Stu­dents attending College Baptist. | Hillsdale College archives

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.”