Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 9, 2009
The peaceful heart of the U of A
Amidst the hustle, bustle of university life, St. Joseph's Chapel stands as an oasis to experience the love of God
WCR PHOTO|CHRIS MILLER
A student reads from the prophet Isaiah in front of one of the chapel's stained glass windows.
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Despite not having the seating, floor space and huge congregation of a grand cathedral, the small chapel at St. Joseph’s College remains at the spiritual heart of the University of Alberta.
The 83-year-old chapel, a symbolic focus of campus life, attracts students looking for time out from their hectic schooldays for a peaceful getaway.
“For me, the Mass is a chance to give praise to God. That’s generally why I come here. I have friends who come here, too,” said Patrick Connell, a graduate student in the physics department, now in the fourth year of his PhD.
Once a resident on campus, Connell started helping out at the chapel about two years ago, doing readings and assisting with Mass, as well as recruiting others to help with rudimentary tasks. Now he is at the chapel almost every day.
“A lot of people come here for quiet prayer. In the mornings there’s always a lot of people in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Or even in the evening they just sit there for a bit of quiet time. It’s handy for the students and the employees of the university to come here and spend some quiet time with God,” said Connell.
The convenience of having the chapel on campus is hard to pass up for Nicole Severin, another university student, who views the Holy Eucharist as the summit of her Christian life.
“I come here every day for Mass. Basically, I want to make the chapel and the Mass the source and pillar of my life. I try to focus everything in my life around Christ,” said Severin, later adding, “It’s right here on the university campus. It’s so wonderful to have.”
Father David Bittner, the college’s senior chaplain, said, “St. Joseph’s Chapel is lucky. Most Catholic houses in this country keep their university chapels on the edge, but we are right in the middle. Take a campus map and cross the north/south, east/west coordinates and the lines cross in our backyard.”
Another advantage for the chapel is being on the end of the LRT line, providing more convenient access for those without other transportation.
“There are people who attend a week here, and then the next week they are at another parish,” he said. “There are all sorts of things that go into a person’s decision about where to go for Mass,” said Bittner.
Daily Masses are held throughout the school term, except on Monday. About 70 people attended a recent Saturday afternoon Mass. This included people of all ages, from students to seniors.
During weekdays, around 30 students attend Mass, and sometimes more during Lent. Since the downtown opening of St. Benedict Chapel at City Centre East Mall in late 2006, Bittner noticed that the number of people attending weekday Mass has decreased.
Close to 100 people attend the Sunday Mass at 9 a.m., while the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday remains the busiest, with upwards of 140 people. About 95 per cent of the attendance at the “Last Chance Mass” every Sunday at 9 p.m. are students.
Constructed in 1926, the chapel was renovated in the 1960s to include a new altar and pews.
WCR PHOTO|CHRIS MILLER
Father David Bittner celebrates a Lenten Mass while a small congregation participates while standing in the open spaces in St. Joseph's Chapel.
Decades later, St. Joseph’s Chapel still appeals to students looking for a more secluded place of worship.
“The oldest pictures I have seen, it was set up like a very traditional Catholic chapel. Originally there were windows at the south end, but this is Alberta and south-facing windows make no sense. I mean, the few pictures I’ve seen of the chapel from the 1930s, you can’t see the altar because of the glare of the sun,” said Bittner.
Jay Harder, while neither a student nor graduate of the university, said he comes from time to time for the laidback atmosphere. “I love the stained glass windows. The windows represent for me the mysteries of Christ,” said Harder.
The windows were installed from May 1984 to April 1986, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the college. The larger window at the north end represents the Holy Trinity. The two prevailing designs are the circle, which represents the eternity of God, and the flames, which represent the Holy Spirit.
“The big problem that a lot of campus ministries have is that they are small, and people are attracted to them, but they can also have the situation where the students don’t feel welcome anymore,” said Bittner. The removal of all but four rows of pews long ago makes sitting on the floor a necessity when crowded, underlining the idea that this is a students-first chapel.
Adoration and Confession are available on Fridays. Every Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. is the sacrament of Reconciliation. The chapel offers the sacraments of Baptism, marriage and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
“We do sacraments for the people who actually come here. Sometimes it’s graduate students or young families. There are also people who have been coming here all along. They stayed near the U of A and kept coming here after they graduated,” said Bittner.
The quiet chapel lives up to the college’s mission “to discover, integrate, and disseminate truth, as revealed by God, discerned by reason, experienced in community.”
Chaplains are also available for pastoral care and spiritual direction.