Eighty-one-year-old Fay Higgenbottom sat on one of the padded benches in the vestibule where she patiently waited while her children toured the offices, community room, kitchen and storage areas on the bottom floor.
Lee has played a vital role in her family since 1948, when she and her late husband, J.D., graduated from Lee College. They were followed by all four of their children and four grandchildren who have graduated from the school.
“Many of them met their life’s companion here, so Lee has had a vital part in our family,” she said.
“I think it’s beautiful,” she said of the chapel. “How could anyone think anything else?”
Sisters Alayna and Ali DiGirolamo of Memphis were also impressed with the $3 million chapel at the front door of Lee University constructed of Austin limestone from a quarry in Texas.
The 12,000-square-foot chapel is a blend of architectural types incorporating elements from the Romanesque, Early-Christian and Neo-gothic periods. The copper steeple is 48-feet tall and rests on a tower that stands 72- feet high.
“I think its beautiful,” said Alayna, who graduated in May 2010 with a degree in business administration. Her younger sister, Ali, is a freshman who also plans on majoring in business administration.
“From a business standpoint, it was a great decision because everybody is always getting their engagement pictures here. I’ve heard it’s already booked out, so that’s awesome,” Alayna said. “The stonework is gorgeous.”
The chapel will be open to the public and dates have already been booked for wedding ceremonies and Ralph Buckner Funeral Home has made reservations for the annual memorial service for people who died in 2011.
When Alayna first saw the plans for the newest building on campus, she was afraid it wouldn’t fit with the rest of the red brick buildings on campus, “but it actually goes really well. I think it goes well with Cleveland and as always, they kept all of the scenery and the trees and that made it just beautiful.”
Ali agreed with her older sister.
“I think it’s a wonderful addition to campus. I think it will go great with everything going on here — and they’re finishing it just in time for homecoming,” she said.
That was exactly the response Lee President Dr. Paul Conn hoped for several days earlier as he explained the reason for the departure from the Greek Revival architectural style.
When he became president in 1988, he and his brother, Raymond Conn, president of Tri-Con Construction and primary advisor on architecture, committed to red brick, precast lentels, columns, portico roofs of classic Greek Revival to match the existing buildings they knew they were going to keep.
“When we started in the late ‘80s, we decided that’s going to be our look,” he said. “We wanted a coherent architectural feel throughout the campus, but when it came to this chapel; my wife, Darlia, and I, Raymond and his wife, Joan, talked about this for years, we ought to make it totally different. Let it be the building on campus that doesn’t have red brick.”
Construction on the $3 million building began in September 2010. The ceiling and trim are made of white oak, cut and kiln-dried specifically for the chapel. The windows were created by Emmanuel Studio of Nashville. Three large stained-glass windows in the north and south transepts and behind the pulpit and choir each have three kites in the top. The three elements of the Trinity; the Father (burning bush) the Son (the cross) and the Holy Spirit (dove) are represented in the choir window. Below the kites is the cross and crown representing Christ the King. The north transept window bears the elements of the Lee University seal with the torch, Holy Bible and olive branches. The south transept window symbolizes the Poiema project. Poiema is the New Testament Greek work translated as “workmanship” in Ephesians 2:10.
Each of the windows opening into the vestibule and the three windows above the balcony are three-paned windows designed to prevent outside noise from spoiling the solitude of the sanctuary.
There is seating for 50 in each transept, 40 in the choir and 200 can be seated in the 24 custom-made pews created by New Holland Church Furniture of New Holland, Pa.
The litany of dedication, prayer of dedication and ribbon cutting were held on the front steps Saturday evening to coincide with homecoming.
“We’ve thought about a chapel for 10 or 12 years or more, but didn’t actually decide where to put it until about four years ago because we didn’t know we were going to have access to such a prime piece of property on Ocoee Street,” Dr. Conn said.
While a quiet place for reflecting on God has always been in Dr. Conn’s thoughts, the focus over the last eight years has been on adding about 2,000 classroom seats where students could learn in state-of-the-art environments. The humanities building was opened in the fall of 2004. That was followed by the School of Religion in the fall of 2008 and the Math and Science building in the fall of 2010. There was also a long period of time — from about 1990 until about 2003 — when approximately 1,300 dormitory beds were added.
“We went from 700 beds to 2,000 beds in that period of time,” he said. “In the last seven years, we’ve emphasized big classroom buildings. You can do without a chapel, but you can’t do without a bed for the kids to sleep in and you can’t do without a classroom for them to sit in and be taught. The opportunity to build a chapel was a luxury we didn’t have until now.”
The chapel is not the completion of construction projects at the university.
“I think there are still things to be built. There are other academic buildings we need so there is a lot left to do,” he said. “The chapel is not the end, it’s just a pause in the building of academic and student life buildings.”
The morning chapel services will continue in the Conn Center and Dixon Center. Those services are for large audiences that require a lot of space. Even the former First Baptist Church building is too big for small, intimate spiritual gatherings that currently happen in classrooms, lecture halls and dormitory lobbies.
“What we have not had is a place for small services for 75 students, a communion service, a candle lighting, a smaller group Bible study or worship experience,” he said.
“We had a gym to play ball in, a dining hall to eat in and a dormitory to sleep in, but where do you go to have 100 students in a small worship service? That’s what this is for.”
It’s hard for a multipurpose space, such as the Dixon Center, to have a feeling of sacredness. The chapel is not intended for multipurpose uses, but only for events of a spiritual nature.
“We want it to feel like a sacred space so we built is small on purpose,” he said.
Dr. Conn said the question of using the former First Baptist Church building was raised quite often since it was purchased at about the same time the chapel was announced. It was on the southern edge of the campus and the desire was to have a chapel in the center of campus.
“We want the freedom to change that space. We’re not sure where we’re going with that, but to adapt that big sanctuary to a small chapel for these smaller events just didn’t work for us,” he said. “This is a house of God. It’s a spiritual sense that this one is different.”