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Immanuel Chapel

Chapel Fire

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    My dear Ian,

    Greetings in this season of Advent!

    I was very sorry to hear of your recent fire at Virginia Theological Seminary and wanted to send you my personal commiserations on the loss of the chapel. I have heard that the college community stood on the grounds and watched as this building, which is at the very heart of your life together, burnt to the ground. This must have been a traumatic experience for the whole college, and in particular for those students inadvertently involved in starting the fire.

    I know that your pastoral care for students and colleagues will have been personally costly to you in the days and weeks that followed the fire. Virginia Theological Seminary plays such a valued part in the life of the Communion and your own ministry in developing and sustaining relationships across difference is much appreciated. Please be assured of my prayers both for you and for the whole college community as you play for re-building.

    With every good wish for Christmas.

    Yours ever,


Immanuel Church on the Hill, Zabriskie Chapel

Haggai 1: 15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17; Luke 20: 27-38

When I was a child growing up, the Gospel for All Saints’ Sunday—or at least for the feast day of All Saints’—was the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. Then came the Revised Common Lectionary. We now have options—is that good?  I remember Prof. Stuart Henry who was my Ph.D. dissertation advisor at Duke. He was a staunch Presbyterian who served the First Presbyterian Church of Natchez before joining the Duke faculty. He always wore crisp white oxford cloth long-sleeve shirts. Once I got to know him, I said one day: Might you consider a nice crisp light blue oxford cloth long-sleeve shirt. He said: No, I wear white shirts because there are enough decisions in life without starting my day with one. So, there was something good about the Beatitudes always at All Saints. In the Beatitudes Matthew says: blessed are the poor in spirit. Luke’s writer says: blessed are the poor. Luke is always concerned with the outcast, the poor, the forgotten.

This morning we turn to another part of Luke’s Gospel—the charming tale of the woman who married in sequence seven brothers. “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Husband one, husband two, and so forth, husband after husband. This gospel sounds like the script of an English comedy on the BBC.

I have always pitied the woman. Can you imagine getting married seven times? Give me a break! Can you imagine marrying seven brothers? I should think the poor woman would have had enough of the family by the time of her death-- and by the time of the resurrection! Perhaps she would say: I will take being single for eternity! She might well be happy to sing for the ages the country music song by Loretta Lynn: “Sleeping single in a double bed."

We hope that the woman who married seven brothers and all of us will be “children of the resurrection.” We gather because we worship the God “not of the dead but of the living.” We know—or wish to believe—that all of us are “alive in God.”

The feast, the octave, of All Saints always comes at a good time. In the long green season of Pentecost, I grow somewhat bored with the church year—to be honest. All Saints’ tide is a joyous moment in what seems like endless liturgical time. We put on white stoles and we talk of the saints—these stars in the firmament of the Church and in the inner life of us all.

The last two weeks I have thought about little other, nothing else, than the burning of our worship space, Seminary Chapel or Immanuel Chapel. It has been a consuming grief for many. So many decisions are required by us all—short term and long term. I have pondered over and over again the good news from Isaiah 61:4:

“They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations.”

How will the devastation be raised up? I guess that’s my work as a development person. But there is a spiritual dimension to building up the ancient ruins, to raising up the former devastations. Israel’s hope was always a hope for return, a return to the Land. So, we hope for a new and wonderful worship space for ICOH and the Seminary. We hope to return to a space we will love and come to know like the old space.

The Christian’s hope is the resurrection—our eternal life with God. Israel’s hope and our hope are for healing, pardon and grace. We all long for a homeplace and a place where God is with us, Immanuel. Israel returns to the Land of the Holy One. Christians return to the Lord, the one who is our Resurrection Hope—the way, the truth and the life.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says that to speak of “the resurrection of our bodies is to look for the restoration of our memories.” This is an insight we should not miss. “Being aware of our memories in God’s presence, is, of course, part of the prayer of confession. The hard thing is to make it (restoration of our memories) part of our thanksgiving too, in the sense of being ready always to acknowledge before God what we are and, therefore, what we have been, and at the same time bless God that his grace makes opportunities out of all our sin and unhappiness.” God’s grace makes the chapel fire an opportunity, an opportunity which is ours this day.

