Spiritual center plans move ahead

More than a year has passed since $6 million was put on the table for the expansion of Eisenhower Chapel on the University Park campus. In that time, donations have continued to come in for the $9 million project and its significance as a symbol of Penn State's commitment to the spiritual life of its students has grown exponentially.

Those involved with the project, which would add 22,500 square feet to the chapel nearly doubling its size, say that Penn State is taking a leap of faith in building a spiritual center when many institutions are shying away from such connections to religion. On Nov. 5, the University Board of Trustees will name an architect for the center, which could take anywhere from 8 months to a year to design.

"Religion plays an important role in University life," said Kenneth Clarke, director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs. "It provides opportunities for fellowship, educational programming, worship and exploration of cutting-edge social and cultural issues.

"Many public institutions through their actions and lack of support are basically telling students that they should check their religion at the gates and pick it up after graduation."

At Penn State there are currently about 25 full-time campus ministry professionals. Fifteen of these ministry professionals have offices in Eisenhower Chapel. One of those professionals, William 'Buzz' Roberts, campus minister in the Christian Student Fellowship, said the University's recognition of the need to develop mind, body and spirit is somewhat unusual among institutions.

"We are helping students to develop a more complete and solid world view," Roberts said.

Clarke said Penn State's new spiritual center is sending a strong message about how faith can be a part of intellectual life.

"I hope other institutions will look at us and be moved and encouraged to explore how their spiritual centers can help their institutions and the nation face the challenge of educating good citizens and instilling character in our student body," he said.

Clarke and Roberts are not alone in their observations.

In January 1998 when Joe and Sue Paterno donated $1 million toward the new multi-faith spiritual center, followed two months later by a $5 million gift from the family of the late Frank Pasquerilla, a Johnston real estate developer, the donors also said religious life on campus was an important component of college life.

Lewis Ricci, associate director in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, said from the donor viewpoint, the expansion of the Eisenhower Chapel is appealing because people appreciate the fact that a university such as Penn State is interested in the "complete student." Ricci said to date, the project has spurred the interest of alumni, friends and local residents and has garnered $7.5 million in support -- just $1.5 million shy of the project's estimated cost.

The spiritual center project, which will be funded entirely by private donations, will keep the current 43-year-old Eisenhower Chapel intact, but will involve the careful integration of what could be two extremely different architectural styles, according to Richard Riccardo, project manager for the spiritual center.

Riccardo, who is part of a committee that sorted through information from more than 30 architectural firms across the nation and conducted numerous evening focus group sessions to gain public input, said the design of the spiritual center must be flexible to meet the needs of the 32 registered student religious organizations on campus.

The Helen Eakin Eisenhower Chapel as it now stands is a traditional Protestant design and not conducive as a worship space for many of the faiths. The Penn State Catholic community, a ministry which draws from a student population of about 10,000-plus, is the largest faith community served by the chapel, whose quarters are cramped. Penn State Hillel draws from a Jewish student community of about 3,000-4,000 students. Other faiths don't think the worship space is inviting because of its design and its inherent Christian symbolism.

"We have a historical remnant, which is an important one to keep, but we need to move forward and recognize change in how people worship and gather," Clarke said.

Clarke envisions a spiritual center that appeals broadly to all faiths, and also meshes well with the academic needs of the community, serving as a meeting place or an area where talks and discussions can be held. He wants the new center to play an integral part in the total life of the community.

Riccardo sees a similar vision of a flexible design that welcomes all faiths. Included in the proposal for the expansion is a call for an 800- to 1,000-seat worship area. Riccardo realizes the new structure not only must work in harmony with the existing chapel, but also balance well with the area around the chapel. The project manager said the design has many opportunities to tie into the natural wooded area just outside of Eisenhower Chapel. Riccardo, an architect with the Office of Physical Plant, said the new structure will be built in the available space in and around the chapel, and no buildings would be removed for the project.

Roberts hopes the spiritual center elicits the same reactions as the newly renovated HUB-Robeson Cultural Center.

"You know, you just walk around gawking at the building all the time because it looks so nice," Roberts said.

All three men, as well as others on the architectural selection committee, believe the new spiritual center can be a "signature building" on campus. The group envisions this section of campus as the cultural center, merging the arts (the Palmer Museum of Art); knowledge (the Libraries); and religion and spirituality in that small corner of the world.

"There is a real synergy in this area," Riccardo said. "There is so much opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind facility and really make a statement. Not just a statement about the University's support, but about faith itself.

"Most architects would give their eye teeth for a project like this," he said. "We often build classrooms and administrative buildings, but how often do we get to build a religious facility?"

The proposals submitted by firms for the expansion pointed out certain elements that could be incorporated into the structure -- elements that have traditionally been associated with sacred space, such as water, light, earth and trees (wood).

"We want to create a facility that will serve every faith. We want the Protestants to see it as a chapel, the Catholics to see it as a church; the Muslims to see it as a mosque and the Jews to see it as a synagogue," Riccardo said. "Designers should see this as a blank sheet. You almost want to build a box and let the people paint the box or fill it with their own ideas.

"We are not looking for architects, really," Riccardo said. "What we are looking for are builders of consensus."

For more information on the project, visit the Web at http://www.sa.psu.edu/cera/newcentr.html.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009