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St. Lawrence University’s Gunnison Memorial Chapel will rise from the ashes

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CANTON — Ten bells rang out every day class was in session for nearly 90 years atop St. Lawrence University’s Gunnison Memorial Chapel. Then one day in October, they were silenced.

An early morning fire Oct. 6 destroyed the copper spire which has long served as a community landmark.

Janel L. Smith has climbed the steeple steps at least once a year for the last 18 years, ever since she was a student at St. Lawrence University. She was taught how to manipulate the wooden levers, pull the cords attached to the bells above and play music heard throughout the campus and beyond. Later, she would teach a successor of her choosing to do her job before she graduated in 1999.

Once a year since, Ms. Smith has returned during alumni weekend to play a single song. Until now.

“This will be the first year since 1996 that I haven’t played at least one song on the bell,” she said.

The fire, sparked by an electrical malfunction, endangered a piece of university history. The bells survived, as did the building, but the flames and water damage left much of the chapel in disrepair.

Repairing the building, which has stood largely unchanged since 1926, has been a slower process than originally expected. While worshippers once hoped to have their building back by this spring, red tape and lengthy negotiations with Traveler’s Insurance has slowed the process. It is expected the chapel will remain closed until next year.

“I thought it would be done by now. It’s a little frustrating,” said Daniel B. Seaman, St. Lawrence University’s chief facilities officer.

Mr. Seaman said he could not go into details about the negotiations. Repair work cannot begin in earnest until the college’s claim is approved.

When work begins, the college will replicate the steeple in exact detail, Mr. Seaman said, to respect the building’s long history.

BORN OF FIRE

When the chapel was first constructed, it was the result of five years of planning. It was the campus’s first new building in 20 years, part of a spate of construction projects billed as the “New St. Lawrence.”

“The new gymnasium will no longer be an air castle after this summer. A new chapel will be erected before next fall, and a new chemical laboratory will be started during the summer,” the student-run Hill News reported in 1925.

The chapel’s cost was estimated to be $200,000, which equates to about $2.7 million today.

It was a place of worship born of flames. The proposed site for the chapel was occupied by a drafty wooden gymnasium, which was to be moved elsewhere on campus to prepare for the new construction. Then, in May 1925, the gymnasium burned to the ground. The cause of the fire was never determined.

Construction began soon after the wreckage was cleared.

St. Lawrence University named the chapel after the college’s eighth president, Universalist minister the Rev. Almon Gunnison.

The Gunnison family played a key role in the chapel’s early days. The Rev. Mr. Gunnison’s granddaughter, Elsa Gunnison Appleton, laid the first cornerstone, and his great-nephew, Foster Gunnison, was the first baby christened in the building.

It would soon become a hub of campus activity. A host of services, memorials, graduations and concerts were held there, and the chapel held events for several notable figures, religious and otherwise.

One of the first such guests was famed scientist Marie Curie. Ms. Curie visited St. Lawrence University in October 1929 to receive an honorary doctorate and dedicate Hepburn Hall of Chemistry.

After the dedication, a chapel service was held in honor of the famed woman the Laurentian campus magazine described as “frail and tiny.”

Almost as soon as it was built, the chapel spire became a Canton landmark. Perhaps most recognizable was the glittering golden rooster that topped the building.

The rooster was cast in bronze and covered in gold, a replica of one from a 13th-century French church.

“Such an emblem may be a little unusual in Northern New York, but travelers who have visited France and other of the Latin countries, or who have journeyed through the Canadian province of Quebec, will readily recall the figure of the cock that adorns the church spires of the cities and villages of that old and unchangeable portion of the Dominion,” the Watertown Daily Times reported in 1926.

The rooster survived last year’s fire, although it was heavily damaged.

“It was the first thing to hit the ground,” Mr. Seaman said.

The ruined steeple was removed from the building in the days after the fire. It will soon be replaced by an exact replica, Mr. Seaman said.

“We’re going to replicate exactly what we had. The same material, the same gauge copper, the same number of ornate pieces to it,” he said.

The university is in negotiations with three coppersmith firms, one of which will be chosen to build the spire. The spire will be reconstructed off-site, then transported to Canton and hoisted atop the steeple.

SIGNATURE ST. LAWRENCE SOUND

The rooster may have been the chapel’s most obvious visual accoutrement, but the sensation most often associated with the building is one of sound, not sight.

The 10 bells housed in the tower were originally donated by Irving Bacheller, member of the class of 1882. The largest is engraved with an inscription in memory of his wife.

“To Ann Bacheller Musician, Wife, Comrade. My love for her put a new song in my heart. Therefore let the singing of these bells be the voice of my gratitude.”

The first concert of the bells was delayed until a radio transmitter could be installed near the chapel, so that the first song could be heard by Mr. Bacheller, who did not live nearby.

The bells have been a staple of campus life as long as anyone can remember. Every evening at five o’clock a student will play for 30 minutes. They start with chiming the hour, and end with the three campus songs, but they can fill the time between with any songs they want.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking when you’re starting out, because everybody can hear you play. There’s no way to practice other than to play,” Ms. Smith said.

The bells were mostly undamaged by the flames, but the university still plans to hire an expert to assess whether the 1,600-degree heat or the water from firefighters’ hoses compromised them.

