Stop 12. Phelps Stokes Chapel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The construction of Phelps Stokes Chapel by students between 1903 and 1906 represented a turning point for Berea College. In 1902 the College’s second chapel, a wood-framed building in the Gothic style, burnt to the ground despite the valiant efforts of students who formed a bucket brigade to fight the fire. Olivia Stokes Phelps, one of the nation’s first independent women philanthropists, heard about the tragedy and offered to fund the construction of a new chapel – provided that it be built entirely by students. At that time, there were a few men at the College who taught carpentry and construction courses, but most student labor was unskilled. Students would have to develop skills on the job, not only in woodworking but also in brick laying and stonework. The College had a fledgling brick and tile-making plant, but to manufacture enough bricks to build the chapel designed by Ms. Phelps Stokes nephew, the College had to have two wells dug and a pump installed. Lumber for the oak flooring and woodwork was felled by students in the College forest, and other student hewed stones from a quarry south of Berea Ridge. It was a colossal effort that resulted not only in the construction of the chapel but also the inception of the College’s woodworking program.

The plans provided by Ms. Phelps Stokes’ nephew called for a bell tower 105 feet high, and Ms. Phelps Stokes donated a large, single bell, which she later replaced with chimes. The chimes consist of ten bells that range in the musical scale from F to G. The hammers that strike the bells are operated by hand and foot pedals, requiring strong pressure and dexterity. They are rung every quarter hour to the tune of Westminster Chimes, and sometimes special tunes are played. In addition to serving as a chapel, the building is used for many College events, including Convocations. Convocations are lectures, symposia, and performing arts events that are an integral part of students’ education. Lectures and performances are also open and free to the public. Notables such as scientist George Washington Carver, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Frost, anthropologist Margaret Mead, historian Arnold Toynbee, actress and author Maya Angelou, civil rights activist and Georgia senator Julian Bond, and author Alex Haley are among the hundreds of nationally recognized speakers and performers who have been part of the Convocations series.