The Spiritual Heart of Berry College

By Siobhan Mulligan, Campus Carrier Features Editor

The ringing of the chapel bell to call students to worship is a familiar sound on Sunday nights, but for students of the 1920s, it was a far more common sound. Chapel services were held every day, and everybody was required to attend. While this tradition has changed, others from the time have remained.

Martha Berry began the tradition of having a church official ring the chapel’s bell for situations such as commencement ceremonies and students’ weddings. She wanted the chapel to be associated with happy memories in the students’ lives, and she often gave the bride away when students got married. In 1917, the chapel held its first wedding, that of alumni Henry Grady Hambrick  (C12) and Ethel Edwards (C15), but it’s held many more since.

On Sept. 18, the Berry community will gather to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the College Chapel. While many of Berry’s buildings are significant because of their age, the chapel has particular importance for the place it holds as a center of the Berry community. Its history is intertwined with the college’s history, in part due to Berry’s establishment as a Christian college, but also for its significance as a campus meeting place. Before areas like the Krannert Ballroom and Ford Auditorium were built, the College Chapel served as the location for any campus-wide meetings and events, such as freshman orientation seminars. Today, it is still the site of opening convocations and baccalaureate services, opening and closing students’ lives at Berry.

The centennial service will feature the dedication of new instruments for the chapel and a lecture from guest speaker Fleming Rutledge, pastor and theologian. Rutledge was one of the first women to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and has been critically acclaimed for her examination of how Biblical theology intersects with contemporary culture. Rev. Jon Huggins, college chaplain, heard Rutledge speak at Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference and felt she would be a good fit for the service.

“She has that kind of strong, female voice – a Southern woman,” said Huggins, “and it reminded me a lot of Martha Berry. I thought it would be a great tribute to Martha Berry to have that kind of person speak at our centennial service.”

An anonymous gift

Martha Berry regularly attended chapel services from the front row of the balcony after the building
was dedicated on Mar. 5, 1916. Formerly referred to as the Mount Berry Chapel, the College Chapel was designed by architect Harry Carlson, who also designed the Ford buildings, and constructed by students in 1915. Its construction was funded largely by Mrs. Curtiss James of New York, who donated $50,000 towards its construction. The marble tablet in the antechamber of the chapel was left blank to honor her, as she requested that her donation remain anonymous for fifty years after her death.

When Martha Berry died, she was buried just south of the chapel rather than in a prominent place in front of it to avoid intimidating students as they proceeded into the chapel. The dogwood tree that grows at the head of her grave was planted there during the 1946 commencement weekend, and the lamp by her grave was dedicated as an eternal flame to Martha Berry from the Atlanta Gas Light Company in 1966. As the years passed, the Mount Berry Chapel became known as the Berry College Chapel to
reflect its importance to the college.

Music from the start

Although the centennial service celebrates the building of the College Chapel, it will also be a celebration of the long history of music in the chapel. Donors to the college provided the piano and organ that will be dedicated at the service, while a class of alumni raised funds for a new
carillon, a set of bells held in the chapel tower. While Berry has had a carillon in the past, it went into disuse due to the cost of repairs. This new carillon will allow melodies to be played on the chapel bells.

All of Berry’s choirs are also involved in the service. Paul Neal, director of choral activities, paid particular attention to the music historically used in College Chapel services when making selections for the service. He found working with the Alumni Choir, a group of alumni from the 80s and earlier, over the summer especially helpful. They introduced him to several of the original musical pieces used in services at the time, including a call to worship. Neal also looked even further back into Berry’s history to find pieces to use.

“The very first hymn that we’re going to sing was Martha Berry’s favorite hymn,” said Neal, referring to the processional ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past.’ “And then the other hymns are also just hymns that speak to the history of Berry and the connection of work and faith.”

Changing perspectives

In an increasingly secular time, this connection may be changing for some students. Until the late 1960s, students were required to attend chapel services. Today, Huggins says, fewer students are in regular attendance, and they may not be aware of religious events at the
chapel. However, those who do go still find it rewarding, whether to seek spiritual fulfillment or simple peace and quiet.

“I think the chapel is a wonderful place of faith and of just giving the students a place of reverence and solitude to go to during the day,” said Neal. “And during a hectic week they can go to the chapel and have a quiet moment.”

College President Steven R. Briggs agreed. “The chapel and influence of faith continues today, just in a different way,” he said.

Huggins looks forward to reconnecting the students with aspects of the college’s mission that they may not see emphasized as much outside the chapel.

“I think this is an opportunity to focus on that threefold mission we often talk about of head, heart, hands and the heart aspect,” he said. “Education and formation of the heart are often more ambiguous to us, whereas it’s easy to point to places where the head is being formed or the hands of service are being given opportunities, so I want to make the most of that opportunity.”

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