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Keeping the Faith

12/20/2019

Mount Chapel Restored to Its Rightful Magnificence

It seems as if all paths lead to the Chapel at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

With a web of walkways leading in from all sides, one easily stumbles upon the checkered vestibule perched on the second floor of the College’s administration building. Onlookers become enthralled by a bright, luminous aura aided by a boundless spatial experience—the traditional solid wall that was dividing what was once a chapel and its foyer has been superseded by transparent assemblies, featuring arched floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall glazing, creating a seamless transition and spectacular vistas.

Light beams into the sacred space. Trickling across rows and rows of pews, the illumination bounces through generous glassed apertures, passing through the lobby and weaving its way through fascinated students and staff, and traveling well beyond the historic porch surrounding its entrance. 

At long last, the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception has been restored to its rightful magnificence.

View more photos of the restoration

Through weekly mass for the faithful, celebrations of all types, and countless memorials for family and loved ones, the Chapel has become one of the most important elements for not only the College, but also its founders, the Sisters of Charity of New York.

The glorious space has also been a premier location well beyond the Mount community. A decade ago, the Chapel served as the backdrop for the Academy Award-nominated film Doubt starring Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, directed by John Patrick Shanley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. 

The location has always captured rightful attention.

Yet through the years, its vintage look started to show the effects of time. Still charming and exquisite—of course—but tired, worn out, perhaps even outmoded. Over time, more and more repairs filled an ever-growing to-do list. Small upgrades and enhancements kept the Chapel operational, but eventually it required more than just routine improvement projects. It needed focus and a strategy to restore the space without changing its exceptional nature and heritage.

Thus began an essential plan: to reestablish the Chapel’s physical appearance, while also enhancing it for the next century.

Last winter, construction crews, architects, and artists were hired. At first, a wall was erected to seal off the area. And, to provide a hint of the work to follow, a clever full-scale rendering of the finished product was put on display.

Image of the renovated Chaoel.

Today, with the blockade removed and renovation complete, everyone at the Mount is eager to gather by the new Chapel. To their delight, this holy space is even more remarkable than could be imagined, making its splendor as majestic as ever.

Just as impressive as it is to look at the Chapel now, it’s also notable to look back on how it came to be—and why so many factors leading to its unveiling had to be done with precision.

The tower bell, weighing over a ton, rang out for the first time on campus in September 1859. That December, the new Chapel of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated. And throughout the next 160 years, it was fitted with many significant embellishments.

For an initial renovation effort in 1874, Constantino Brumidi created a dramatic fresco of the crucifixion in the sanctuary. A master of his craft, the 19th-century Italian artist produced scores of frescoes at the Vatican and also on several walls, ceilings, and the interior dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The crucifixion he painted in the Chapel is among his last known religious commissions. 

Intricately decorated, the original colors and several of the beautiful details of his work faded. The vast piece, projected over the altar, desperately needed intense restoration work. The altar fresco now radiates a lustrous afterglow as its enhancements and artful lighting draw the eye and give each watercolor stroke revitalized brilliance. 

The College also houses two more of Brumidi’s works: the Baptism of Christ and the Marriage Feast at Cana. The pieces, which previously surrounded the Chapel’s old entryway, have since been restored by the College in honor of the Sisters of Charity’s 200th anniversary and placed on the periphery of the Chapel, beyond the vestibule, lining the halls that lead to its location.

It’s no surprise that the Roosevelt family also made a stop in the Bronx to equip the space with the lavish Opus 4 organ, resplendent with hand-carved wood and vaulting pipes. Built onsite in 1873 by Hilborne Lewis Roosevelt, a gifted musician and instrument builder—and first cousin to Theodore Roosevelt—the piece was one of his earliest creations. Today, it’s the oldest existing—and functioning—Roosevelt-built organ in existence. Even more impressive: very few, if any, of those that have survived in original condition remain in the churches or halls for which they were built.

