Plunged into the socially and academically fast-paced environment of a university, the house of their parents is not the only home that may get left behind. In the unfamiliar location of their university, many college students struggle to find a church home.
However, the campuses of Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi offer chapels for their students and faculty that are central to their campus’ landscape and history. In the ebb and flow of bustling collegiate activity, a calm eddy may be found in the inner quietness of their sanctuaries, where stained glass windows scatter crumbs of light across the pews.
The Chapel of Memories
Mississippi State’s Chapel of Memories is literally built with the bricks of the school’s past.
Constructed in 1879, the Old Main dormitory was the first building built on Mississippi State’s campus. Through the turn of the century, it would be added upon to become the largest dormitory in the United States, capable of housing over 1,000 residents.
When a fire reduced the dorm to cinders and claimed the life of a student in 1959, then-president Ben Hilbun decided the last remaining bricks of the Old Main were to be used to construct a chapel.
When prominent alumni George D. Perry got word of the project, he suggested a bell tower – called a “carillon” – should accompany the new building, and donated $75,000 to the cause. Both the chapel and the carillon were dedicated in 1965, and the 183 bells of Perry’s tower lulled the campus with an array of songs between its hourly chimings until the 1990s. They resumed their refrain in 2002, after the structural integrity of the tower was fortified.
Since its construction, the chapel has become central to the day-to-day passings of the school body and faculty. Dertha Hollingsworth, who helps oversee the management of the chapel from the college’s Event Services department, said though the chapel lacks a resident pastor and structured services of a traditional church, its patrons lack nothing in reverence.
“Students come in usually about a half-dozen at a given time. They pray, study. Some even play the piano there,” she said. “I walked over on my lunch break one day and a student was there crying, I think she failed a test or something. It helps students to have somewhere they can go to pray and express themselves. I think it reminds them of home.”
Tina Evans, treasurer for Sigma Phi Lambda, Mississippi State’s Christian sorority, said the Chapel of Memories has served as a safe haven for her on multiple occasions. Like other students Evans has observed, she said she struggled to find a church home in a town where she didn’t grow up.
“I’ve spent lots of time praying and enjoying God’s presence in the chapel and I know I am not alone in this,” she said. “It’s a small, intimate space that can give students a chance to pause in their busy day, regardless of where their faith lies.”
The University of Mississippi’s Paris-Yates Chapel was conceived in 1975, when students chose the chapel as a charitable project. With alumni assistance, the students collected a chapel fund of $12,000 dollars, prompting Chancellor Porter L. Fortune Jr., to assemble a committee to plan the chapel.
Efforts continued through delays and false starts until 1995, when three alumni, including Henry Paris, who served on the original chapel committee, approached then-chancellor Dr. Robert Khayat and expressed their resolution to make the chapel a reality.
“People were raising money for all kinds of things in 1995,” said Linda Spargo, director of the Paris-Yates Chapel. “The money was raised completely through private donations, and the chapel was finally built by Bill Yates, an Ole Miss alum who ran a construction company based in Philadelphia, Miss.”
The chapel was finally completed in 2001. Since the first chapel committee, it was intended to cater to interfaith worship and personal prayer.
“We didn’t want just a place for people to have weddings,” Spargo said. “Philosophy, religion, and music professors use the chapel for class on occasion, and the ROTC meets here sometimes. I just think it’s important to get people in the door, then when they need a moment, they will think to use the chapel.”
Spargo said at first it was hard to gauge the impact of the chapel. It seemed quiet during the day, a random student or two irregularly drifting in to use one of the prayer rooms. Spargo wondered, with the abundance of churches and youth groups in Oxford, if the students really needed a chapel.
“I realized how important the chapel was on September 11, 2001,” she said. “When the attack on the World Trade Center happened, the entire Ole Miss community needed a place to go, and within hours it was full. People were rotating out so those outside could get in. We had people speaking scripture and playing music. I can’t imagine the campus without it now.”
The Paris-Yates Chapel sports its own carillon, complete with 36 bronze bells imported from Holland. Spargo remembered when the bells arrived, the huge boxes lined up in the parking lot. With the largest bell weighing two tons, Spargo said the tower had to be built around them. The bells chime the hour and the half hour, and play hymns during the day.
“We turn them off for finals and tennis matches, and sometimes we forget to turn them back on and I have people calling asking ‘what’s wrong with the bells,’” she said. “I really appreciate the fact that people feel like something isn’t right when they don’t ring.”
Spargo said when the bells were taken down two years ago for repairs, she found students were not the only ones to notice their absence.
“There was this mocking bird that would fly into the empty bell tower like he was looking for them, and he would mimic some of the songs,” she said. “Poor thing, it confused him.”