Christendom College Provides a Space to Encounter God Through Beauty in New Christ the King Chapel
The edifice is the realization of a decades-long vision to convey the truths of the faith in art and architecture.
FRONT ROYAL, Va. — A newly constructed Gothic tower looms large in the landscape of the Shenandoah Valley in Front Royal, Virginia. Christ the King Chapel, which will be dedicated on April 15, was designed and constructed to draw the mind to God and embody Christendom College’s motto “to restore all things in Christ.”
The new chapel is located at the highest point of the liberal arts college’s campus. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom and a professor of history and theology, told the Register that while the growth of the college, which now has a student body of more than 500, was a factor in the chapel’s construction, it was also spurred by a desire to “capture the spirit of what we’re trying to do here at the college.” The school aimed “to build something beautiful for God and show that theology really is the queen of all the sciences, and to have that enshrined in stone, in glass, in marble, in mosaic, in beautiful wood, in beautiful art.”
He described the western rose window in the facade that depicts Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom with the Christ Child surrounded by seven angels with each angel “holding a symbol of the seven liberal arts.” He said it “enshrined in glass as you enter the church what we’re actually doing as a college. You see how all of the angels, all the liberal arts, ultimately are serving theology, which is the highest wisdom.” Elements like these remind the students “in a concrete way of the nobility and the beauty of what their education is trying to achieve.”
James O’Brien, president of the architecture firm O’Brien and Keane, which designed the chapel, told the Register that two prominent features of the chapel are its “interior proportions, which offer an uplifting verticality, and the clerestory windows, through which the filtered daylight from above will provide a feeling of transcendence.”
He added that, “from a liturgical perspective, I would say that the focus on the altar and sanctuary is paramount; all of the design features are arranged in service to that objective.”
In the design process, O’Brien took into account “the rich heritage” of sacred architecture. He said that “when visiting old churches and cathedrals, or studying photographs and drawings in the architectural history books, I think about how others have addressed certain architectural challenges, and how those solutions might pertain to our projects.”
O’Donnell said the chapel’s Gothic design was chosen because “we wanted to build something that would epitomize the name Christendom,” and “the Gothic was very much the flowering of the Middle Ages.” He pointed out that the style remains popular as an art form and he believes people are still drawn to it because “so much, from the pointed arches to the rib vaulting to the light that’s produced by the higher walls of the stained glass, everything pushes you up towards heaven.”
Pope Benedict XVI told a papal audience in 2009 that “Gothic cathedrals show a synthesis of faith and art harmoniously expressed in the fascinating universal language of beauty which still elicits wonder today,” adding that “the Gothic cathedral intended to express in its architectural lines the soul’s longing for God.”
The late pope had a special relationship with Christendom College, serving as an honorary chairman for the school’s 25th-anniversary dinner and saying early-morning Masses for Christendom students in Rome.
O’Donnell recalled that when Pope Benedict saw the plans for Christ the King Chapel in 2008, he simply said, “It is beautiful.” He blessed the chapel’s cornerstone, which has now been placed in the corner of the facade, bearing his shield and his coat of arms.
In a letter to O’Donnell months before he died Dec. 31, Pope Benedict wrote, “It fills me with joy that this beautiful church is almost completed and will be consecrated and dedicated to Christ the King in the coming year.”
Symbolism and Traditional Elements
O’Donnell described moments in bringing together elements of the chapel that were Providential. In a visit to Beyer Studio in Philadelphia, which did the restoration and installation of the chapel’s 114 stained-glass windows, he mentioned the college’s plan for a large window depicting Christ’s nativity and another showing his resurrection. The studio had just gotten a window depicting Christ’s birth with the shepherds and another of Christ rising triumphantly from an old church in Philadelphia.
“There were moments like that where it just seemed that God blessed the project and wanted us to get some of these things,” O’Donnell said.
One feature of the chapel that is in line with medieval tradition is the Lady Chapel, a special chapel at the far-eastern end of the building dedicated to the Blessed Mother. The chapel features stained-glass window images of the Annunciation, Visitation, Assumption and Coronation of Mary. These windows are illuminated by the sun rising over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the morning. The chapel also features a painting of the wedding of Joseph and Mary and a carpet from Mary’s house in Ephesus.
There are also four side shrines: The shrine of the crucifix featuring a crucifix that was hand-carved in northern Italy, a Sacred Heart shrine, a shrine of Our Lady of Fatima due to founding president Warren Carroll putting the school under her patronage, and one with images of St. Faustina, St. John Paul II and the Divine Mercy image.
The chapel, visible from I-66, will soon install a 5-foot thurible, a swinging metal vessel used to dispense incense, that will be filled with incense and swung from a high tower on feast days. It is modeled from the large thurible in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. O’Donnell said this is part of trying to capture the “spirit” of Christendom incorporating the traditions of these timeless spaces.