Over time, tunings became far and few between and maintenance proved quite expensive for the Opus 4, sadly jeopardizing its tonal quality and future. Particularly troublesome as it was, it ultimately posed no problem for the College once an unexpected gift from the family of a modern-day contemplative arrived on campus. Thanks to the Brother Aelred-Seton Shanley Endowment for Spirituality Programming, the organ was shipped out in pieces and its long-awaited restoration was achieved off site. Now, the neat stacks of lumber and its many, many accompanying pipes are ready and waiting to be reassembled in the Chapel.

But this is not just about the efforts in restoring the Chapel’s most ornate pieces—the College has entered the 21st century.

Image of the renovated Chapel.

In the ensuing months of construction, workers repainted the interior, upgraded the lighting to more energy efficient LED fixtures, and refinished the hardwood floors. The pews—which had become harsh, creaky, and a bit too formal—were also removed to be re-fitted with comfortable seat cushions, while the heavy oak kneelers were replaced with lighter-weight frames.

Bronze statues of Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton and Vincent de Paul were moved to more prominent niches, with new architectural details and focused lighting to bring out their beauty and power.

Other liturgical elements, including the Stations of the Cross, were augmented with gilded finishes and pinpoint lights.

The stained glass windows, initially installed by Mayer & Co. of Munich—the principal provider of stained glass in America during the late 19th and early 20th century—continue to stand the test of time. As strikingly vibrant and eye-pleasing as ever, minimal updates were required—they were cleaned, shined, polished, and tweaked to ensure they’re up to code and able to open and close efficiently.

Yet, the most dramatic enhancement by far is the creation of a narthex, an architectural element often found in cathedrals and churches from the Byzantine era. The lobby has been extended by a wall of glass running from the Chapel entrance to the porch, affording a sweeping view of the exterior campus.

The vision for this inviting glass feature? To create an unbroken line of sight from the altar to the Hudson River.

Image of the renovated hallway.

And though all the renovations are coming together perfectly, the process has been careful and painstakingly tedious. The completion culminates many months of dedicated efforts from every corner of campus. It’s no surprise the College and the Sisters of Charity have partnered as curators of the Chapel to undertake this venture—initiating the most ambitious upgrades the space has ever seen.

“The Sisters of Charity breathed life into this College,” said President Charles L. Flynn, Jr. “They sponsor our work. Since our inception, we have lived the mission they entrusted to us. We’re proud to continue expanding resources for years to come. The College’s work is inspiring—the future is very bright.”

Campus improvements provide a new platform for the College to leverage itself as a Sisters of Charity institution. From the initial planning to the application of gold leaf, both sides worked together to ensure that everything was carried out with outstanding workmanship and meticulous attention to detail.

Designing, contracting, and overseeing the renovations is the work of architect Drazen Cackovic, whose firm specializes in sustainable design and lighting for liturgical buildings, especially important to the College as part of its commitment to an environmentally conscious approach.

“The renovations were conducted respectfully, ensuring the meaning and historical importance of the Chapel,” said Domenica Rocchio, S.C. “Crews consulted our archives to research how it had evolved over time and adapted designs to fit the motif. Nothing looks out of place. It gives the appearance of having been there all along.”

The entire College community is well aware of the Chapel’s power as a symbol of this institution.

Eileen McGrory, S.C. put it succinctly: “For the many alumnae/i who may have married at the Chapel, the restoration project is the result of their affection for this magnificent place. Even if their memories are simply the many ways the Chapel graced their daily lives as students, it’s reassuring to know the Chapel will always be there for them, with that grace, whenever they return.”

For decades, the space has waited patiently for this well-earned restoration and renovation. We look forward to gathering and celebrating the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception for years to come, with events that will surely radiate goodness and joy across the campus.

About the College of Mount Saint Vincent
Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, the College of Mount Saint Vincent offers nationally recognized liberal arts education and a select array of professional fields of study on a landmark campus overlooking the Hudson River. Committed to the education of the whole person, and enriched by the unparalleled cultural, educational, and career opportunities of New York City, the College equips students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary for lives of professional accomplishment, service, and leadership in the 21st century.