Gaston & Catawba

Lenoir-Rhyne opens its most sacred space

On a chilly but sunny Nov. 21, people streamed into Lenoir-Rhyne University’s newly built Grace Chapel for the Bishop’s Dedication, a worship service led by the Rev. Leonard Bolick, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – North Carolina Synod.

Among the crowd of alumni, educators, students, clergy, dignitaries and Lenoir-Rhyne supporters, the reaction to the chapel was the same: amazement.

The sanctuary’s a masterpiece of Gothic beauty created at the hands of contemporary artisans. Stunning yet comfortable. Glorious but not ostentatious. A skillful blending of European architecture and American sensibility: comfortable seating for around 300, superior lighting and acoustics, elegant accoutrements.

The four-part dedication ceremony began with Bolick giving thanks to God for the 123-year-old school and its new house of prayer. Participating in the service were a number of pastors, students and Lenoir-Rhyne President Wayne Powell, who greeted the crowd by saying, “Welcome to Grace Chapel. I’ve waited a long time to say that. I think I’ll say it again: Welcome to Grace Chapel.”

Powell explained he and others have been dreaming about a new chapel for 50 years because, as Powell said, “We’re a faith-based community.”

A panel of eight served on the chapel design committee, including Dr. Katie Fisher, Lenoir-Rhyne’s assistant provost and dean of student life. Said Fisher, “I think that given the mission of Lenoir-Rhyne University, it is appropriate that Grace Chapel has become the centerpiece of our campus space.

“Grace Chapel is essentially located in the center of campus. Students must pass the building to get from one part of campus to any other part of the campus.”

Located diagonally from P.E. Monroe Auditorium, the new chapel is well-suited to its space, something to which the design committee aspired. “I believe that the overall design of Grace Chapel fits in with the rest of our campus facilities,” Fisher said. “The exterior brick is reminiscent of our oldest buildings on campus, so it seems to have always been here. The soaring ceiling is awe-inspiring, but it is such a welcoming space overall.”

It’s also a space filled with items afforded as much thought and craftsmanship as the building itself. The chancel altar cross, an 8-foot tall, 350-pound wooden cross made locally by Hamrick Woodright, is suspended from the ceiling in such a way that it appears to float above the altar.

The pulpit, which came from an Episcopal church in New England and was restored by Woodright, has open sides and a brass reading desk. A striking red armed forces banner hangs near the pulpit, recognizing all U.S. military branches. J. Wippell & Co. of London and Manchester, England, a manufacturer used by the British monarchy, made the banner.

Along the chapel’s sides are hand-molded plaster Stations of the Cross, which were produced in 1856 in Chicago and until recently, hung in a convent. Also eye catching and reminiscent of older churches are the chapel’s many stained glass windows, which came from Statesville Stained Glass Co.

In particular, Grace Chapel’s rose window, a circular stained glass window like those found in European Gothic cathedrals, demands attention from worshipers as well as outside passersby in its position high on the wall just behind the altar cross.

Every item used in Grace Chapel has a story behind it. All that are old have been restored to their original brilliance.

None are more brilliant, however, than the gleaming organ pipes encased in wooden frames that fill the space below the rose window.

The window, the suspended cross, the shimmering pipes, the vaulted ceiling – all so spectacular that a newcomer to the chapel must simply stop and let the splendor sink in.

Now imagine Lenoir-Rhyne’s A Cappella Choir and Chapel Choir, both directed by the Rev. Paul Weber, bursting forth in song as the young people stand behind the altar.

On Nov. 21, they could have been a professional choir with hundreds of members rather than the actual 20-plus singers. At one point in the service, both choirs sang Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “O How Amiable.” “Oh how amiable are thy dwellings. …” Perfect song choice for a place that’s so inviting.

With the chapel and all its contents dedicated and much thankfulness and praise expressed, worshipers moved to Belk Centrum for refreshments and conversation.

Grace Chapel is truly magnificent, a house of worship so beautiful that it should be listed among the Catawba Valley’s not-to-be-missed sites for residents and visitors. Powell said chapel services are held 10 a.m. Wednesday and the community is invited.

“Grace Chapel is for all students, all staff, all faculty members and all those who wish to use it for purposes that befit the space,” Powell said. “Grace shall be, as Scripture says, ‘a house for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56:7b).” He noted that weddings already are taking place in the chapel and that it stands ready for baptisms, funerals and “all the spiritual events and happenings in your lives.”