Christ Chapel is not Hillsdale College’s first chapel. It’s the fifth.
The school’s first chapel stood in the current campus’ original college building, the second occupied Central Hall, the third was College Baptist Church, the fourth stands in the Knorr Student Center, and the fifth — Christ Chapel — will sit directly behind Central Hall.
According to “The First Hundred Years of Hillsdale College,” the College moved from its original location in Spring Arbor to Hillsdale in 1855. After the move, it had only one building, which provided space for the school’s first chapel, along with its dorms and classrooms. The chapel had a capacity of 800 people, according to college archivist Linda Moore, and it served as a place for mandatory chapel attendance and for official events which required a large amount of space, most notably Frederick Douglass’ 1863 “Truth and Error” speech. No pictures exist of the chapel’s interior, but a scale model of the building sits on display in the Heritage Room.
The original chapel stood for 21 years until, on March 6, 1874, a fire ravaged the old college building, wiping out all but the east wing, which was saved by some hastily-assembled brickwork. Wary of future fires, the administration decided to spread the new campus among several smaller buildings rather than rebuild a single all-encompassing one. Central Hall, the most distinctive of the newly-constructed buildings, would hold the new chapel.
When completed, the Central Hall chapel was capable of seating several hundred people. Four rows of chairs covered the floor, and two short flights of stairs provided easy access to the dais and podium. A single piano sat at the front of the room surrounded by white walls. The chapel would undergo several renovations over the years, first getting steam-heat in 1893, then new lighting, ceiling, and paint in 1905. The college’s motto “Virtus Tentamine Gaudet” was hung in gold lettering behind the altar.
The college’s official place of worship was moved in 1922 to College Baptist Church, which had originally been founded by four associates of Hillsdale College and four Hillsdale residents. The church had convened in the Hillsdale College chapel for the first 10 years of its existence, before moving to the current church building on Manning Street. The Central Hall chapel had been “long regarded as inadequate and unsafe,” and was renovated to serve as a small theatre after the transfer.
Over the years, rules for mandatory chapel attendance loosened substantially, and, by the time the Knorr Student Center was completed in 1965, were removed entirely. This relieved the college of the need for an on-campus worship-space able to accommodate a large number of students, hence the relatively small chapel currently found in the Knorr Center. In a video posted to the College’s website, college president Larry Arnn discusses how he had long desired a place for “the whole campus community to get together,” but the Knorr Center arrangement stood until Jack and Jo Babbitt donated $12 million to build Christ Chapel, which is currently under construction on Hillsdale’s campus.
According to the college’s Rev. Adam Rick, Christ Chapel will contain a smaller “day chapel” which clubs and school religious groups can schedule for use, much like the the chapel in the Knorr Student Center today. The chapel proper will be able to seat the entire student body, making it an ideal location for Baccalaureate services as well as campus convocations. The college has no intention of hosting services there on Sunday mornings.
“It is just as well,” said Rick. “We aren’t a church; we’re a college — we don’t do the work of the church on Sunday.”