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Many universities and colleges in the United States are known for their rich history, from humble beginnings to their moments of glory.
While numerous factors contribute to the glorious past of college campuses all over the country, nothing seems more iconic than the college cathedrals that many of them house. They make such interesting landmarks, showcasing stunning architecture that lends prominence to the college’s spiritual vibrancy and overall history.
Most of these college cathedrals are a testament to the architecture and style of their time. For one, cathedrals built at the dawn of the 20th century often drew inspiration from different European movements such as Gothic, neoclassical, and Romanesque with a dash of contemporary design for good measure.
College cathedrals and chapels are places of worship that have become icons of beauty and grandeur, making the campus experience all the more special!
The History of College Cathedrals
The colonial period began bringing Western education to North America, with religious leaders at the helm. It is not surprising to find an overwhelming number of American colleges and universities with religious roots. While their motivations vary, religious leaders of that time were united in advancing education for their ministry, albeit expressing their mission in various ways.
In medieval Europe, a school was run by cathedral clergy, hence “Cathedral School.” Every cathedral had such a learning institution. However, the succeeding movements emphasized education, and schools housed religious centers instead of the other way around. Centuries later, the US colleges and universities had enshrined the ideals and practices of the old, with the foundation of covenant and parochial schools in the 19th to 20th century. This move made education far more accessible to ordinary people.
Religion was a huge part of their mission to educate. Most early learning institutions are home to impressive colleges cathedrals and chapels, often as distinctive on-campus landmarks.
Why are College Cathedrals Considered as Icons in College Campuses
The major reason for this distinction is the fact that cathedrals often stand out on campuses. They were built in unique design and architectural design that reflects their time. The massive structures can catch the eye, and sometimes they serve as landmarks that easily make the campus recognizable. There are bound to be interesting stories behind each cathedral, too.
College cathedrals are also a center of worship for students and faculty, allowing them a place where they can find solitude that from the day-to-day demands of academic pursuits.
Breathtaking College Cathedrals and Chapels in the US
Notre Dame, Indiana
Tracing its roots in the Catholic tradition, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is located inside the University of Notre Dame campus. It is known as the mother church of the Congregation of Holy Cross in the United States. Inspired by the neo-Gothic style, the cathedral boasts 116 stained glass windows with more than 1,200 individual panels along with murals done by Luigi Gregori, a Vatican painter who completed the art pieces in 17 years. It features a 66-meter-high bell tower, solidifying its place as the tallest university chapel in the country.
In the first few years of the university’s founding, religious services were held in a small log cabin. Eventually, the growing educational institution gave way to a proper church. However, the growing needs of the university soon expanded, hence the need for a new church. The university spent $1500 to build the new cathedral, a Greek-style church with rounded arches. This time, it was dedicated to the Lady of the Sacred Heart. This is the same church that stands on the University of Notre Dame’s campus today.
At present, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is home to the Office of Campus Ministry. This organization extends its commitment to cultivating Notre Dame’s students’ faith, and in the process, fosters spiritual growth and enhances lifelong faith formation. It serves as worship and prayer for the university community, including students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Ordinary worshipers, pilgrims, and visitors are also welcome.
Built around the 1860s, the Lee Chapel was named after Robert E. Lee, the Washington and Lee University president, when it was still called Washington College. The Chapel was made of brick and native limestone. It served as a place of worship. The construction of the building was concluded just in time for the graduation in 1868.
Perhaps, the most stunning feature of the Chapel is its spired clock tower, rising above tree lines in the university’s campus. The Chapel is a popular fixture in the university and beyond the immediate community, even earning the term “The Shrine of the South.” In 1961, the Chapel was named a National Historic Landmark. It continues to serve as a place for large gatherings and special events. The Chapel also houses a museum on the basement level, and it is open for tours to the public before the pandemic.
Historically, the Chapel was the venue for commencement exercises, daily religious services, and an auditorium. The Chapel also served as the final resting place of Lee.
Often considered an architectural marvel, the Chapel of St. Basil is an iconic landmark in the University of St. Thomas, adorning the academic mall. It was designed and completed in 1997 by architect Philip Johnson. The university’s Basilian tradition lends the Chapel its name, after St. Basil the Great – the fourth bishop from modern-day Turkey.
