Rockefeller Memorial Chapel celebrates 90th anniversary with concert

Matthew Sheppard conducts the Hyde Park Youth Symphony in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Divertimento IV during the “Rockefeller at 90” concert in Rockefeller Chapel. (Photos by Marc Monaghan)

Contributing Writer

Rockefeller Chapel, the epicenter of spiritual life at the University of Chicago, celebrated the 90th anniversary of its dedication on October 28 with a concert honoring some of the words and music from the inaugural service held 90 years ago.

The Chapel was designed by famed early 20th century architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. It was completed in 1928, the final gift to the University of Chicago from benefactor and founder John D. Rockefeller, for whom the Chapel was named after his death, according to the University.

“When Rockefeller Chapel was dedicated, on Sunday, Oct. 28, 1928, the ceremony included words of dedication of ‘this House’ to ‘the contemplation of beauty, to the understanding of music, to the art of meditation, to communion with the Unseen and Eternal,’” said Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, Elizabeth Davenport. “Surely these are the words that characterize what has been done in this place over these ninety years under the leadership of musicians and spiritual leaders alike.”

The programming represented “the Chapel’s signature mix of arts and spirit,” according to Davenport.

The Chapel’s concert was influenced by the range of world religious and spiritual traditions, supported and celebrated at Spiritual Life (an office of the Chapel founded in 2009).

Among the talents performed during the concert was music and dance represented by the Music Department’s South Asian Music Ensemble, with third year undergraduate student Sahana Ramani joining the ensemble with classical dance, Dr. Shakeela Hassan, and Akash Dixit on the tabla; The Hyde Park Youth Symphony; and the world premiere of “The Greatness of God” led by Shawn Kirchner and the Rockefeller Chapel Choir, commissioned for the 90th anniversary of Rockefeller Chapel

“The Chapel continues, as it has always done, to have a close and vital relationship with the community, represented by the Hyde Park Youth Symphony who open tonight’s program as well as the many others that are a part of this celebration,” said Davenport.

The concert included special renditions, such as Thomas Weisflog, the University’s organist performance of ‘Thou Art the Rock’ (Tu es Petra), which was originally presented at Rockefeller Chapel’s opening gala concert in 1928.

Akash Dixit ( on tabla) and Shweta Parthasarathy (vocals) and other members of the University of Chicago South Asian Music Ensemble accompany third year student Shana Ramani as she performs a classical Indian Bharatanatyam during the “Rockefeller at 90” gala. (Photos by Marc Monaghan)

Weisflog directed the historic restoration (2006-08) at the Chapel’s massive E.M. Skinner organ, and was instrumental in the recent installation of the Reneker organ in Bond Chapel.

“Today’s performance extends this to our “Rock,” Rockefeller Chapel,” said Weisflog. “In this brilliant toccata, a sturdy “rock-like” theme in the pedals is set beneath incessant manual figurations finishing on full organ.”

“From their very first day at the University, when undergraduates gather here to begin their education and graduate students are formerly welcomed by their senior academic officers at the University. Students come here for all kind of events that invite them to explore and nourish the mind and spirit. Students come to Rockefeller Chapel to meditate, pray, sing and dance, question and seek, create, and celebrate, explore and experience,” said Jigna Shah, Assistant Dean of Rockefeller Chapel and Director of Spiritual Life.

The chapel is home to a wide variety of religious and spiritual communities. Throughout the academic year, the Chapel hosts three gatherings always open to all: Sundays at Rockefeller, liturgies expressing Christian spirituality rooted in music, literature, and sacred text; Zen meditation on Wednesday evenings, hosted by Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in association with the Chapel; and Friday Jumu’ah prayers, two gatherings for prayer and reflection hosted by members of the University’s Muslim community.

“Some cross boundaries of traditions, others are rooted in particular religious or spiritual practice, I think I speak for many students when I say the Chapel is grounding and transformative,” said Shah.

Hindu and Buddhist students also meet on a daily basis for prayers and meditation. Muslim students pray daily in the prayer room at Spiritual Life and in the new prayer room at the Regenstein Library.

“Standing 207 feet tall Rockefeller Chapel is the epicenter of the spirit of this campus,” said Shah. “The doors welcome students from all walks of life as they ponder and wonder. This House breaths life into our vibrant and spiritually diverse community.

“The old stones remind us of our history and the beautiful stained glass windows pour in light from the new day. The dedication for 90 years as written, are still relevant today. ‘To the contemplation of beauty, to the contemplation of music, to the art and meditation, to communing with the unseen. We dedicate again this House,’” said Shah.