed it, and then measured for the next section. The students were superintended by Josiah Burdette, then-head of the Woodwork department, with T. H. Horton, foreman in carpentry. Mr. G.T. Spencer was foreman in the brick and stone work.

The cornerstone was laid at Commencement in 1904 by Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, who had been present when the original College Chapel had been built. When the Chapel was completed and dedicated two years later, her husband, John A. R. Rogers made the prayer of dedication, his last public service for the College which he had helped to found before the Civil War.

Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes, as well as her sister Miss Caroline Phelps Stokes, shared philanthropic interests that advanced the Christian religion by giving money for the construction of chapels at such diverse locations as Columbia University, Berea College, and Tuskegee Institute. They also provided financial support for advancing the cause of women and of American minorities (especially African-Americans and Native Americans), strengthening education, and improving housing for the poor. In a letter dated December 27, 1905, from Miss Olivia Phelps Stokes to President Frost, she stated, “… I sincerely trust that all students of Berea, remembering the strong, brave, good men and women who were ready, if it need be, to sacrifice life for Berea, will be equally strong and brave, developing, with Gods help, character and work, noble and true, fitted for the times they live in.” Later, Mrs. William Goodell Frost, during a Chapel talk in 1932, stated that Miss Phelps Stokes gave the Chapel “in the hopes that Berea students might live a life permeated with the consciousness of Good … lives which might find in the Chapel their central source of spiritual inspiration.”

In addition to the spacious and beautiful auditorium inside, a key feature outside of the Chapel is the tower that was constructed to house a clock and a set of bells. Originally, only a single bell, cast by the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, New York, hung in the tower. Later, in 1917, Miss Phelps Stokes gave Berea College a set of bells (chimes) for the Chapel. When the chimes were installed, the Chapel’s original bell was removed and given to the Middletown School. As indicated by an inscription on the largest bell of the chimes: “These bells commemorate the twenty-fifth year of William Goodell Frost’s presidency of Berea College and his unfailing self-sacrificing devotion to the college and its interest.” An article in the June, 1948 issue of the Campus Chronicle states that: “In 1915, Jake Browning recalls, he accompanied Miss (Phelps) Stokes to the chapel tower for a view of the rising sun. She was anxious to have the bells installed quietly to surprise President Frost with their ringing. But on the morning they were to be installed, one of the workmen unwittingly went to the president for instructions and so ‘spilled the beans.’”

The chimes consist of ten bells that range in musical scale from F to G. The hammers that strike the bells are operated by handles and foot pedals located on the extremities of 10 foot long wooden poles. Playing the chimes requires “considerable pressure and no small amount of dexterity.” Through the years, a long list of faculty and students have rung the chimes. A notable chimes-ringer was Dr. George H. Felton, a physician who retired from practice and made his home in Berea. Playing the chimes when he was over ninety years of age was for him, a labor of love.

Both the clock and the chimes have been an important part of life on the Berea ridge reminding students to get to classes and their labor assignments on time as well as alerting students to weather conditions on special occasions. For example, in the early days, the chimes played “She’ll be coming around the mountain” if the weather was fair on Mountain Day. Cancellation of Mountain Day due to rain would be marked by tunes such as “School Days” and later, “Raindrops keep falling on my head.”

In addition to the clock striking the hour, each quarter hour the bells play the appropriate lines often referred to as “Westminster Chimes.” This tune was specified by the donor who hoped the corresponding words would inspire students and faculty alike: “Lord in this hour, Be thou our Guide, That by Thy power, No foot shall slide.”

Through the years, this Chapel has been the site of many important events. Notables such as scientist George Washington Carver, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Frost, anthropologist Margaret Mead, historian Arnold Toynbee, actress and author Maya Angelou, civil rights activist and Georgia senator Julian Bond, and author Alex Haley are among the hundreds of nationally recognized speakers and performers who, from the platform at the front of this Chapel, have inspired and challenged Berea’s students to think deeply and dream freely."

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