by Celene Vargas
photography by Meghan Attaway
Inside the Interfaith Chapel, through a tiny hallway and up a white, narrow and steep staircase, sits a pipe organ—dusty, abandoned and haphazardly covered with a plastic sheet. “I’ve tried to get people to come out here and play it,” says Julia Wheeler, director of church interfaith relations at the University of La Verne. She removes the plastic covering and runs her hands over the keys, which are covered in a layer of dust. Julia flips a couple switches and starts pushing “stop” buttons. The organ still plays and produces powerful sounds, from reedy light, to dark ominous to trumpet blaring. The bare notes fill the small chapel and make it seem bigger with its echoing resonance. Julia says the organ was untouched when she took over the position a year ago. “That couldn’t have been good for it,” she says. The fate of the organ is tied to the future of the chapel. Both are slated to be removed. Julia doesn’t know what is going to happen to it when the chapel gets torn down to make space for a new building.
The plan is to create an all-encompassing center that will house an interfaith space, a spiritual life center and a multicultural center. Included will be a new chapel, albeit about 50 feet to the west. To do that, Brandt Hall will no longer be a dormitory. “We want to have quiet space; we want to have celebratory space; we want to have worship space; we want to have meeting space,” Julia lists. “We want to have outdoor and indoor [areas]. There needs to be beauty—where everyone feels welcome.” This will all happen thanks to the architect’s “magic wand,” Julia jokes. The Stu-Han dormitory will also be razed; in its footprint will be a parking lot. To replace Brandt and Stu-Han, a new residence hall will be built between the Campus Center and the parking structure. Brandt itself will be a building that has some academic classrooms but will also house the multicultural center, and those offices that most closely connect with the historical values and pedagogical approach of the University, according to Provost Jonathan Reed. “Community engagement may go in there, the Office of Diversity will probably go in there, multicultural offices and the center will go in there; the interfaith chaplain, perhaps international students will also be there and the La Verne experience,” he says.
But before an architect with a magic wand meets these new goals, in the beginning, there was a woman—a fairy godmother of sorts—who donated money so the school could build its first chapel. Her name was Maybelle Moore Dant, whose twin granddaughters Daphne and Diana Kerr (both were adopted as Maybelle’s daughters when her own daughter died in 1947) “most likely enrolled in La Verne College in 1958 or 1959,” according to Anne Collier, ULV curator, cultural and natural history collections. At the time, the University was headed by President Harold Fasnacht. Maybelle wanted the chapel to be “an attractive symbol of the Christian college campus,” according to a document about the chapel in the La Verne archives.
The La Verne College Chapel was built on campus in 1966 when the University was directly connected to the Church of the Brethren. It is iconically Christian-looking, with its large, stained glass windows, rows of traditional wood pews and, of course, the sleek cross mounted on top of the chapel. And then there is the pipe organ. It is symbolic of a time when the College graduated scores of students who majored in music. The organ resides in a loft above the sanctuary entrance. Originally, it was facing out into the chapel so that when the organist sat on the bench, she could not see what was happening below, says Anita Hanawalt, the last pipe organ instructor who led lessons on the instrument. “It made it really awkward to play for weddings or any occasions,” Anita says. “My primary memories come from the 1990s. Office space was at a premium for adjuncts, so I took that space and made it my own.” She says one of her primary pipe organ students, Jana Hodgson, helped improve the space by repainting the walls and moving the pipe organ. “We moved the console to the side to its current location so that you could sit there and play at a service and see what was going on – if the bride got to the end of the aisle, that sort of thing.”
