English Chapel 50th anniversary

In the heart of Ohio Northern University’s bustling campus sits the English Chapel, a place of respite and a sanctuary for the prayers, sorrows and celebrations of the ONU family. On April 17, 2021, the English Chapel marked its 50th anniversary. 

From weddings for Northern sweethearts to memorial services for beloved faculty and staff, the chapel has hosted many significant events during the past five decades, says ONU Chaplain David MacDonald. “It’s truly been a gathering place for the entire campus community.”

When the English Chapel opened its doors in 1971, it marked a turning point in campus religious life. For the first time in its history, the university now had a dedicated space for worship. And it came at an opportune time. 

A spiritual revival was sweeping across the country in the 1960s and early 1970s. Impacting nearly every Christian denomination, it shattered traditional norms, leading to a modernization of worship spaces and services and to people seeking ways to actively live out their faith.

Ohio Northern University wasn’t immune to the forces of change. Affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1899, faith had always been a central component of life at ONU. But by the mid-1960s, a shift was occurring on campus toward a more dynamic, student-centered approach to faith development. “The idea of the campus chaplaincy itself was evolving to become more about serving the students,” said MacDonald.

Up until 1967, the university had required all ONU students to attend chapel. In fact, from 1871 until 1931, students had to attend chapel service every day!  By the 1960s, the requirement was twice a week. Unsurprisingly, most students never embraced mandatory chapel. Some even played elaborate pranks--like coating seats with sticky molasses and doctoring chapel attendance punch cards--to get out of it.

In 1967, the ONU board of trustees gave the campus chaplain permission to try voluntary chapel service, and the change was made permanent in 1969. When Chapel was no longer mandatory, a revitalization occurred, according to MacDonald. “It attracted the students who really wanted to be there and who were motivated to grow in their faith.” 

By the time of the English Chapel’s opening, ONU students felt empowered to develop more creative and meaningful chapel programs. They also wanted to more fully live out their faith and connect with others who felt the same. The English Chapel (part of a $525,000 Wesley Center complex), provided the space for that to happen, with several multipurpose rooms, a prayer room, and other spaces for newly-formed outreach and prayer groups to gather. 

Even the modern architecture of the English Chapel, chosen over a more traditional option, signaled change. The Northern Review, showing pictures of both proposed chapel designs, stated in an article from the time: “1964 or 1664 is the question posed by the architects … proponents of the modern asserting that God must be worshiped as the God of the present and future, and supporters of the Colonial claiming that God must be worshiped in the light of America’s Christian heritage.”

“I am glad that ONU went with the modern design,” says MacDonald. “The chapel is truly a product of its time with its sweeping roofline and the dark wood atmosphere that is so warm and welcoming.”

The chapel contains many unique features, including a large, hand hewn cross in the center of the chancel (stage) and a series of saint faces crafted from clay by Bruce A. Grimes, former chair of the art department, who used ordinary ONU students and professors as his models. 

Of course, the chapel’s tower and carillon of bells is its most iconic feature. Dr. Walter English, a ONU board member, and his wife Marian, gifted the bells in 1971 to serve as “the Voice of Ohio Northern University.”  Indeed, the sound of the bells, marking the passage of time every day and ringing out hymns at Christmas, Easter, graduation, and other special occasions, is integral to the ONU experience and something alumni fondly remember.

Although, truth be told, the bell tower is just a facade, says MacDonald. “The bells you see aren’t actually ringing. It’s all recorded technology scheduled and run by a computer that ONU engineering students have set up.”

Today, 50 years after opening, the English Chapel serves a vibrant, multifaith campus community. It’s where students and faculty from all backgrounds congregate for worship and reflection, and it’s the central meeting spot for several prayer groups and student organizations focused on community outreach and service. 

Ironically, the chapel’s golden anniversary is occurring during another turning point in ONU’s journey, according to MacDonald. “We are a much more diverse campus than we were 50 year ago,” he says. “And in many ways, that’s transformational. We need to make sure the English Chapel is a space where everyone feels welcome.”

So, as MacDonald likes to tell people, the English Chapel welcomes anyone who wants to grapple with life’s meaning and encounter the divine--no matter your faith background or starting point. “It’s a place where you can go when you have big questions and need answers,” he says.