The exterior of the Peter J. Gomes Chapel at Bates College in Lewiston on Dec. 7. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The House of Prayer! Its fair walls rise

To greet with praise the listening skies.

— From an ode by Mabel S. Merrill, an 1891 Bates College graduate, sung during the dedication of the chapel in 1914.

LEWISTON — On a chilly November afternoon in 1912, Bates President George Colby Chase dedicated the cornerstone of what would become the college’s chapel.

A small section of the large window facing the congregation. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

He told the audience of students, professors and residents that “eminent and skillful architects” had designed an English Collegiate Gothic-style chapel that would be “commodious, beautiful in outline, harmonious in details and enduring as our New England hills.”

Chase hoped it would “remain through the centuries secure against earthquake, flame and tempest, against the stealthy encroachments of time, the cherished place in which the successive generations of Bates students shall hold sacred communion with their God.”

Finished just before World War I, the chapel has served the growing college’s needs ever since.

But by the end of the century “the stealthy encroachments of time” threatened the achievement of Coolidge & Carlson Architects of Boston as stones began to bulge and crack, windows to sag and wood to rot as water seeped in through broken slabs of slate and crumbling mortar.

One of many stained-glass windows in the Peter J. Gomes Chapel on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

After tackling some of the most immediate threats, Bates closed the chapel two years ago so it could undergo the sort of top-to-bottom renovation that would preserve it for another century or more, if its luck holds.

This fall, freshened up in ways large and small, the granite-clad building with its slate roof, timbered ceiling, cast stone and numerous stained-glass windows reopened just in time to become a haven for struggling students during one of the strangest, most difficult semesters in the college’s long history.

“To have it back now is just so meaningful for our campus and so needed,” said Brittany Longsdorf, the multi-faith chaplain at Bates.

“This year, we’ve been reflecting a lot about how this chapel was here and withstood the last pandemic” when a virulent flu swept through the community in 1918, she said.

“There is some deep history and deep reassurance just in this building,” Longsdorf said.

The renovation work proved so solid that Maine Preservation recently honored it with the nonprofit’s first annual People’s Choice Award.

A SUPER-SIZED PUZZLE

Jim Nutting, a glass expert from Lisbon, talks about one of the most challenging restoration jobs he has ever done, during a recent interview inside the Peter J. Gomes Chapel. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Renovations rarely go smoothly, as any homeowner can attest.

Perhaps the low moment for the project at the chapel came in September 2019 when James Nutting, a stained-glass expert from Lisbon Falls, walked inside to pick up the pieces after the business failure of the initial subcontractor hired to work on the windows that line the historic chapel.

All around him, Nutting said, were piles of glass “lying down on plywood sheets on the floor and stacked on top of each other and in Tupperware containers.”

It was like someone handed him a colossal jigsaw puzzle made of broken glass.

“It was just so daunting,” Nutting said. “I looked at it and was just overwhelmed.”

Nutting, a 1976 Bates graduate, said he’d never dealt with anything nearly as complex, but he quickly got down to work with a partner, Matt Kendall of Vintage Glass Works, and began to put the windows back together again.

Fortunately, the pair had photographs and 3-D computer renderings to rely on so at least they knew how the windows were supposed to appear.

A view of the front of the chapel from the center aisle. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

THE BIG PICTURE

Pam Wichroski, Bates’ director of capital planning and construction, said that overhauling the chapel has been on her mind for nearly two decades.

But the college has been building so much, from a new dining hall to new dormitories, that the chapel didn’t get to the top of the priority list until necessity compelled it.

Wichroski said some large cracks had developed on the chapel’s copper-topped towers and so much water flowed into the building’s lower level that “it was like a river runs through it” down in the basement. Some of the structural beams, she said, had begun to rot.

The entrance of the chapel was totally dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Bates took care of the some of the obvious, critical problems first, she said, and then “we did a study to see how we would get our arms around how we would really approach the restoration.”

A piece of a stained-glass window in the process of being restored in Jim Nutting’s studio in Lisbon. Jim Nutting photo

Eyeballing the long list of repairs required, Bates realized “we had to bite the bullet and do it all,” Wichroski said.

Before long, the college hired Consigli Construction, a longstanding firm that had worked with Bates before, to oversee the project that would ultimately cost $5.5 million. It had the masonry expertise and construction savvy to pull off the job, officials said.

Initially, the contractor focused on the roof, removing and replacing old slate tiles, making repairs, swapping in new wooden beams, casting new stone and more to match the original appearance. The fabulous portico in front, modeled on one at the Durham Cathedral in England, was overhauled as well.

Next came the windows, which held the glass in place.

Their condition ranged from marginal to precarious. The large window above the portico was “collapsing on itself,” Wichroski said.

NUTTING PUTS THE PIECES TOGETHER

Nutting began to figure out how to put the pieces of glass back together into full windows.

“We laid it all out,” he said, and then numbered every section to match the photographs of each window so he would know where all of them fit in and where he needed to cut new glass to match the old to replace shattered segments.

Some of the glass that Jim Nutting had to repair as he worked on the historic stained-glass windows at Gomes Chapel. Jim Nutting photo

In the original construction, he said, the builders used zinc to hold most of the glass together. That metal was “pretty badly compromised” most everywhere, Nutting said.

He replaced all of it with half-inch sections of lead, which has proven more durable.

The most common glass pieces in the windows were rectangular blocks of slightly varying colors mixed with some random bits of green and red.

