When the chapel construction workers arrived at the Christ Chapel construction site at Hillsdale College, they knew it would be a project they’d never forget.
Mark Shollenberger, construction superintendent, has been in the construction business for 40 years and was working on the project even before construction began. They’re ready to be done with this chapel, he said.
“Our crews have been working overtime for probably the last year and a half,” Shollenberger said. “My guys are pretty well worn out.”
Most days, Shollenberger doesn’t even have a chance to sit down for lunch, he said. He told me he had only seven minutes for an interview. I glanced down at my timer and, with 30 seconds to spare, asked him one more question.
“How did the guys’ expectations change after coming here?” I asked.
“I’ve had guys who are sent up and are supposed to be top-of-the-line and they struggle here,” Shollenberger said. “They’re not used to seeing the prints and being forced to be so detailed. Everyone is constantly depending on someone else to get answers and solutions, so we keep moving.”
I asked if I could go inside, and the answer, I thought, would be no.
“As long as you aren’t distracting these guys from their work, go for it,” he said.
Wearing a hard hat and a construction vest, I entered the chapel to meet the top-of-the-line.
Their efforts were written across the massive building. Crevices of the looming pillars were etched with limestone design. There’s no room for procrastination here — or mistakes.
Everyone was fixed on their tasks, but some workers stopped so I could ask a few questions. Others were so busy they couldn’t finish their interview.
“I’m going to have to let you go. I got to go help Mark finish his project,” said Darren Handshoe, a carpenter who has been on the project since early 2017.
Handshoe has his hour-and-a-half commute from Fort Wayne, Indiana, down to a science.
“With the 10-hour days for the last six months,” Handshoe said, “I go home, eat, and sleep to come back ready for the next day.”
Turning to the right, I see Gary Williams walking toward his next task. As a “steam-fitter” for the chapel, he’s been in charge of installing the heating and cooling system for the entire building. He showed me the entire system, hidden in a back room on the top floor of the chapel.
“This fan is blowing that cold water across this foil and that’s what creates your cooling,” Williams said. “Nobody ever is going to see this part, but this is something that at the end of the job, you can look at and say, ‘Wow, that looks great.’ I can look at my kids and say, ‘Daddy did that.’”
This system, Williams said, has been two-and-a-half years worth of work.
Chad Morgan drives 25 minutes to get to the site. Just as I was about to ask him a few questions, Shollenberger came up to Morgan’s worksite.
Morgan has three kids, and while he said the company is family-friendly, sometimes work affects family life.
“Has it taken a toll on my family and what I do on the weekends? A little bit,” he said. “But we are almost there. The finish line is in sight and we are pushing forward.”
The community, he said, is unlike those at other projects he’s worked on.
“You don’t get this everywhere you go,” Morgan said. “To have this much stress on everybody and to maintain friendships throughout this whole thing is saying a lot.”
But friendships didn’t just stay on site. After one worker had fallen and hurt his back, Allen Swygart said he and his buddies drove down to his house.
“We went down there to cut up some wood for him and got some money together so he could survive. It was family. It is family,” he remembered fondly.
Swygart, known to his co-workers as the “hero” of the construction project, made a family with his co-workers while balancing his own family life at home. He has four daughters, and his one-year-old went in for open-heart surgery last December.
“This is the only building I’ve ever gotten emotional about. It was tough because you want to be with your family, but you’ve got a job to do,” he said. “But you know, God provides and he doesn’t give you more than you can handle. So you know, the money that was provided from overtime. It was a blessing. ”
Jason Hess has worked on every roof on campus — even the very top of Central Hall. As we sat in the lift right next to the dome roof, his hands ran along the copper pieces, hand-cut and ready to be laid down. It was time, he said with a laugh.
“You usually put on shingles and a rubber roof,” Hess said. “I’ve roofed probably 90% of this campus. The design is a sphere, and it’s a difficult roof to craft. It’s a roof of a lifetime.”
Swygart dusted off his gloves and took a long look at the building. A construction worker in charge of driving the crane that lifted more than 88 semi-loads of limestone, Swygart reminisced about the moments he came in on a Saturday, or stayed until 8 p.m. in the middle of the winter to grout black walls.
“I’m sure it being a chapel helped. It wasn’t just a regular building. It wasn’t just a ‘slamming in, move on to the next one.’ People put their best foot forward on this job,” Swygart said. “It was more than a building. It stood for something. I’m sure there were some blessings from up above to get something like this. I mean, look at it.”
Today, we look at this building, and we look at it with gratefulness. Swygart noted that amidst the struggles and the long-hours, it’s a project that’ll be remembered forever.
“You go to any other school, you’re a burden,” Swygart said. “Students thanking you, faculty thanking you. We got goodie bags one day. People usually look down on you. You’re a crummy construction worker, but here, it’s special.”