Seminary community vows to rebuild chapel

By Christy Goodman
Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Immanuel Chapel will be rebuilt.

Members of the Virginia Theological Seminary community have said that the 129-year-old chapel, which was destroyed by a two-alarm fire Oct. 22, will come back to life in some form.

The estimated cost of damage is $2.5 million, fire officials said, although seminary officials are seeking an independent assessment. Officials ruled the fire as accidental.

Students and faculty members are grieving the loss of the historic chapel, the site of thousands of graduates' first sermons, baptisms, weddings and funerals.

"They understand that work of the church and worship of God is not contained in four walls. They understand people of God are the church," said Susan Shillinglaw, a seminary spokeswoman. "We are hopeful for a new chapel . . . but we will work in the meantime with what we have."

The school's board of trustees is scheduled to meet this month to discuss the chapel's future, she said.

"Amazing people over the years have preached in this chapel," Meghan Holland, 26, of Alexandria said on the night of the fire. She is one of about 115 full-time students at the seminary.

Once students learn theology, they practice preaching in the chapel, she said.

"You are surrounded by the history; you are in awe of that," Holland said. "It is the place where you started your role as a priest."

Morning worship, noon Eucharist and evening prayer services previously held daily at the chapel were held last week at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill. An 11:15 a.m. Sunday service of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, which had been held in the chapel, is now being held at the church.

Next quarter, the seminary will transform the Scott Lounge, a meeting hall, into a prayer hall, Shillinglaw said.

The Rev. Margaret Ann Faeth of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill sent a message to her congregation in which she said, "The things of this world do indeed pass away. Nevertheless, the loss of the Chapel from which we were founded, and in which we have worshiped for seventy years, feels like the death of a beloved friend."

The fire started in a trash can in the chapel's sacristy, where sacred vessels and vestments are kept, said Robert Rodriguez, Alexandria's fire marshal and spokesman. The chapel's interior is severely damaged, and most of its stained glass, including three Tiffany windows, is lost.

A brass altar cross and Communion silver were recovered, although they will need repair and polishing, Shillinglaw said. The lectern and pulpit also could be refurbished, she said.

Some stained glass, including that in mission windows, survived, and the baptismal font was unharmed, she said. "It looks like we could use it right now."

The very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, said thousands of alumni were devastated when they learned of the fire. The night of the fire, he described watching the heart of the chapel be destroyed within 40 minutes as "a trauma that will stay with me," but he said he was thankful no one was injured.

The historic campus moved from Washington and King streets to Quaker Lane and Seminary Road in the 1830s. Union forces occupied the campus during the Civil War.

The chapel, with classic Victorian elements, was built after that in 1881. It is the Episcopal church's largest seminary and strongest church in the Anglican communion, Markham said.

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