New Wesleyan chapel crowned with 3-ton steeple

Wesleyan College’s new Pierce Chapel got its crowning touch Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Wesleyan students, faculty and employees gathered under a tent in view of the steeple, watching construction workers affix the steeple to its base, preparing for a crane to lift it into the air. As they watched, they signed a piece of sheet metal that was installed in the steeple.

The steeple is a visible symbol of the building’s wider purpose, said President Ruth Knox, a 1975 Wesleyan graduate, to be a part of Wesleyan students’ spiritual formation.

“It is an expression of our mission, more so than any other building on campus,” she said.

Wesleyan was founded in 1836 as the first college in the country to grant degrees to women. Since its founding, Wesleyan has made faith central to its education, Knox said.

The original Pierce Chapel, located on Wesleyan’s former downtown site, was a central feature of campus life. Students’ days began and ended with services there. It was named after Wesleyan’s first president, George Foster Pierce, as was Pierce Avenue in Macon.

After it was lost in the 1963 fire that destroyed the college, Wesleyan had no chapel facility at all. For 50 years it was the only Methodist-affiliated college in the state without a dedicated chapel building, according to the school.

“We’ve had the academic facilities, we’ve had the service facilities, but we’ve never had the faith facility” on the current campus, Knox said.

“We’ve always had a vibrant campus ministry. There just hasn’t been a dedicated home for it,” Knox said. “I’m excited for all the lives that will change in that space.”

Using a large crane, workers with Sheridan Construction Co. hoisted the steeple onto its base, cleaning the white surface and adding the last layers of roofing before lifting the massive metal tower into the center of the building’s roof. Workers bolted the structure to I-beams attached to the building’s steel framing.

Manufactured in Virginia, the steeple, designed by Cole and Cole Architects of Montgomery, Alabama, measures 58 feet 6 inches from its base to the top of the cross, has a 13-by-13-foot base and weighs 6,000 pounds. The cross topping the structure is 6 feet tall.

Senior Jessica Smith signed her name and watched the workers attach the steeple to its base. She said that it would be an integral part of the college.

“Being a liberal arts college, you have to have both the spirituality and the education as a part of the experience,” Smith said. “So it means the world to me.”

Construction on Pierce Chapel is expected to be complete early next year, with a formal dedication to be held in spring 2015. With a capacity of about 300, Pierce Chapel will provide space for campuswide worship services, religious life programming, recitals and weddings. It will also house the chaplain’s office.

The Rev. Bill Hurdle, now in his 17th year as the school’s chaplain, said he’d been holding out for the construction to be complete.

“I was determined to stay until we got a chapel,” Hurdle said.

To contact writer Mark Vanderhoek, call 744-4331.