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From Mount News, Spring 2019 Edition

Returning the Mater Dei Chapel back to its

original beauty was a labor of love

By Anya Rao

The Mater Dei Chapel is a centerpiece of campus, with the iconic Corona Tower and its three bells visible from points across the grounds of Mount St. Joseph University. The chapel serves as the spiritual and communal heart of the university. Students begin and conclude their undergraduate careers at the chapel candle lighting ceremonies. Within the chapel walls, nursing students hold their pinning ceremonies. In addition, medical field grads have their white coat ceremonies at the chapel. Finally, education students have their commissioning at this revered location.

Sister Karen Elliott, SC, the Mount’s director of mission integration, began to assess how to spruce up the chapel, which had not had a large-scale restoration since its construction was completed in 1962.

A Teacher’s Legacy

The chapel is a sacred space and a hallmark of the Mount community. Its treasure trove of artwork crafted by graduates and faculty add to its significance. “When you have something that is that unique--it’s historic, it’s part of our legacy, and it’s our heritage--that is something that you have a tremendous responsibility to care for,” Sr. Elliott says. “We have been given the opportunity to be stewards of the tremendous legacy of these women.”

An Answered Prayer

The efforts to refresh the chapel began when Sr. Elliott and Sister Barbara Davis, SC, began cleaning out the sacristy and storage areas of the chapel. The pair spent more than 50 hours cleaning and organizing. Sacred items had to be archived or properly disposed of--you can’t just drop them off at a donation center, Sr. Elliott explains. Some of the chairs in the sacristy were restored or replaced; the presider’s chair was replaced; a new ambo (lectern) was designed; and the original candlesticks created by the sisters were restored to a useable condition. A woodworker made the existing processional cross to have a stand so it could be carried in large ceremonies.


During this work, Sr. Elliott knew that something needed to be done with the 56 wooden pews and kneelers, many of which had dried out or partially cracked, but the cost to completely replace the pews was staggering.

“I kept praying and asking Sister Augusta (Zimmer) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, SC to help me figure out a way to take care of this beautiful space that was created to honor and give glory to God,” she says.


One afternoon, in the midst of her cleaning projects in the chapel, Sr. Elliott says her prayers were answered. “I accidentally kicked this block of wood and it went spinning under one of the pews. I had to kneel down on the floor to get it and I saw this complete crack on one of the support beams under one of the pews,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we cannot have this, this pew could fall apart!’ I took a picture of it and showed it to (Mount President) Dr. H. James Williams, Ph.D., and CFO Jeff Briggs. They began immediately helping me to make this project happen.”


Restoring the chapel was vital because the space is a physical and spiritual touchstone for all who learn and work at the Mount. “The chapel is so very important to the university’s culture. It provides alumni, students, faculty, staff, and visitors a place for solace and solitude, for reflection and prayer,, for celebration and ceremonial rites” says President Williams.

Effort Underfoot

The pews were removed and transported for a two-month-long repair at Quality Wood Products, a woodworking company in Michigan. With the pews gone, the Mount’s building and grounds team was tasked with the challenge of stripping, cleaning, buffing, and applying three coats of wax to the original stone terrazzo floors.

The project presented some challenges and potential safety hazards, such as removed HVAC vents and pew bolts sticking up out of the floor, says Lynn Miller ’14, who has been working at the Mount since 1986 and serves as manager of custodial and administrative services. Miller coordinated the project along with Debbie Bartles, lead custodian.


The flooring restoration required a larger than normal group of staffers to complete, and it was more labor intensive and time consuming than a typical flooring project, says Bartles, who was in charge of operations as well as the training of additional workers.


Portions of the floor around the steps, the pew bolts, the HVAC, and curved areas required the use of handheld tools, which isn’t typical for floor care elsewhere on campus. “We viewed this as an opportunity for on-the-job learning and training,” Miller says.  


Stripping the many layers of built-up wax required more hours and effort than most heavy-duty floor care projects. “We stripped the old wax off the floor, scrapped the wax up, reapplied new wax, buffed out with a white pad to give it a high gloss, and cleaned up everything afterwards,” says Carol Wolf, a 30-year custodial staffer. “It takes a lot of work and preparation to strip it and put the wax back on it to look nice,” adds fellow custodial staffer Janet Dean, who is also approaching her 30th year working for the Mount.


For Dennis Jones, a 14-year veteran of the building and grounds department, the chapel happens to be his favorite place on campus. “It’s a beautiful place for prayer and reflection, made all the more beautiful by the restoration which I am proud to be a part of,” he says.


The flooring project, which spanned five weeks and required 18 staffers, was completed in mid- February. The repaired pews and updated kneelers were reinstalled in mid-March.


Artist’s Touch

The art pieces crafted by Sister Augusta Zimmer and her students required some TLC. As can often happen with aging mortar, some glass tiles had fallen out of the mosaics over the years. In February, Jim Foltz of the Radiant Arts Company repaired and restored the tile mosaics depicting the Stations of the Cross. “When the restoration artist was here, he kept saying to me about the Stations: ‘these are so beautiful, they are just exquisite,’” Elliott says. “And he travels all over the country restoring art--and he was impressed.”

Sr. Elliott, who is planning a summer visit to a town in Colorado that features a mural created by Sister Augusta, says she gets emotional thinking about those women in the 1960s who created the beautiful artwork that fills the Mater Dei Chapel, as well as the many people that made the restoration possible today. “These women were all obviously great artists,” she says. “Some people make art for an art museum, these women did it for the honor and glory of God and I think it shows through in this sacred space.”

She adds: “The beautiful thing is that it’s part of our history and legacy at the Mount, but it’s also part of the present, and this restoration ensures that it will be part of our future.

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