The Chapel has a capacity of 255 people. Every day, students, faculty, and staff can attend mass, providing them with a quiet place of worship. What makes it unique is its skylight over the altar. It ushers in natural light from the dome. There is also the statue of Our Lady on the east wall and the asymmetrical glass on the west wall, all of which make the Chapel a pretty sight to look at. It employs a clean, minimalist design. But nothing is more beautiful than the Chapel’s external façade. Its design consists of three basic geometric shapes – a cube for its body, a sphere for its dome, and a black granite plane where the dome and cube meet.
Durham, North Carolina
The head of the Duke family from which the university got its name, James B. Duke, has requested to establish a “great towering church.” The structure went on to become Duke Chapel, a recognizable symbol of the university. Despite the Duke family aligning with the Methodist faith, the Chapel itself is an open sanctuary to people of different faiths and beliefs throughout the year. It has served as a great place for important personal moments, whether with prayer, reflection, or gratitude.
All religious groups on the campus are welcome in the Chapel. It became a moderator of the sort, supporting and advocating for students from different faiths, including Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jewish, Mormons, Muslims, and Protestants, among others. Each week, the Chapel hosts a service for around a thousand people, allowing participants to listen to compelling preaching and stirring choir.
Known for its English Gothic design, Duke Chapel was built by architects Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele. The latter was the first renowned black architect in the country. Its tower stands 210′ tall, making it a prominent structure in the university.
An inclusive community at the heart of the Valparaiso University, the Chapel of Resurrection serves as a center of worship, devotional life, ministry, and cultural events that bring students, faculty, and staff together. Built in 1959 as a thanksgiving to God, the Chapel got its present name in 1969. Since then, it served as a gathering spot for the university community where convocations, recitals, lectures, assemblies, and even concerts were held.
The Chapel was designed by architect Charles Edward Stade and Associates of Park Ridge, Illinois. The stained glass windows and baptistery were taken care of by other designers. The building can accommodate around 2,000 people, but this can still depend on how the seats are configured. Its most magnificent feature is the center cancel window depicting “the dawning of the New Day in Christ Our Lord.”
San Diego, California
Known for its stunning white campus on the hill, the University of San Diego boasts of many landmarks that lend its uniqueness. One of them is the Founders Chapel, typically referred to as the “Hidden Jewel” of the university. Completed in 1953, the Chapel was designed by Mother Rosalie Hill. Filled with history and treasured art, it has become a huge part of students’ life. Its position on top of the hill gave it majestic views of the city and the ocean.
The Chapel serves as a place for different religious services, including masses, reconciliation, baptisms, weddings, and liturgical ministries. It is also a place for students, faculty, and staff to devote to prayer and gratitude.
Princeton, New Jersey
In 1920, the Princeton University Chapel was built in response to the destruction of the Marquand Chapel from a devastating fire. It has since then become an iconic and meaningful structure for the educational institution – a place where the university community comes together. The Chapel has hosted events like Opening Exercises, Baccalaureate, and annual memorial services for the university alumni.
The architectural style of the Chapel was inspired by the 14th century English Gothic. It was built with the expertise of supervising architect Ralph Adams. The imposing Chapel can accommodate approximately 2,000 people. It speaks of elegant beauty and charm, making it an appealing venue for weddings and memorial services, especially for the Princeton University alumni and faculty. A most distinguishing feature is the Mander-Skinner organ that serves as a magnificent accompaniment for choirs, concerts, and other occasions. True to its commitment to diversity and inclusivity, the Chapel also holds non-denominational events.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
The Wake Forest University’s Reynolda campus houses the Wait Chapel, considered as the institution’s spiritual center and focal point. To date, it is also the largest non-athletic indoor setting on the campus. The stunning entrance is banked by beautiful gardens on either side, providing a magnificent background for momentous occasions like weddings.
Named after Samuel Wait, the first president of the Wake Forest College, the Chapel is one of the first structures constructed on the campus. While its primary purpose was rooted in religion, the Chapel is committed to contributing to a more open and affirming campus community. Some of its claims to fame were hosting Presidential debates and talk shows. For decades, students have been attending mandatory chapel services.
