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Beck Chapel: Steeped in more than 60 years of history

Aug 7, 2017

June marked 60 years since the dedication of Beck Chapel, nestled in the quiet, wooded area just steps to the east of the Indiana Memorial Union in the heart of Indiana University Bloomington’s campus.

But the legacy of the all-faiths chapel began nearly 20 years before its construction, with a vision from Frank Orman Beck.

Beck Chapel in 1957
Beck Chapel in April 1957.Photo courtesy of IU Archives
Beck Chapel today
Beck Chapel in 2016.Photo by James Brosher, IU Communications

Beck earned his bachelor’s degree from IU in 1894 and his master’s in 1895, both in comparative literature. He and his wife, Daisy Woodward, met and married in Bloomington and then moved to Chicago, where Beck served as a teacher, minister and social worker.

After retiring, the couple returned to Bloomington, where Beck took on the role of executive secretary of the University Committee on Religion in 1937, established by Herman B Wells as one of his first initiatives as university president. The group was tasked with studying, correlating and unifying the religious activities and services for faculty and students.

But Beck and his wife believed strongly in the idea that there should be a quiet space on campus that could be utilized for “meditation and prayer.”

In 1941, the couple presented their first gift to the university that was to be used for construction of a nondenominational chapel on campus.

Beck Chapel groundbreaking in 1954.
Ground was broken for Beck Chapel on June 12, 1954.Photo courtesy of IU Archives

Due to the war, there was a lack of resources available to construct the building, which was to be complete with wood from southern Indiana forests, Indiana limestone, a slate roof and a copper spire. A groundbreaking ceremony finally took place in 1954 years after the chapel’s conception, and in 1956 the cornerstone was laid. The chapel was officially dedicated as part of the graduation festivities in 1957.

Over the years, Beck Chapel has seen numerous weddings, christenings, funerals, devotional services, organ recitals and individual meditations. Records at the IU Archives reveal a few interesting facts about the campus landmark.

Wandering chapel

While there wasn’t an official chapel on campus until Beck Chapel was constructed, religious events took place in several buildings. Religious services were first held in the old seminary building, and in 1836, when we were still known as Indiana College, services moved to the first College Building. When a fire destroyed the building in 1854, the chapel didn’t find a new home until 1856 after the second College Building was constructed. This building served as the home for religious activities for the longest amount of time, until 1896. When Maxwell Hall was erected on the site of the new campus in 1885, services were also held there in the general assembly room. Then, starting in 1906, services were occasionally held in the Student Building.

Grove of all faiths

People gathered for the Beck Chapel tree planting ceremony in February 1942
From left: Rabbi Abraham Cronbach, the Rev. James M. Gillis, IU President Herman B Wells, the Rev. Charles C. Morrison and Frank O. Beck at the Beck Chapel tree planting ceremony in February 1942.Photo courtesy of IU Archives

In 1942, before the chapel was constructed, three trees were planted on the proposed building site to represent the faiths of three religious leaders – Rabbi Abraham Cronbach, professor at the Hebrew Institute of Cincinnati; the Rev. James Gillis, editor of The Catholic World; the Rev. Charles C. Morrison, editor of the Christian Century. The trees were planted in a triangle to symbolize harmony and unity.

In the years following, other trees were planted to symbolize other world faiths. While the trees are no longer standing, the plaques can still be found in the grove today, which is situated to the west of the chapel building.

Sacred symbols

Keeping true to its purpose as an all-faiths space, Beck Chapel is home to several sacred symbols representing various faiths of the world. Among the holy scriptures is a gold, hand-painted copy of the Quran; a wood-cut printed book of Genesis written in Hebrew; a Torah; a Bible; and the Dhammapada, a collection of Buddhist scriptures. In addition, pieces of marble from the altar floor of the Sistine Chapel and from St. Paul’s Cathedral are housed in the chapel’s chamber to the east of the sanctuary.

Adorned with donations

Stained glass windows in IU's Beck Chapel.
Stained glass windows in Beck Chapel.Photo by Chaz Mottinger, IU Communications

Over the years, donations have been made by those who have special ties to the chapel.

The six stained-glass windows at the west end of the building were Mark and Linda Wisen’s 25th wedding anniversary present to each other. The couple, who were married in the chapel in 1960, commissioned retired IU fine arts professor Rudy Pozzatti to design the windows, and Bloomington-based glass-cutter Kelly Cunningham carried out the design.

The chapel’s copper spire was a gift from the “I” Men’s Club in honor of the men who lost their lives in World War I and World War II.

Catherine Lewis James, wife of the architect, Edward D. James, donated the building’s bronze doors.

Two decorative windows in the chapel were donated: the first in honor of Robert Carl Badertscher, a member of the class of 1937 who lost his life in World War II, and the second by Mark Shrum, from the class of 1891, and his wife, Luta Helton Shrum.

The windows in the lower floor of the building were also donated, and they are believed to have originated in one of the earliest Indiana churches.

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Bailey Briscoe

News Content Specialist, IU Bloomington

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