The College of the Holy Cross: Lower Chapel Renovation Brings New Life to Campus Liturgy - Part I: Process and Outcome

October 29, 2007


Read Part II of this 2-part article.

Mention the term “lower chapel” and most Catholics imagine a somewhat dark and musty church basement set up to accommodate overflow crowds of worshipers at a time when Sunday Eucharist could only be celebrated on Sunday morning and parishes regularly had two or more priests. Aesthetically, such lower chapels were usually a far cry from the grander worship spaces upstairs.

St. Joseph Memorial Chapel

St. Joseph Memorial Chapel on the campus of The College of the Holy Cross shortly after its opening in 1924.

Such was the case at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher education in New England. When the impressive St. Joseph Memorial Chapel opened on the then relatively modest Holy Cross campus in 1924, its lower level was an auditorium with stage, rows of wooden seats and clear windows. After serving as drill space for the Naval ROTC program that came to the College during World War II, the lower level was transformed into “The Mary Chapel” in the 1950s, as additional worship space was needed for the growing population of students who were required to attend Mass three times a week. In layout, it mirrored the upper chapel with its forty-two rows of pews on either side of a central aisle facing a massive altar, but in beauty, there was little comparison.

Lower Level of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel

The lower level of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel in its first incarnation as an auditorium with stage, wooden seats and clear windows.

Sanctuary in St. Joseph Memorial

The sanctuary created in the former stage area in the 1950s when the lower level of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel was transformed into a chapel.

After years of informal conversation and in conjunction with a capital campaign that sought, among other things, to nurture the College community’s religious development and spirituality, the College Chaplains initiated a process in the late 1990s to develop a worship space on campus that enhanced the celebration of the postconciliar liturgy, while maintaining the beauty of the much loved upper chapel. Working with liturgical design consultant John Buscemi, a core committee of students, chaplains, faculty and a member of the Board of Trustees surfaced the needs, treasures and values related to the chapels and liturgy on campus, and held a series of listening sessions to which all students, faculty and staff of the College were invited. From this, a series of concept statements and initial recommendations were presented to the College’s Board of Trustees.

The Trustees decided that the underutilized lower chapel held the greatest potential for a substantial renovation, and, through the capital campaign, a generous single donor was quickly found to underwrite the estimated $2 million cost. After another year and a half of working out all the details with the architect (CBT Architects, Boston, Massachusetts), liturgical design consultant, construction managers and College Physical Plant department, the renovation took place over the summer of 2003, while the students were on summer break and few liturgies were scheduled in the chapels. On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14, the College’s patronal feast), the Bishop of Worcester led the joyful liturgy of rededication.

Bishop Daniel Reilly

Bishop Daniel Reilly of the Diocese of Worcester anoints the new altar in the Mary Chapel with Sacred Chrism during the liturgy of rededication on September 14, 2003.

After four years of using the renovated spaces on the lower level of St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, we can say without hesitation that they have brought new life to liturgy at Holy Cross. We now have spaces that support the postconciliar liturgical rites, especially the full and active participation of the entire assembly, and that are more consistent with the aesthetic quality of the College’s grand upper chapel. Students and staff alike comment on what some would call the qualities of transcendence and immanence in these spaces, and students are making connections between what they experience in the layout, furnishings and art in these spaces and the rest of their faith life. In Jesuit education, we always strive for the magis, the more, the better. By taking the time to plan well, to collaborate, to hear various voices and to retain excellent people as liturgical design consultant, architect, construction manager and liturgical artists, our experience indicates that we have achieved that goal. Deo gratias.

Rev. William Clark, S.J.

Rev. William Clark, S.J. preaches at the Sunday 7 PM Mass in the renovated Mary Chapel during the Easter season.

In the second part of this article, I describe the various spaces, furnishings and art in the renovated lower chapel.

Photo credit:  Images provided by Paul Covino

Paul Covino is Associate Chaplain and Director of Liturgy at The College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts and an adjunct staff member of The Georgetown Center for Liturgy where he was Associate Director from 1981-89.  He writes the weekly ritual suggestions column in Today's Liturgy magazine and served for many years as the emcee at the Form/Reform conference on environment and art.


The College of the Holy Cross: Lower Chapel Renovation Brings New Life to Campus Liturgy - Part II: Liturgical Spaces, Furnishings and Art

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