“A Jewel Box of Color”

Issue Date: 
December 8, 2008


Sunlight from a December afternoon passes through the varicolored lancets of Pitt’s Heinz Memorial Chapel. It leaves the bitter wind outside and saturates the chapel with blue. An organist practices, and the casual notes spill from the chancel into the nave, swelling upward beyond the carved-oak faces, and pushing up the clerestories to gather in the arches. It is a good place.

Seventy years after the chapel’s dedication on Nov. 20, 1938, its innate tranquility and subtle majesty remain its defining features. The chapel’s presence offers a place for reflection, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or affiliation.

Each year, the nondenominational chapel attracts thousands of people for weddings, memorial and religious services, concerts, and, simply, tourism. Longtime chapel director Patricia Gibbons finds that in these different settings, people are consistently affected by the structure itself.

“It’s the building being what it is,” she said. “It connects with people in so many different ways. People have a new appreciation for our campus after visiting the chapel. I especially remember a couple who were atheists and found great comfort in it after the violent death of their son. People come into the building with their own thoughts and concerns, and it has the ability to have some meaning for nearly everyone.”

When the chapel’s cornerstone was set in 1934, then-Pitt Chancellor John G. Bowman described its enduring magnetism with remarkable prescience. (Bowman, who came to Pitt in 1921, initiated and oversaw the construction of the chapel, the Stephen Foster Memorial, and the Cathedral of Learning. He hoped these landmarks would lend prestige to the then struggling, indebted University.) He said:

“The chapel…is designed as a fitting center for the worship which in various ways will rise at the University. The character, the intensity, the level of that worship may change from generation to generation. The spiritual tide in men rises and falls. Through these changes, though, the chapel will stand, calm and undisturbed.”

The tide, indeed, has changed.

At the 1938 dedication, Howard Heinz, son of magnate H.J. Heinz, stressed the chapel as a place for religious growth to foster intellectual and moral integrity: “The purpose of this chapel is to serve the religious need of the students through the broadest and most liberal development of the spiritual forces which center in and radiate from it.”

Four consecutive Presbyterian chaplains oversaw the chapel until 1961, when a secular directorship was established. Pitt, a private university in 1938, became state-affiliated in 1967. In society, personal spiritualism replaced organized religion for many.

By 1995, at the inaugural concert of the chapel’s new organ, Teresa Heinz Kerry spoke of an “oasis of reflection” and personal sanctuary: “I know that this chapel embraces us warmly whether we come in great joy or in deep sorrow. It accepts us as we come and lets us fill it with our needs, the prayers that each of us brings here, alone.”

The chapel is intimate yet expansive, a cathedral on a manageable scale. It is a small, Gothic Revival design of carved limestone with piers and columns that tower toward the ceiling vaults. Yet the distance from the red, iron-studded wood entrance doors to the altar and from one wall to the other is short. Crowning the space are 23 stained-glass windows by renowned glass artist and Western Pennsylvania native Charles J. Connick, 250,000 pieces formed into vast mosaics portraying 391 historic figures, religious and secular. The 73-foot transept windows are among the tallest in the world.

“You can stand in the center of the chapel and all the details can be absorbed,” Gibbons said. “It comes together as a jewel box of color. The windows twinkle on sunny days and gloomy days—they have a luminosity of their own. Whether people are religious or not, that scene makes a connection. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if there is an answer.”