Ralph Travis promotes a chapel pipe organ
Anita first moved to La Verne in 1983 when she met Ralph Travis, who was professor of music when the chapel came into being. He was at that time no longer playing the organ because he had Parkinson’s disease. “He was shaking, and he just did not want to play in public anymore.” Ralph is a vital character in the chapel’s history. “Ralph was an organist, and he was instrumental in making sure we had a pipe organ in the chapel. It’s a tiny little pipe organ–there is nothing special about it—but it’s a real pipe organ. I know he worked to get as much money together as he could to make sure we had that,” she says. According to the dedication of the chapel, the organ money was donated by the Davenport Foundation. Nicknamed “Travy,” Ralph was a beloved music instructor at La Verne, and part of his teaching portfolio included instructing students on the pipe organ. Before the construction of the chapel, Ralph, who also led as organist at the La Verne Chuch of the Brethren, juggled student lesson and practice time on his Church organ. The chapel organ brought the pipe organ program to the campus. Ralph taught at La Verne for 43 years, serving as head of the Music Department before retiring in 1972 when he was named professor of music emeritus. Bernice Pence, La Verne College class of 1948, was a student of Ralph and remembers him as fair but strict. “He would stand behind you and tap you on the shoulder to keep your time regular. I never really felt intimidated by him; I felt encouraged,” Bernice says. She went on to play the organ for the La Verne Church of the Brethren on Sunday evenings. Ralph played in the mornings, but after he retired, she filled in for him for more than a year.
While the chapel was for Christian worship at one time, it now includes a multitude of interfaith religious and non-religious beliefs, including Buddist, Muslim, Secular Humanist and atheism. “We need a space that will match us,” Julia says. It is also used as a general classroom and meeting space for clubs, religious or not. However, the chapel has limitations. Besides it not being ADA compliant–it has lead paint, asbestos and other structural inadequacies–the chapel can no longer represent the campus community or the school’s values of diversity and inclusivity, says University of La Verne chaplain Zandra Wagoner. “We need a space that is so much more flexible, a place that any group can feel they can fully express their core values and not feel the space is a barrier to their core values.”
The Church of the Brethren was founded in 1708, and a core belief was no force in religion. “At that time in Europe, people’s religion was determined by the religion of the prince of the land. The founders of the Church of the Brethren believed it violated the essence of what religion should be, namely that it is an individual choice. In a way, it’s no surprise the chapel has gone from Brethren to, in the modern times, we have a University chaplain; she is an interfaith chaplain. She is to serve all religions or no religion and foster a dialogue,” Jonathan says. He adds the future of the chapel lies with not identifying with any single religious group but in being an open space where all groups feel comfortable and have dialogue with each other to share their common core beliefs and ethical aspirations. “We’re still examining what activities can we have that celebrate its history, and we’re also still looking at how can we integrate aspects of the current chapel into the new interfaith chapel and multicultural center,” he says. The provost gave examples such as taking some of the stained glass or saving some of the wood to integrate it into the new center, or if the organ cannot be saved, some pieces can be carved out and wind chimes can be made out of the pipes. However, none of these examples are finalized. “I don’t think we’re far along in the details to make that decision,” Jonathan says. Regarding the unknown fate of the organ, Bernice says, “I think Ralph would like it to be put to use.”
Zandra says she and Julia are trying to find Maybelle’s family to continue the family heritage on the La Verne campus between the old chapel and the new center. “There are some people who feel a certain love of the place because it marked such an important part in their life. I think the chapel has functioned in that way consistently,” Zandra says. A significant number of faculty, staff and even students have been married there. There have also been funeral and memorial services conducted in the chapel. The building has significant meaning for many alumni. “We really want to make sure in the new multicultural center and interfaith chapel that we’re honoring our past because it’s really foundational.”
Maybelle Dant: Funding the College Chapel
Maybelle Moore Dant (1880-1970) was the wife of Charles Elmer Dant (1878-1945), a self-made man who formed the China-Pacific Co., and helped form the Columbia-Pacific Shipping Co. He was also director of the Fir-Tex Insulating Board Co., and two other steam-ship companies. The couple raised five children: two girls and three boys until Charles’ death in 1945. Two years later, daughter Kathryn Kerr Lowry died while visiting her second husband in the Philippines. Her death left her twin daughters Daphne and Diana Kerr orphaned, as their father had died in the war in 1943. Maybelle adopted the twins who later graduated from La Verne College. Maybelle was very philanthropic and involved in arts-related charities in Palm Springs and La Jolla. In 1957, she christened the SS M.M. Dant. It was later renamed the SS Mormacsaga and withdrawn from service in 2008.
—Source: Anne Collier, ULV curator, cultural and natural history collections