Yes, our hope is a hope for the past—for our native land, for the temples devastated. But God is also in the future—and there is a new city which will come down from heaven. “Risen life is the ultimate hope”—and it is the hope that resides in the Communion of the Saints. Nothing separates us from God—and the saints are with God as we will be. Heaven and earth are married in the saints. There is in the Communion of the Saints an ongoing celebration of hope and life. We long for our native land, like the Israelites longed for a Jewish homeland. Our native land is in the person and work of Jesus—and our land is a spiritual home with the saints and so now we call their names in reverent hope.

We will rebuild Seminary Chapel or Immanuel Chapel—but it will be an interim place for us all. Our permanent home is with the saints in that homeland which is heaven where God reigns until the end of the ages. A place is prepared for us. Come, Risen Lord.


List of 7 items.

To the Dean, Faculty, Students, Alumni and Friends:

I am deeply sorry to hear of the fire that has devastated the historic chapel at the Seminary. You have been in my prayers since learning of this tragedy, and I stand with you as you look to rebuild for the future.

I give abundant thanks for Virginia's tradition of training ordained and lay leaders for mission and ministry in The Episcopal Church and beyond. May God give you all strength and vision to meet the challenges before you.

Your servant in Christ,

Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop
I am writing to inform you of the results of the investigation performed by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives).

At 9:30 a.m., I was joined by the Chair of the Board, the Vice-President for Administration and Finance, and the Counsel to the Dean. Together we met with representatives of the Alexandria Fire Department, and the ATF. They shared the results of their investigation with us.

The fire started in the sacristy. Given it is a late Victorian wooden structure, the fire spread rapidly and quickly. There was no smoke detector or sprinkler system.

It is clear that the fire was not caused by any deliberate or criminal act. Although the fire was caused by human agency, those involved took “steps that any responsible person would have taken”. However, these steps were not sufficient to stop the catastrophe that followed.

This is a brutal reminder to us all to handle with enormous care anything that can be flammable. As we look ahead the Seminary will be reviewing fire safety for all the buildings on the campus. The investigation will not lead to any criminal charges. It is agreed that all involved behaved with integrity and thoughtfulness.

This is not a time for blame. Instead, it is a time for reflection and prayer. As a community, we are called to surround each other with love.

We must find time to pray to Almighty God: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7)

The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D.
Dean and President

Dear Seminary Community

At the Emergency Board Meeting, held on Saturday evening, the Board of Trustees asked me to convey our hurt, horror, and sadness at the tragic loss of sacred space that has befallen the Seminary. We want you to know that your loss is our loss, your pain is our pain.

We feel very honored to serve this community as your Trustees. We are very aware of the special place that the Seminary has in the affections of the alumni/ae and wider Church. This is a moment when the Seminary community is called to provide a witness to the whole Episcopal Church and to the wider Church. To quietly draw on the necessary resources of strength to support one another, to understand the different ways in which this loss is grieved, and to look ahead. It is vitally important that we ensure a new, albeit temporary, place of worship is established on the campus; and we, as the Board, will seek to involve the community in a process that culminates in a new chapel building.

Tread carefully over the next few days. Walking past the charred chapel remains is difficult. It is a constant reminder of the hurt we are all living with as a community. The Trustees look forward to being with you during the Board Retreat on November 8-10, 2010.

Finally, we have instructed the Dean to keep you informed about the current state of affairs. He has assured us that this communication role will be an important priority.

