Chapel Center History: Church on the Campus

The next installment in our Chapel Center history…..

When the University of South Florida opened, President John S. Allen initiated a plan for USF to lease land on campus for religious centers.  The first of these to be completed was the Episcopal Chapel Center, designed by the Rt. Rev. William F. Moses, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of South Florida.  Construction began in May 1962 and a cornerstone was laid on May 27, 1962 by University President Allen, Dr. George Hood, and the Rev. Canon William Brace.

(The cornerstone was opened in 1987.  It contained a Bible, a copy of the ground-breaking ceremony, and a newspaper dated May 27, 1962.)

The Chapel Center construction was completed during the summer, with the first worship service held on October 10, 1962. (The first Vestry Committee was formed four days later on October 14.)  The total construction cost was $73,000.  The Center contained a simple chapel, sacristy, common room with kitchen, library, offices, and a room and bath for a student resident.

The diocese had purchased a home for a university chaplain  at 313 Sunnyside Ave, Temple Terrace, prior to opening the Chapel Center.  This was for Rev. J. Fred Dickman, who was appointed to be the first chaplain in August, 1961.  Working out of his residence, he counseled students from USF as well as University of Tampa.  He taught part-time at USF while also completing doctoral studies at the University of Florida.  The University Chapel Center congregation at this time consisted of fifty students and twenty faculty members.

On December 13, 1962, just after the Chapel Center dedication in November, Fr Dickman resigned as university chaplain to become Rector at St Andrew’s in Tampa.  It is recorded that Fr. Dickman presented the Chapel Center with a portrait of Bishop Moses, which was displayed for many years at the Center.

The Rev Grant D. Noble was the next appointed chaplain, serving from July 1963 to August 1970.  USF enrollment had grown to 4,500 students by this time and Chapel Center history records that 250 of these students were Episcopalian.   The Chapel Center became a Mission of the Diocese on May 12, 1965.  Parochial reports for that year number 26 communicants, 58 baptised members, and 51 students attending weekly services.  Local parish churches actively supported the Center; members from St John’s, Tampa, donated funds to help purchase an organ and Episcopal Churchwomen helped with funds for the baptismal font.

When you observe the busy daily traffic flow on 50th Street today, it is a little hard to imagine that the Chapel Center was once quite isolated.  50th Street in the early 1960’s was a dirt road which led from Fowler Avenue to the Center.  In the summer of 1963, 50th Street was paved between Fowler and Fletcher Avenues.  In the fall, faculty and student work parties began the arduous task of turning the sand lot around the Center into landscaped grounds and walkways.

Rev. Noble published an article titled “Church on the Campus” in the October 30, 1966 edition of the national Episcopal Church’s monthly publication, The Living Church, providing an interesting snapshot of campus ministry at this time.  There is an introduction into the concept of life on a “commuter” campus, where “a majority” of students are working outside jobs while enrolled in school.  The emphasis on accommodating the employment schedule of students by a somewhat flexible academic calendar was, as Rev Noble says, “a far cry from the atmosphere of Yale or Williams” where he had previously served in campus ministries.

By the time this article was published, a Baptist Student Union and joint Presbyterian-Methodist Center had been joined the lineup on 50th Street.  Rev. Noble reports that every new student had the opportunity to hear the various chaplains talk about religious life on campus.  The university also compiled the lists of students from the various denominations, passed these lists on to the appropriate chaplain from each denomination, and scheduled time during orientation for university chaplains to speak to parents in attendance.

Rev. Noble describes the work of the chaplain at this time to be ecumenical and inclusive in nature:

The primary function of the Church program, and the way in which I believe we may prove most effective, is to establish a church on the campus where students, faculty, and staff and their families worship, work, and play together, thus bringing students into the body of Christ where there are all ages, a situation similar to the parish church or mission in which they will worship all the rest of their lives.

This emphasis is important at a time in their lives when doubts are crowding their thinking and they need the warmth and reality of  a church family to fortify their faith.

Rev Noble goes on to describe the various activities of the Chapel Center: social action projects, a fall welcoming buffet and hootenanny, Christmas Eve service, Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.  (Parish records indicate that there were indeed weddings, baptisms, confirmation classes and a variety of social functions at the Chapel Center.)  However, the activities of a campus ministry, Rev Noble emphasizes, will be different from a tradition parish:

The chaplain of the Church on the campus can never think in terms of large congregations or dollars raised.  His work, like our Lord’s ministry and the heart of the Church’s work, is to touch and help individual souls.  He does not wait in his office for students or faculty to find their way to him.  He goes out on the campus,  into the coffee shop, the cafeteria, the swimming pool, the athletic field, the dormitories, the infirmary, etc.  These contacts produce the most telling and often the most intimate conversations with people who, perhaps, have rarely or never been to church, and who may be in real need of the Church’s help.

The encounter may be brief–students come and go, and faculty, in young universities, move on in the line of promotions–but there is a great satisfaction in its depth.

  In 1969, the Diocese of South Florida divided into three separate dioceses and the Diocese of Southwest Florida was formed with Bishop William L. Hargrave as its first bishop.  In August 1970, Rev. Grant Noble resigned from the position of USF Chapel Center Chaplain, and another page was turned on Chapel Center history.

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