REV. IAN MARKHAM (Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary): Losing a place of worship is an enormous tragedy for any institution, and that warm Friday in 2010 when the chapel went up in flames was extraordinarily painful. The whole community gathered out in the grove, and students held hands and they wept as they watched the place they loved go up in flames. Then the board of trustees had to make a decision: Where do you go after a fire? And they decided after much prayer and thought that the way forward was to create a chapel garden which would be a place for prayer and meditation and also for the interring of ashes, and at the same time build a new chapel fit for the 21st century and for the future of the church.

REV. KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church): “Let the doors be open.”

REV. MARKHAM: The key word is flexibility. Every single thing in this chapel can be moved with the exception of the tracker action organ, which gives the future lots of options around how to create worship spaces for alternative forms of liturgy. Another consideration was we wanted a chapel that from the exterior looks like it’s always been there, while in the interior it’s clearly very modern. And then the third primary factor was we’re very proud in our tradition of congregational singing and the importance of music. It’s often said, “No one ever leaves the service humming the words of the sermon,” and we take that axiom very seriously. So we wanted a place that worked well for music. One beautiful part of our organ story is that two great white oaks which were on this land, which had to be cut down to create the chapel space—those two white oaks became the case in which the organ resides. And that’s a very lovely way of honoring the sacrifice those two remarkable trees made.

There are all sorts of lovely touches that incorporate the old into the new. The pine floor in the parlor is actually the wood from the old chapel. One gift of the sad loss of a chapel is we tapped into deep wells of affection, both within the Episcopal Church and beyond, and countless men, women, young people really gave generously to create this moment. And what, in the end, motivates people, I think, is this sense that so many lives are formed in this space. So over the exit of the great west doors you’ll see the words, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” They come from Mark 16, and they are words you see as you depart. You’re reminded afresh that that’s our calling, and that’s our privilege.

New Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary

Five years ago, the historic chapel at VTS, an Episcopal seminary, burned to the ground. Now a new chapel and chapel garden have been dedicated that are “fit for the 21st century and the future of the church,” says Rev. Ian Markham, dean and president of VTS. “So many lives are formed in this space.”