The red brick 1881 Gothic chapel at Virginia Seminary meant many things to many people before the fire of October 22, 2010 charred and consumed it.
For me it was the place where we prayed out our conflict over the Viet-Nam conflict, the place where I prayed out my uncertainties over ordination and marriage, the place where Clifford Stanley proclaimed to a Good Friday congregation that on the Cross Jesus, by refusing retaliation, absorbed into himself the power of evil.
During twenty-one years as a teacher the chapel was my prie-dieu. It trained my body to show up, assume the postures, and so to attend to the discomfiting and comforting voice of God – and to the concerns of my brothers and sisters. At midday on September 11, 2001 neighbors crowded in with the Seminary community to pray to God while jet fighters circled over a smoking Pentagon. At this altar both of my children were married. From this chapel we were sent out– to love, to forgive, to serve, to build, and to reconcile.
I could never say, despite improvements over the years, that the chapel’s architecture and decoration taught me the beauty of holiness. One teaching whose impact I did repeatedly observe over the years was the black-letter inscription of the words of the risen Jesus over the stained-glass representation of his commissioning his disciples: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” Many who came for holiness found themselves dispatched instead on our Father’s unfinished business in his contentious world.
Near the contested north-south border within oil-rich, civil-war-devastated Sudan sits the village of Abyei. Two years ago rival armies anticipated the possible resumption of civil war in a skirmish and burning of the village, including its Episcopal church. The church and village burned to the same black dust that now fills the shell of Emmanuel chapel. In Alexandria as in Abyei, we are bereft. There and here we are disoriented. There and here we recover by remembering. We go back to the unfinished work we have been given to do. We go back out – to love, to forgive, to serve, to build, and to reconcile.
Thanks be to God.
Richard J. Jones
Emeritus Professor of Mission & World Religions
October 26, 2010
I am in mourning for the loss of a place that I dearly love. To say that the experience of worship can over time reach down to your very bones is an understatement; it can becomes as much a part of your life as eating or as the daily round of sleep and wakefulness. I have worshipped in Immanuel Chapel at least five times a week for every week of the past 27 academic years. I have seen members of my extended family married in the chapel and buried from it. I have witnessed the marriage of students and the baptism of their children. I have participated in the ordination and installation of colleagues, and have helped to carry their remains from the chapel to the nearby seminary grave yard. And best of all, year in and year out I have had the privilege of worshipping along side of men and women who have come to this institution as part of their preparation to serve their Lord Jesus Christ in this world. Some have stayed near and others have gone far, and they but they have been missionaries all—bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
It is possible that some elements of the chapel will survive. Many of the lower lancet windows appear to have remained intact. The brick walls of the chapel are still standing, though there is appropriate concern about how stable they are at this point. At this point, there is no report on the interior of the building, but it is possible that some of the stone monuments to previous faculty and supporters have survived.
There were, however, many things that were lost in the fire. What I will most miss are those reminders of generations of outgoing students who served in foreign mission. Three particular elements come to mind: 1) The altar rail, made from wood brought from Liberia, where John Payne (VTS 1836) served as the first bishop. 2) the stunning Tiffany Windows in the liturgical North transept. Depicting Paul making a case for the Gospel before King Agrippa and Queen Bernice, they were given by Mrs. Henry B. Gilpin in thanksgiving for the life of William Cabel Brown (VTS 1891) who went from Virginia Seminary to serve as one of founder of the Episcopal Church in Brazil. 3) The window over the altar depicting Christ’s Great commission with the inscription “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” A gift of Mrs. S. F. Houston of Philadelphia, it has inspired generations of worshippers.
In the near future, we will be without a chapel. It is likely that we will return to our historic practice of dedicating an alternative space as a “prayer hall” in which worship can be held. This is not the first time that Virginia Theological Seminary has been without a chapel. Our first chapel building (1839-40) fell into such disrepair during and after the Civil War that it was finally condemned for use in 1879. The current building was not completed until 1881. In the intervening years, members of the community continued, however, to gather for prayer and continued to prepare themselves for service to Christ in the world.
I will miss the chapel building I have known, but with God’s grace we will find a place for the men and women of this community to gather together to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed and to raise their voices in common prayer and song. And we can be assured that the Lord is with us, wherever it is that we gather.
The Rev. Robert W. Prichard, Ph.D.
October 23, 2010