Music of all kinds has always been part of the building’s legacy. In its early days, concerts were almost more common than religious events, according to a chapel history found in the university’s archives.

In 1968 the campus housed “Jazz in the Chapel” featuring the Billy Taylor Trio and other groups, and the musical tradition continues to this day with the regular “Noon in the Chapel” concert series.

The building has changed little over the years, except for the addition of stained-glass windows in the 1970s. These were designed by Willet Studios, the same company that created the windows for the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.

They depict Biblical figures mingling with Greek philosophers, modern scientists and professional athletes. They espouse academic virtues along with spiritual ones, like “science,” “recreation,” and “law.” The first window on the right as visitors enter the chapel depicts children arriving on campus and says “Enter here to learn,” while the one on the right as visitors leave shows college graduates and commands them to “go forth to serve.”

UNIVERSALIST HERITAGE

The Universalist Church of America merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1961, and St. Lawrence University officially became a secular institution in 1965. However, the chapel continued to celebrate its Unitarian-Universalist heritage, promoting ideals of tolerance regardless of religious belief, according to campus Chaplain Kathleen Buckley, who arrived at St. Lawrence University in 2001.

“I was very attracted to the open dialogical nature of the position,” she said. “I learned very early that St. Lawrence is a very special place.”

She was soon to have her own trial by fire. While the chapel has been used for a host of services, special events and memorial services for Laurentians lost, Ms. Buckley’s most memorable service was held soon after she arrived, on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Jewish prayers were all said during the ceremony that followed the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., as anxious students and faculty members waited to hear from friends and family members near Ground Zero.

“From that day the chapel was open 24/7,” the Rev. Ms. Buckley said.

On the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the chapel was filled to overflowing.

It was not the first time the chapel was used as a place of refuge in a time of turmoil. In October 1969 the campus held a memorial for four graduates and two students who were killed in action in the Vietnam War.

“Whether we are here as Christians or non-Christians, agnostics or atheists, may be less important right now than that many of us come in response to great personal needs,” said Frank P. Piskor, university president at the time, in a speech at the service. “Some searching for clarification of their feelings about the war, others bearing witness to personal convictions already clear to them.”

Until the chapel was closed because of the fire, it provided an important place for students, faculty and staff to gather, to stop their day for a few minutes at a time to think and pray, the Rev. Ms. Buckley said.

“That pause, and that reflective lifestyle, is very crucial for our students,” she said.

“The chapel really is a sacred space. It’s one of the anchors. People kind of orient themselves by the steeple,” said Associate Chaplain Shaun D. Whitehead.

The fire struck the Sunday of Family Weekend. The service scheduled for that day was canceled, as were many other services, concerts, events and weddings to come.

“When the chapel caught fire, I didn’t realize how I was grieving until a couple months later,” the Rev. Ms. Johnson said.

She said she misses the music the most.

“Working in the chapel, I’m around so much singing. Those are things I took for granted. Someone is always singing in the chapel,” she said.

Those who work in the chapel have temporarily had their offices moved elsewhere. Events, rehearsals and services usually held in the chapel have been moved.

“The chapel is one of the defining images of St. Lawrence, and also of the broader Canton community,” said class of 2008 graduate and university Trustee Jonathan K. Cardinal, a legislative correspondent in the office of U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand.

“It was a pretty tragic thing to hear,” Mr. Cardinal said of the fire.

MOVING FORWARD

The university has identified between 10 and 15 individual projects that will need to be completed before the chapel can reopen. The floor and pews were soaked with water and will need to be replaced and repaired. The bell tower is in need of repairs as well, along with roofing, painting and cleaning of debris.

Most of these tasks will remain unstarted until the insurance claim is approved, and the college will not release the complete detailed list of projects until that time.

Mr. Seaman said negotiations have taken longer than expected, and he does not know when they will wrap up.

“It could be Monday, it could be a month from Monday,” he said.

Once the claim is approved, it will take at least six months to fabricate a new spire, Mr. Seaman said.

This will be made of new copper, and for a year or two it will glitter and gleam just as it did in 1926, until time and oxidation take their toll and return it to its more familiar dusky green tint.

Students and staff, faculty and alumni, singers and bell-ringers, all wait for the day the campus landmark is once again whole.

“I think it will be a celebration,” the Rev. Ms. Johnson said.




Chapel history at a glance
A number of notable events have taken place throughout the Gunnison Memorial Chapel’s history.
• May 1925: The old gymnasium at St. Lawrence University burns down. The cause of the fire is never determined.
• August 1925: Cornerstone laid for Gunnison Memorial Chapel on the site of the old gymnasium.
• March 1926: Construction complete.
• June 1926: First concert of the bells.
• October 1929: Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie honored in chapel service.
• 1968: “Jazz in the Chapel” concert.
• October 1969: Memorial service for six Laurentians lost in the Vietnam War.
• 1972-1982: Stained glass windows installed over a decade as funds are raised.
• September 2001: Chapel open full time following 9/11 terrorist attacks.
• September 2002: Chapel filled to overflowing in memorial ceremony one year after attacks.
• October 2013: Electrical malfunction sparks fire in the bell tower. The spire is destroyed, and the chapel has been closed since.
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