Resurrection day at Virginia Theological Seminary

Resurrection day at Virginia Theological Seminary

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

The Rev. Ian Markham, dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, recently oversaw the first step in the Immanuel Chapel’s resurrection — nearly three years after he watched the historic house of worship go up in flames.

But back then rebuilding was the last thing on his mind.

“It was sheer disbelief, horror, sadness [and] pain. It was very immediate though,” Markham recalled. “I was focused less on where we go from here and more on how do we cope with what is happening.”

The fire began in a late October afternoon in 2010 and quickly engulfed the 129-year-old red brick chapel. Onlookers and first responders converged on the campus and watched the vaulted ceiling collapse in a maelstrom of smoke and flames.

As the building smoldered into the evening — the extent of the damage at last fully visible — one witness drew a comparison to post-World War II Europe.

Rather than jump into a rebuilding effort, Markham said the seminary’s leaders decided to start with a careful discussion about the future. When they did begin moving ahead, the leaders discovered plenty of people — including Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu — willing to support what Markham called the biggest capital campaign in the seminary’s history.

“A lot of people were affected by the loss of our chapel,” he said. “A lot of people wept when it went up in flames, and a lot of people stepped forward.”

Just before the third anniversary of the fire, Markham joined more than 400 people for a groundbreaking ceremony September 14. With more than $14.3 million raised for the effort, the resurrected chapel is on pace for completion by 2015.

The new building, designed by world-renowned firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects, will sit slightly southwest of the original chapel. It will include an offshoot with an octagonal room overlooking the former site.

“What we want, we want a building that is as significant and enduring as Aspinwall Hall,” Markham said. “My 19th-century forbearers, they decided to build something that represented enduring power, grace and presence, that we’re here for the long haul, [and that] we’re going to make a difference to the church and the world.

“We wanted the space to capture our confidence that our distinctive form of worship and that life will endure … and to be a place that evokes transcendence and presence of God and a good place in which to pray.”

As for the original chapel’s remains and plot, the seminary is in the process of transforming the site into a prayer garden. Officials will dedicate that area during the theological school’s convocation ceremonies early next month.

“Buildings are funny things and extraordinary things,” Markham said. “Almost all of the other changes you can make in institutions won’t survive, but buildings — sure they can be knocked down and things happen to them — they’re the elements of the present that are most likely to endure for a long period of time into the future.”