Be assured of our prayers,

Your servant in Christ Jesus
I write this letter on Day 3 after the fire of 10/22/10. The initial 9-1-1 call was made at 3:41PM and the response by firefighters and police was almost immediate. I became aware of the fire at 3:55PM and by 4:40PM the flames were evident, and there was significant trauma on campus. By 4:30PM all the major broadcasting companies were on campus. The VTS Disaster Team was convened, and a press release was sent shortly after 5:30PM. The Board Chair, the Rt. Rev. James J. Shand, was notified, as was the Rev. Margaret Faeth, rector of Immanuel Church on the Hill. On Sunday evening, October 24, there was an emergency telephone meeting of the Board of Trustees.

Our sense of loss is great. We do not know how the fire began, but the damage to the chapel is extensive. On Sunday afternoon I entered the chapel for the first time for a limited walk. Several of the smaller stained glass windows and some of the pews have survived. The pulpit is severely charred. The lectern eagle remains, and the baptismal font is ready for a baptism. We do not know if the standing brick walls are structurally sound. Because of quick responses, Aspinwall Hall, Meade Hall and nearby residences were spared damage.

The ATF investigation continues which is standard procedure for all church fires in the United States. We are supporting the ATF investigation and are working with our insurance company, attending to all the details that now consume us. The trustees are taking this painful journey with us. Countless emails and calls from alumni/ae and friends have made all the difference as we all go slowly through the stages of grief. Not surprisingly, the students, faculty and staff have stepped up to the plate in countless ways. Our neighbors, the First Baptist Church of Alexandria and Beth El Synagogue on Seminary Road, have come to us with their support and prayers.

This morning we gathered for Daily Morning Prayer in Zabriskie Chapel at Immanuel Church on the Hill (ICOH) across the road. That lovely congregation served us hot coffee and doughnuts after the service. We returned to Zabriskie for the noon celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The congregation of Immanuel Church on the Hill is a family of the VTS Community and their hospitality means the world to us. Our closest neighbor, Episcopal High School, has also offered their worship space. In due course, you will hear about the semi-permanent measures we will put in place to guarantee the centrality of worship in our common life. Life goes on, but we are grieving on the Holy Hill. Life is far from normal and the future is not totally focused. It is too early to talk about rebuilding or a new chapel.

When you stand in the grove and look at the debris and the charred timbers of the Chapel, it is like looking into the starkness of dead winter. W. H. Auden in For the Time Being puts it well:


Winter completes an age

With its thorough levelling;

Heaven’s tourbillions of rage

Abolish the watchman’s tower

And delete the cedar grove.

As winter complete an age,

The eyes huddle like cattle, doubt

Seeps into the pores and power

Ebbs from the heavy signet ring;

The prophet’s lantern is out

And gone the boundary stone,

Cold the heart and cold the stone,

Ice condenses on the bone:

Winter completes an age.


The almost “thorough levelling” of our beloved Chapel does “seep(s) into the pores and power ebbs.” I know that Christ’s Church is not a building, but spaces do become sacred and memories are deeply embedded in the material things of our incarnational faith. I can assure you that ravaging fires do not destroy memories. The opposite is the case: memories become more intense when they are all you have.


VTS has always been about memories, ministry and mission in the name of Jesus. This remains the case today—and our story for the future. One of the material things in the Chapel was Charles Price’s piano which he gave to us in 1998. The piano is most likely lost, but we still have his words in the thanksgiving prayer on page 836 in the Book of Common Prayer. I find those words poignant and full of new meaning. He includes these petitions to the Lord: “We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts…. We thank you also for those disappointments….that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.” Finally, Price says: “Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen”


Your prayers are precious to us. Stay with us for this new journey as we give thanks to God in all things.


Yours in Christ,


The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D.

Dean and President



Facebook Tribute Page
Press Release (10/22/10)
The Dean's Message (10/23/10)
Reflections of a Faculty Member (10/24/10)
The Dean's Sermon: Audio | Text (10/25/10)
Audio Message from the Dean (10/30/10)


Please contact Susan Shillinglaw, our Director for Communications at (703) 461-1764 or sshillinglaw@vts.edu.
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