“Santiago de Compostela was a great center of pilgrimage; Rome was a great center of pilgrimage; Chartres Cathedral was,” he said. “We’re trying to bring all of these things together in a unified architecture.”
O’Donnell also noted the symbolism in some of the numerical details of the main chapel’s design.
“There’s a total of 12 columns, 12 arches for the 12 apostles because our faith is built on the foundation of the apostles,” he said. “The two front stained-glass windows in the nave are Sts. Peter and Paul, the two principal saints of Rome, to show our Roman identity.”
Stepping Into Beauty
O’Donnell said he wanted the chapel to provide people with the space to “step into another place where there is silence and where there is beauty and you can actually hear God speak to you through the beauty of his creation.” He added that the hope with the chapel is that “everyone who comes in through the beauty” will be able “to encounter Christ in a special way.”
“The act of designing or building a church is a beautiful thing: It’s an expression of our love of God,” O’Brien reflected. “People are drawn to beautiful buildings and yearn for the feeling that one has when one experiences a beautiful building, especially a church. Dignity and beauty foster a sense of holiness.” He said that something that has always struck him as unique to church design is “being beautiful is enough reason for the inclusion of a detail or material in the design, using creation to glorify the Creator.”
O’Donnell saw the building of the chapel as a countercultural act. “Christ has been driven out of public discourse, driven out of the consciousness,” he said. “To have the church that boldly proclaims that Christ is the answer, it is a very countercultural thing, but it’s something that we need desperately.”
A Community Effort
He said he was also struck by how everyone in the Christendom community “wanted to be involved in some way,” whether that was through generous donations of the materials or alumni artisans who worked on elements of the chapel. “None of this would have happened if there hadn’t been people that were so generous and really wanted to bring about and make something that was beautiful,” he said.
Mandy Hain, an alumna who died last year at age 41 from cancer, painted decorative art for portions of the chapel. O’Donnell recalled conversations he had with her about her “beautiful painting up in the Gothic crossing tower to try to capture the cosmic sacrifice of Christ, which is the Mass,” as the work depicts “angels and the beautiful golden stars of heaven and images of the Eucharist descending from heaven down to the main altar.”
Hain commented on the chapel before her passing, “I believe that it is of the greatest importance that the students, those in the community and any who may wander in having seen it from the highway, be able to worship and meditate in a place of beauty.”
“Beauty brings us to its Source and makes us better without effort on our part. It is truly part of God’s order of mercy and redemption in this way,” she said. “This is a dream I have for the students — that they encounter real beauty within the heart of Christendom, the Chapel of Christ the King.”
Corey Morgan, an alumni woodworker who worked on elements of the chapel, was in Hain’s class. He recalled when the project manager came through and started the bells tolling in the chapel because, he said, “Mandy’s across the street and wanted to hear the bells while she was dying.” That moment refocused Morgan on how it was “a gift to be a part of this,” to be able to see the chapel “dedicated and put to use.” He described working in the chapel the night Hain passed away, saying “she was right across the street, and I was there working, was able to stop and then begin the prayers for the dead in the space for her with her work there.”
His work in the chapel includes the walnut decorative paneling in the narthex and vestibule and the Gothic arched doors. He also worked on the wooden arches that reach to the ceiling in the main church area and the doors for the four confessionals.
One thing Morgan described as “really special” about the chapel was that most of the wood came from the walnut trees on Christendom’s campus. He said it was “inspiring” to use the wood from the “grounds of the school that we’re bringing and offering to God, offering to this space for worship.”
Morgan said for him and others working on the chapel, it wasn’t “just your average construction site” because while there would be frustrations and tensions, it would “always come to this sense of what we’re doing … is for God.”
His three years working on the chapel, Morgan said, were part of a “three-year conversation with the Lord.” The space “has so many beautiful secrets to tell people” when “you spend enough time in it, about what it looks like for a soul to come and return to God.” He described past clients of his who he invited to tour the chapel; one of them ended up remarking, “If I had a space like this, I think I might consider” going back to church.
He said that arguments don’t “cut to people’s hearts like beauty does,” and “it can be the thing that hooks people before their intellect even gets involved.” A beautiful space like the chapel “allows room for God to meet people exactly where they’re at”; and “being in a beautiful space, someone doesn’t have to decide anything. They don’t have to think about how they measure up to anything. There’s no judgment. It’s just you’re astounded by this thing. There’s an awe. There’s a sense of joy.”
He said that working on the chapel will continue to inform the way he goes about his work. “As a woodworker,” he said, taking trees, which, “through my hands … are going to be used to praise God,” he saw how this is “our calling as human beings, in general; from the first moment of creation, Adam’s calling was to raise all creation unto the praise of God. That’s what we’re doing here; and when we participate in that, lo and behold, it moves people, and it allows them to begin that journey as well.”