|Rockefeller Chapel Main Entrance (JWB Photo)|
“In a ceremony of impressive dignity matching that of the edifice itself, the University of Chicago chapel, the gift of John D. Rockefeller, was dedicated yesterday,” reporter Kathleen McLaughlin wrote in a Chicago Tribune article on October 29, 1928. The dedication of the chapel on this date came nearly two decades after the great oil baron donated the money to the university for its construction.
Five days before Christmas in 1910 The Tribune reported, “John D. Rockefeller starred for the last time as Santa Claus at the University of Chicago yesterday.” [Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1910] This would be Rockefeller’s last gift to the university, a record of generosity that went back two decades to the $600,000 he gave in 1880 to allow the American Baptist Education Society to create the university. The ten million dollars that was given in 1910 brought the total amount that Rockefeller donated to the great Hyde Park institution to $34,420,049.
The gift was made known in the form of two letters addressed to the president of the university, Harry Pratt Judson. According to The Tribune, “The letter from the founder sets forth that Mr. Rockefeller always has desired to have the school as little as possible his institution and as much as possible the university of the people of Chicago and of the west.” The letter went on to state that it was Rockefeller’s opinion that the school would be better of with “many persons aiding with gifts comparatively small than one person making large donations.” To underscore his intent he enclosed the resignations of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Fred T. Gates, his personal representatives on the school’s board of trustees.
The President of the Board of Trustees, Martin A. Ryerson, accepted the Rockefeller gift in a convocation ceremony, saying, “It is the conjunction of the act and the sprit of the act which has made it possible to create and maintain the university, and the trustees hope that through the ages to come the University of Chicago, by training youth in character and in exact learning, and by extending the field of human knowledge, may justify all that has been done by its founder.”
On the following day, December 22, 1928, The Tribune reported that although $8,500,000 of this final gift could be used for any purpose aside from day-to-day operations, Mr. Rockefeller did specifically request that $1,500,000 of the sum be set aside for a chapel “which will be the dominant feature of the campus.” [Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1910]
“It is my desire,” Mr. Rockefeller wrote, “that at least the sum of $1,500,000 be used for the erection and furnishing of a university chapel. As the spirit of religion should penetrate and control the university, so that building which represents religion ought to be the central and dominant feature of the university group.”
Mr. Ryerson made it clear that it would be some time before the chapel’s construction began. Mr. Rockefeller’s last donation was to be given in annual installments of a million dollars over a period of ten years. Before the university used any of the gift, Mr. Ryerson made clear, it would allow the interest on at least the first three installments to accrue.
In that same December 22 issue The Tribune editorialized, “Mr. Rockefeller has closed his accounts with the University of Chicago. Not a cent more is it to get from him. That is a wise resolve. He has done his part nobly. But for his intelligent generosity Chicago would have had no university, or at least it would not have had one whose rapid growth and whose swift advance to a commanding position among the great educational institutions of the country made it the pride of Chicago.”
It took almost 20 years to accomplish, but all was in readiness as the chapel, which was designed “to serve all sects” was dedicated “that religion pure and undefiled may dominate all our lives, even as this structure rises above the halls of learning and bestows on them its beauty and strength.”
Representing his father at the ceremony, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. delivered the address that opened the doors of the chapel for which his father had provided the vision and the means to make that vision a reality.
“This building has been made possible by one who is known to the world as a builder of industry, a financier, a philanthropist. To his son he is known as the most loving, understanding, inspiring father any son ever had,” the younger Rockefeller stated.
The ceremony was an impressive one as Professor Arthur Holly Compton, the 1927 winner of the Nobel Prize, led a procession of 300 faculty members in full academic regalia into the chapel. Last in line were university president Frederic Woodward and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. A choir of 150 voices sang O God, Our Help in Ages Past as the procession moved into the nave.
Seated among the distinguished guests were Mrs. Edith Rockefeller McCormick, the daughter of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.; Miss Muriel McCormick, his granddaughter; Mr. and Mrs. George A. McKinlock, Harold F. McCormick, Mrs. William Rainey Harper, the widow of the university’s first president, and Miss Jane Addams.
Reverend Charles W. Gilkey was installed as dean of the chapel and conducted the service of dedication, concluding his remarks with these words, “It [the chapel] must not be a stone rolled from the ancient hillside, while the stream of life of this university goes around it. It must be a channel through which that stream may flow, giving it new life and force.” [Chicago Tribune, October 29, 1928]
Life at this great university does, indeed, flow around and through this impressive Gothic building, a “central and dominant feature” of a university that boasts more Nobel prize winners than any other institution in the world.
For more on the design and sculptural work of the chapel, you can look here.