By Emery Younger
On October 6, 2013 the spire of Gunnison Chapel was engulfed in flames, after electrical wiring in the tower’s roof caught fire and spread to the copper coated spire. Within four minutes of the fire being reported, members of the Canton Fire Department were on-site and fighting back the flames.
Rev Kathleen Buckley, the University Chaplain, remembers that night well. Rev. Buckley was out-of town on the sixth. When she received a call from Dean Tolliver and was informed of the fire which was slowly burning through the spire. “It was unbelievable,” she said. By the time she had reached Tupper Lake she had received a video from the Dean and was able to see the heartbreaking damage that had occurred. “Initially I felt shock and concern,” she said, “but then I began to recognize the help and support of the St. Lawrence community.”
Within 24 hours of the fire, events were being rescheduled and services were relocated. Upon hearing the news of the fire, Canton’s Unitarian-Universalist Church offered to allow the University to use their sanctuary.
In the year and half since students gathered on the quad to watch the billowing flames, significant progress has been made to restore the building. Over the summer, the water-damaged pews were removed from the sanctuary and their wood was restored. Much of the interior was also re-plastered in order to repair damage that was inflicted by the smoke, as well as to mend cracks that had existed prior to the fire.
The chapel has not only been restored, it also now has two new features that will make the building more accessible to all who visit. During the renovation a new sound system was installed. Equipped with new speakers and a touch screen control panel, the sound system will make it easier to understand speakers in what was once a space with challenging acoustics. Beneath the building’s wooden floors a hearing aid compatible sound adaptor was also installed. This system will allow those with hearing difficulties to directly tune their hearing aids into the sound system.
Additionally, a handicap accessible bathroom was installed in the Chapel’s rear narthex. Before the fire, the only two bathrooms in the building were in the basement and in the Chaplain’s office, both of which are only accessible by stairs. In the past the only way to access these bathrooms was by walking to the front of the sanctuary and passing just to the left of the pulpit. The installation of an ADA compatible restroom makes it easy for event attendees to leave the sanctuary discretely, without walking in front of the speaker
In addition, those who have passed the Chapel may have noticed that the building is now equipped with ID card readers at each door. Although these control boxes have been installed, students will still have access to the building 24 hours a day, just as they had when the building was previously left unlocked.
While an official rededication ceremony will not be held until the Fall, the Chapel will reopen during this year’s Commencement Weekend. Rev. Buckley is certain that the project is on track for an on time completion. “We’ve already booked weddings for this summer,” she said. The much-anticipated replacement of the building’s spire, however, is scheduled to occur even sooner. An exact replica of the Chapel’s destroyed copper spire has been created by Campbellsville Industries in Ohio, and will be installed sometime in April. “Of course we first tried to find a local company to complete the project, but the level of craftsmanship required for this project made it necessary to send the work to Ohio,” said Buckley. The intricate spire features a wide variety of motifs, including numerous angels and the Chapel’s memorable rooster shaped weathervane.
Additionally, the tower’s Bacheller Memorial Carillon will be reinstalled. For over 80 years, student bell ringers have rung the 10 bells each weekday at 5 pm. This fall there will only be one student on-campus who has had past experience as a bell ringer, however plans are already being made to train a new set of ringers at the start of the Fall semester.
R. Chris DiMezzo ’18, who currently serves as Thelmo’s Vice President for Senate Affairs, is a student member of the University’s Chapel Restoration Committee. As a First Year, DiMezzo has never known life on campus with the chapel. “It will be interesting for the entire Freshman Class to experience the rededication of this space,” said DiMezzo. “Its clear that Gunnison is an important community space that has a deep connection to the entire SLU community,” he added, “and I’m excited to see how the Chapel is celebrated.”
“The chapel is a cornerstone of our campus and means so much to students, regardless of their faith,” said Rev. Buckley. “It’s a place to find some quiet, which can be sometimes be difficult to find on a residential campus,” she noted.
While work on the Chapel’s tower will continue over the next few weeks, the entire University community will soon welcome back Gunnison Chapel. In just a few months, students will once again be able to pause in the building’s pews after a stressful exam or study in the altar’s popular bean bag chairs, as the sound of the bells echo across the quad.