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Tolling a Century: Eaton Chapel Celebrates Its 100th Birthday

Published in Beloit Magazine/March 1992
By Elaine Barreca


     It was December 1953. David Mason, assistant professor of English then, recalls being called away from dinner to hear that Eaton Chapel was in flames. "You always think of a stone building as being impregnable," says Mason. And indeed, in many ways, it is.

     Eaton Chapel, now 100 years old, will always have alumni fondly reminiscing and saying, "I remember a time. . ." Although the Chapel today plays a less traditional role on campus than it did 100 or even 30 years ago, it is still an integral part of the campus community.

     The tradition of going to daily "chapel" and Sunday vespers began when the first chapel on campus opened in 1859 in what is now South College. Three decades later, a larger student body translated into the need for a larger structure. Mrs. Amelia Herrick Doyon of Madison offered to underwrite half the cost of a new chapel. The rest of the money came from gifts, in large part from women in Wisconsin and Illinois interested in giving Beloit a beautiful building "to be so intimately associated with its higher life," according to the writings of Edward Dwight Eaton, College president from 1886 to 1917.

     The laying of the cornerstone of the Chapel took place in April 1891. In January 1892, a new, Romanesque, cut limestone chapel, designed by Patton and Fisher of Chicago, was dedicated. It was not officially named "Eaton Chapel," however, until 1930, when College officials decided that President Eaton should be recognized for his keen and continuing interest in preserving the Chapel.

     Mason, who is now writing a sesquicentennial history of Beloit College, describes the Chapel as having, "an Old World charm." Especially beautiful, he said, were the ceiling panels added in 1937. The panels, designed by Chicagoan Nickolai Kaisarhoff, dramatically depicted Bible scenes in vivid color.

     Students relied on the Chapel as a town meeting hall of sorts. Robert Irrmann, former archivist and emeritus professor of history, describes the Chapel as an integral factor on campus. "It was the thing that brought the entire student body together as one."

     Stunned and disbelieving knots of students watched Eaton Chapel go up in flames the evening of December 12, 1953. It was the night before Christmas Vespers. At first, students cheered as the electronically controlled Chapel bells continued to ring out as firefighters battled the intense flames. As the fire worsened, electrical power to the Chapel was shut down. The bells ceased and students cried. (Among the viewers were soon-to-be President Miller Upton and his wife, who were in Beloit on a recruitment interview and staying across the street as guests of President and Mrs. Croneis.)

     Christmas Vespers was moved to the First Congregational Church, which had been built to its large size with the possibility of accommodating College commencement crowds in mind. There, students attend chapel and vespers for the next year awaiting reconstruction of Eaton.

     Professor Chad Walsh, nationally known poet and distinguished College teacher, said that when the fire spread up through the "deceitful" hollow pillars, "I knew it was God's judgment on architectural dishonesty."

     And 18-year-old student, Stephen Dykstra Posey, admitted to setting the fire. Posey, whose I.Q. was estimated at 200, reportedly started the blaze with a cigarette stuck in a book of matches, an incendiary device portrayed in the then-current movie "Stalag 17." Posey, who was later declared mentally ill, said he never intended to do any serious harm.

     Christmas Vespers would not be held off campus again. By December 1954, the Chapel was fully reconstructed. The charred, cut rock was cleaned and more was added to the "new" Eaton. On Sunday, December 12, 1954, students, faculty and staff rededicated the Chapel. The 2,000-pound chapel bell, now also 100 years old, rang again.

     Student attendance at vespers and chapel events continued under a system that awarded points for events attended. But it became cumbersome, and cheating went on, says Mason, and so the point system was abolished in 1962.

     "We were changing our constituency as a College," says William McCutcheon, who was chaplain from 1960 to 1975. "The general attitude of the College then was 'let's secularize.'"

     Throughout the 1960s and '70s, however, the Chapel continued to be a focal point on campus. Civil rights issues were often vigorously debated in the Chapel at that time, according to Professor Allan Armstrong-Patriquin. The Eaton lawn became a popular place for weddings.

     The Chapel, today, is a quiet place at ground level. Downstairs, however, music students diligently practice in the Mary Helm Miles Music Center, dedicated in 1984 at a cost of $250,000.

     Now Eaton Chapel is often simply used as an auditorium for events. But there are still weddings, witness that of Beloit graduates James Pearsons and Oretha Carter, who will be married there this summer.

     And there are still debates. Two Yalies and two Beloiters went at it during the "Great Debate" in February. The resolution: Beloit College, once the Yale of the West, would have been better founded by Harvard graduates. The College's Yale founders would have been proud to see the Chapel crowd that night gather in strength against the resolution. There's some question as to what they have thought about the topics of sex, drugs and rock and roll, which were so much a part of the interchange. But, after all, times have changed the role of Eaton Chapel.


Elain Barreca is the College's new media relations director.