New Haven, Connecticut
Built in the 1870s, Battell Chapel is Yale’s third student chapel at the instigation of Joseph Battell’s son, who named the structure after his father. Inspired by High Victorian Gothic, the Chapel complements Yale’s collegiate Gothic architecture so well. Today, the Chapel serves many purposes. Religious services in the Chapel encompass several religions, including Sunday service, Muslim Iftar meals during Ramadan, Buddhist programs, and monthly gatherings of evangelical Christian groups in the university. This demonstrates their commitment to a diverse, faithful community. Beyond religion, it also holds campus concerts, town orchestras, lectures, and other major events.
The Chapel’s most prominent feature is the tower that holds five unmatched bells. There is also the Apse Memorial Windows, designed by architect Russell Sturgis. Yale’s benefactors are commemorated in the stained-glass windows.
Tufts University has an iconic campus landmark in Goddard Chapel. This religious building is a vibrant center for the university community’s spiritual and ethical life. It was dedicated way back in 1883, having been around for centuries. Apart from slight modifications, most of the Chapel’s physical appearance is preserved. Its unique 19th-century sacred architecture is a glimpse into the campus’ storied past. Lombardic Romanesque style dominates the chapel design, noticeable in the ribbed ceiling and arched woodwork of its interior.
The Chapel was named after Mary Goddard, the founder of Goddard College. She had contributed a generous amount of $25,000 for the Chapel’s construction in honor of her late husband, Thomas Goddard. The Chapel was much admired for its exterior and interior design. It was the brainchild of architect J. Phillip Rinn.
New York City, New York
Dedicated to the service of God, St. Paul’s Chapel in the Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus is a venue for numerous religious and campus events every year. This ranges from worship services and university ceremonies to concerts. It is also open to visitors from all over the world. It is a historic landmark in the university community and an icon in the city of New York. It is among the first buildings designated as the city’s official historic landmark. Students, faculty, staff, and the nearby community are welcomed in the Chapel. Most of them use it as a place for private meditation and prayer.
Since Columbia University was established as an Anglican institution, one of the most important aspects during its founding was building a chapel. The Chapel came into fruition through the generous funding of two wealthy philanthropists, Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes and Caroline Phelps Stokes. It was designed by the donors’ nephew, I.N. Phelps Stokes, adapting a Northern Italian Renaissance architecture style. Similar to the other on-campus buildings, the Chapel is clad in red brick and limestone. However, it stands out because it is accented with yellow and white marble lights. Its most prominent feature, though, is the dome, pierced by 16 arched windows. The interior is glorious, with its uniqueness highlighted by its structural materials, all without the enhancement of plaster or paint.
New York, New York
Since the beginning, the Fordham University Church has served as the institution’s spiritual and intellectual life center. It was built through the initiative of Archbishop John Hughes in the 1800s. When the nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral was being built, the stained-glass windows donated by the King of France, Louis Philippe I, were wrong. The archbishop of the humble church had them installed instead. Subsequently, recent renovations of the cathedral led to the donation of the high altar and tabernacle to the University Church. The altar became the focal point.
While the church served as a seminary chapel and parish church, it eventually got absorbed by Fordham University, making its link to the institution stronger. It has played a significant role in forming the spiritual needs of Fordham men and women. The church is open for mass and prayer on Sundays and weekdays.
Ithaca, New York
Part of Cornell University’s informal brick group, the Sage Chapel blends well with the natural landscape and High Victorian Gothic Buildings. It was an initiative of the university’s first president, Andrew Dickinson White. The funding came from Henry Williams Sage. It was designed by Charles Babcock, the university’s first professor of architecture and an Episcopalian priest. Its stunning features are characterized by asymmetrical massing and entrances as well as the high, hammer-beam roof.
The Chapel is found inside the Ithaca campus, serving as worship for students, faculty, and staff. Its mosaics, stained glass, and decorative motifs showcase a blend of Christian iconography and learning symbols.
Palo Alto, California
Located in the heart of Stanford University, the Stanford Memorial Church is considered the campus’ crown jewel. Its prominence goes beyond the university grounds. It is, in fact, one of the countries’ most prominent interdenominational churches. The church was built as a memorial to Leland Stanford through the efforts of his wife.
One less known fact about the Stanford Memorial Church is that in 1906, a devastating earthquake heavily damaged it. The reconstruction was completed for almost a decade, with workers painstakingly numbering and labeling each piece to put them back together. Only the 80-foot steeple was unsuccessfully replaced. The church features a splendid mosaic reproduction of The Last Supper fresco from the Sistine Chapel with the blessing of then-Pope Leo XIII. The church is open to all, serving the spiritual needs of the university community.