A small section of one of the stained-glass windows in Peter J. Gomes Chapel on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Nutting said that he studied it enough to see that there wasn’t really a pattern so he sought to make the new version as close to “exactly the way it was” as he could.

The work proved long and difficult.

“I put in a lot of hours,” Nutting said. “Thank God for COVID,” he added, because it required cancellation of other things that would have taken his time instead, including classes he teaches at his Maine Art Glass studio.

One of many stained-glass windows in the Peter J. Gomes Chapel on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

He said he also got a lot of help from his daughter Rachel and others or it would have taken even longer.

Once he had recreated the windows and laid them out, he turned them over to Kendall for another taxing job: trying to make them fit into their spaces in the building.

The windows are held in place by fitting them into grooves cut into the stone, but since it is impossible to fit every direction at once, the windows must be made in pieces. That way the installer can slide one piece over another within the grooves, nudge them into place and connect the window’s pieces once in position.

A small section of the large window facing the congregation. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

It’s a tricky business, especially when the new windows are just slightly different in size than the old ones.

“We literally performed a miracle when we accomplished this,” Nutting said, adding that he considered the work “a major life achievement.”

“I wish there was a way I could say thank you for every day for the rest of my life,” chaplain Longsdorf told Nutting after hearing his story recently as they looked at the completed work.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

When the chapel’s doors finally reopened at the beginning of the fall semester, the change was obvious.

Intricate woodwork exists throughout the chapel, like this section of the lecturn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It is more sparkling and beautiful than ever,” Longsdorf said. “I think a lot of that is the glass. It’s more vibrant and in some ways I think that calls us to cherish this space in a new way.”

She compared the chapel to “a relative you know and love who got a makeover” and looks better than ever.

Longsdorf said returning to the building meant even more because it occurred at the same time Bates faced a deadly disease that required students to wear masks, maintain distance from one another and limit the normal life of a campus.

The first time students went back inside, she said, one of them began crying.

Students were “so moved to be back in this space with the candlelight and the glass and the wood and to be in such a big reflective space,” Longsdorf said.

This building, she said, encourages everyone “to think of things that are bigger than yourself. There’s just so much in these walls that makes students enter into a different head space and heart space.”

Construction workers who helped erect the Bates College chapel in 1913. Muskie Archives at Bates College

HISTORY OF BATES’ CHAPEL

Founded by Free Will Baptists, Bates from its beginning had both a Christian spirit and a determination that its students make a difference. Though it dropped the religious component back in 1967, Bates still aims to instill among its graduates a zeal to help build a better world.

A plaque in the vestibule of the chapel. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

For most of its history, religious services were more regular and ongoing than any particular course a student might take. All students were required to attend weekly religious gatherings until 1966.

Before 1914, a large room in Hathorn Hall, the college’s first building, served as the college’s chapel except for a time when it moved to a large lecture room in Roger Williams Hall.

Students were happy to see the construction of a new chapel modeled in part on King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, finished during the reign of King Henry VIII. Ellen S. James, widow of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Willis James, donated the $65,000 to pay for the Bates chapel.

Students calling themselves “The Girls” noted in the college newspaper in the spring of 1913 that the lecture hall space they’d been using “affords less comfort than formerly” owing to Bates’ growing numbers.

They noted that “we can cheerfully endure the small discomfort a little while longer with the knowledge that in another year we shall have daily worship in the beautiful chapel now under construction.”

A portrait of Peter J. Gomes in the vestibule of the chapel. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

NAMED FOR PETER GOMES

The chapel was long a regular part of every student’s experience. But for the last half century, it’s been less a religious space and more of a spiritual one, open to students and also to the community that it faces down College Street.

One of the students who pushed for change was Peter Gomes, who graduated in 1965 and remembered mandatory chapel attendance as “a jaded congregation worshiping under compulsion and the watchful eyes of monitors taking attendance,” not an especially helpful way to foster spiritual growth.

Looking up at the ceiling in the front of the chapel. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Gomes went on to a distinguished career as a theologian at Harvard University, but never lost touch with his roots at Bates. After his 2011 death, Bates named the chapel after him.

The chapel’s sacred space had appealed to Gomes from the moment he saw it.

Writing in the Bates Magazine in 2005, Gomes recalled that on his first day on campus, “I shook my father’s hand, kissed my mother, and then they drove off. I went back into the chapel to cry in privacy.”

One of many stained-glass windows in the Peter J. Gomes Chapel on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Inside, he wrote, he saw “a tall, spare, bald-headed man slowly picking up the litter in the pews” whom he figured was a janitor.

The man “noted my distress, and in a solemn but friendly voice said that I’d soon feel better about college.”

It wasn’t a janitor, though. It was Dean of the Faculty Harry W. Rowe, a key figure at Bates for decades and a man who became a lifelong friend for Gomes.

In 2012, Rev. Jonathan L. Walton, who succeeded Gomes as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church at Harvard, said something during the event renaming the Bates chapel after Gomes that President Chase would have loved.

Walton said Gomes “cherished this chapel.”

Indeed, when the chapel’s doors first opened, Chase saw great and lasting potential in the new structure. “This building bids us demonstrate that religion is as broad as life,” he said.

Given the renovated building’s newfound sparkle and beauty, it’s impossible to doubt that Chase’s “cherished place” will continue to play an important role in the lives of generations to come — just as he hoped.

 

 


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