By Megan Lisagor
Photos courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University
of Chicago Library. Captions drawn from exhibition material by Sara
Ritchey, a graduate student in History.
cornerstone laying—with an accompanying program—had
launched the project.
Though written in stone, Rockefeller Memorial
Chapel’s founding vision has room for change.
“As the spirit of religion should penetrate
and control the University, so that building which represents religion
ought to be the central and dominant feature of the University group,”
U of C founder John D. Rockefeller wrote in a December 13, 1910,
letter outlining his $1.5 million gift for a chapel. The University
took those words to heart, chiseling them inside Rockefeller Memorial
Chapel’s front door. Today Rockefeller looms above the 242
other buildings on Chicago’s 211-acre campus, and evoking
“the spirit of religion” remains a key part of the chapel’s
Rockefeller’s letter of bequest is one
of approximately 110 archival documents and photographs in a 75-year
anniversary exhibit, Life of the Spirit, Life of the Mind, revealing
how a continuum of thought has kept the chapel in tune with Chicago’s
expanding diversity of faith. “I was particularly struck by
how similar the goals, hopes, and basic theological perspectives”
of the chapel staff have been over time, says the Reverend Alison
Boden, Rockefeller’s dean. “Letters, speeches, programmatic
brochures, and sermons all testify to the real through-line of opinions
Reflecting Rockefeller’s vision, the chapel’s
designs suggest a bigger-is-better theme. Massive windows and a
72-bell carillon—both among the world’s largest—seek
to inspire awe. The plans also confirm what has long been campus
legend: no other building can top Rockefeller’s 207-foot tower.
Such grandeur extends beyond architecture. From its 1928 dedication
Rockefeller, while largely interdominational Christian, set out
to have wider reach. That same year a newly formed Student Chapel
Council noted in its by-laws that Rockefeller belonged to the entire
community, not a single group.
An emphasis on forward-thinking ideals further
defined the chapel’s scope. “We must be ready to adventure
forth upon new and creative experiments in the reshaping of religious
thought and tradition to meet the new needs and opportunities of
modern University life,” the Reverend Charles Whitney Gilkey,
the chapel’s first dean, said in a dedication speech. Gilkey’s
guidance proved propitious: today countless religions are represented
by Chicago’s faculty, staff, and students. Items on display,
including flyers advertising a 1969 Vietnam War protest and a 1998
birthday commemoration for Martin Luther King Jr., testify to Rockefeller’s
role in campus life.
Though Life of the Spirit, Life of the
Mind—at Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research
Center through June 18—looks back on the chapel’s legacy,
staff have its future in mind. Rockefeller’s basement, currently
under renovation, will house an interreligious center, providing
prayer space for Muslims, Hindus, and other religious groups, in
the latest reinterpretation of the chapel’s mission.