Dedicated on Armistice Day in 1932, the Memorial Church honored those who died in World War I. It was a present to the university from Harvard University’s alumni. The university architects designed the building Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott, planned to complement the imposing edifice of Widener Library.
The Memorial Church is considered one of the university’s most treasured landmarks. The church serves as the place of spiritual refuge for the Harvard community. It also leads worship and community outreach while seeking to educate minds and enrich the students’ lives. Freshmen students are welcomed in the church during convocation. The stunning building also serves as a commencement exercise backdrop for graduates. Recent renovations saw the church getting integrated with the accessibility system. The Palladian window was replicated and replaced while the historic light fixtures were refurbished.
Winter Park, Florida
Highlighting Rollins College’s unique heritage, the Knowles Memorial Chapel is a place of meeting, quiet, and visible reminder of the seamless blend of religious life and academic search for truth. The Chapel is known as an icon on the campus, especially because of its prominent bell tower. At present, the Chapel holds weekly worship services and classes on Scripture and Theology, marriage counseling, and visits to the sick. The Rollins community can also come to the church for marriages, baptisms, funerals, and memorial services.
The college’s motto, “Fiat Lux” or “let there be light,” is concretized in the imposing chapel entrance. Constructed in 1932, the Chapel was designed by the famous ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram. He was also the architect of two other cathedrals, the Church of St. John the Divine in New York City and the University of Notre Dame campus chapel.
Saint Ignatius Church
San Francisco, California
An icon in the University of San Francisco since 1914, Saint Ignatius Church is known as a welcoming and inclusive Catholic community. It is considered as a legacy of a dynamic and continuous Jesuit presence in the city. The initial church was designed in a simple, wooden structure. It later gave way to a grand church to accommodate the community’s growing spiritual needs. However, it was destroyed by fire after the 1906 earthquake.
The present church was designed by architect Charles J. I. Devlin, inspired by the Jesuit Baroque style that makes it eclectic. There is a rhythmic use of massive columns and pilasters of the Ionic and Corinthian Orders. The exterior is adorned with sculptural ornamentation. They added a dome, lending the church a dramatic silhouette. The church also features majestic stained glass windows. The church is an ideal place for worship and religious service, a huge part of the University of San Francisco’s student life.
The present St. Thomas of Villanova Church was constructed in 1883 under the headship of Augustinian provincial Father Christopher McEvoy, O.S.A. The Gothic Revival is styled by architect John E. Carver. The church features majestic, 137-foot high twin spires, modeled after the south spire of the 13th-century French Cathedral, Chartres. There were numerous renovations over the years. Recently, it was renovated for structural reinforcement, electrical updating, and adequate sound systems, among others.
True to its Catholic roots, the liturgical life on campus is closely interlinked with the St. Thomas of Villanova Church, where all students are welcome to join in their celebrations. It is the university’s center of religious life, where weekend masses are regularly held.
The Southern Methodist University found a primary worship setting in the Perkins Chapel. Dedicated in 1951, the Chapel was constructed from the generous funding of Joe. J. and Lois Craddock Perkins of Wichita Falls, Texas. It plays a huge role in the spiritual formation of the university community. Private devotions, weddings, recitals, and holy day celebrations are also accommodated.
The Chapel reflects a Georgian style developed by Sir Christopher Wren. It features a portico supported by four columns. It perfectly complements the nearby structures like the Bridwell Library and Kirby Hall. The Chapel has served the campus for 48 years. During its last renovation, the all-white interior of the Chapel was replaced with eight shades of off-white along with warm neutrals and cool grays. It will continue to enrich the lives of students, faculty, and the immediate community.
On April 21, 1962, the Alice Millar Chapel began its construction at Northwestern University. Edward Grey Halstead designed the building in contemporary Gothic, blending the traditional and the modern. While the exterior is heavily adapting Gothic architecture, the interior is contemporary in many ways, as evidenced in the undulating side walls, Holy Table and pews designs, and the stained glass windows.
As a gift to the university by Mr. and Mrs. Foster G. McGaw, the Chapel’s name is dedicated to Foster G. McGaw’s mother, Alice S. Millar McGaw. With a minimum seating capacity of 700 on the main floor, a Chapel is a spiritual place for students, faculty, and staff. This is where students can find quiet and repose, often coming to the chapel for personal prayer and meditation.