A Sacred Transformation

Inside the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel, a new altar can be found stationed as the centerpiece of the sanctuary, a scene of the Last Supper engraved in its warm oak base. It is perhaps the most symbolic of elements found in the Chapel, and just one of many changes seen after significant renovations transformed the building, said Father Michael T. Kesicki '83, chaplain and associate vice president for University Mission and Ministry.

In a historic Mass and Rite of Dedication ceremony presided by The Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, J.C.L. on April 18, the University formally re-opened the Chapel after renovations enhanced it as a longstanding place of worship and prayer to inspire students, colleagues, alumni and friends in their faith journeys.

This will be a significant gathering space for many,” Kesicki said. “The Chapel creates an opportunity for people to learn, ask questions, search and whatever else helps them in their journeys of faith. It is a witness in the community, a symbol of truth and faith in downtown Erie, and a symbol of who Gannon is and our presence, leadership and faith in the community.”

“(The Chapel) is a witness in the community, a symbol of truth and faith in downtown Erie, and a symbol of who Gannon is and our presence, leadership and faith in the community” - Fr. Michael T. Kesicki '83

Possibly the most stunning of renovations is seen in the reimagined sanctuary,  which Monsignor Robert L. Brugger ’62, a longtime priest in the Catholic Diocese of Erie and a trustee of the University, said “calls us to a noble beauty to bring us into fully sacred celebrations of God’s saving care for us all.”

Kesicki also described the sanctuary as having a “warmth and elegance,” thanks to its new wooden accents and pews.

Light now pours in from outside through the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows after two conjoined buildings – the Student Services Building and the Pontifical Center – were demolished to make way for renovations.  The windows were designed by Erie artist John Vahanian and dedicated to Monsignor Addison Yehl by the Delta Sigma Phi alumni on Oct. 1, 1993 as a source of artistic and religious inspiration and reflection for the Gannon community.

The altar – a sacred structure on which the Eucharist is celebrated – is centered at the front of the sanctuary with the tabernacle resting behind it to reserve the Blessed Sacrament.  The ambo, an oak podium that depicts the four Gospel writers and from where the Word of God is read, sits at its right.

The Crucifix  hangs above the tabernacle,  its larger-than-life oak figure of Jesus communicating a theological message of his sacrifice on the cross. The figure was carved by an artist in Pittsburgh and gifted to the University in the 1990s. Kesicki said the statue was recently repainted to enhance its intricate details and placed on a newly constructed cross. 

The Chapel also includes a fellowship hall to welcome students following Mass, during reserved group events, or simply between classes to study. The fellowship hall – Kraus Hall – is named for Dean Gerald R. Kraus and his wife, Beatrice Kraus ’34VMC, from a generous gift by his son Gerald A. Kraus, Ph.D. ’64 and Ann R. Kraus. 

A hallmark feature of the newly renovated narthex is a stained-glass panel, “Gratitude.” It was conceived and crafted by local artisan Donna Styborski Reese and commissioned in 2020 to serve as part of a recognition wall highlighting donors who contributed to the campaign for the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel. 

The Chapel also now has a state-of-the-art audio-visual system for events, a courtyard reflection garden, a restored Sacristy, more restrooms, a kitchen and a parking lot.

Brent Heckman, director of Campus Ministry at Gannon, was one of several team members from across the University and community who helped plan the reconstructed Chapel. Heckman said the University had envisioned a chapel that would be “an inviting place to worship, pray and build a faith community.”

“There needed to be a sense that the Chapel was sacred, inviting, warm and welcoming and would be a place that people would want to come to,” Heckman said.  

The Chapel’s reopening has already evoked faith-filled emotions for many, including Emily Muntean, resident campus minister and retreat coordinator at Gannon.

“We have a chapel now that is evocative of the sacred and you feel that when you walk in it helps you pray and invites you into the liturgy. For the students who have been wandering around for two years (during renovations), it feels like a homecoming and it gives you a deep sense of gratitude,” Muntean said.


Watch the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel welcome video

Heckman also said he felt a change on campus. “We had Mass Sunday night after the reopening ceremony, and there was so much enthusiasm. The volume of singing was incredible. You could feel the difference of being in the Chapel,” he said.

Student Phillip Vargo ’20, ’21M participated in the Mass and Rite of Dedication ceremony and said he is excited about the Chapel’s reopening.

“The Chapel has long served as a place to gather, pray and engage in fellowship. I believe that the Chapel’s presence will help to restore a sense of peace and comfort to so many of us who have struggled amid the difficulties of being college students, as well as the challenges brought forth by the ongoing pandemic,” Vargo said.

Vargo, who was confirmed in the Chapel in 2018, said he made it a point to visit the Chapel several times before the semester concluded.

“I wanted to make sure that I maximize the time that I have left in Erie at the place that has meant the most to me,” he said.

The beginnings of a Christian church on the site go back to 1860, when the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church dedicated a brick edifice with a towering steeple. That original building was partially destroyed by fire in 1920 and not fully restored until 1940. A second fire in 1944 completely destroyed the building.

The present church was built in 1950. Its congregation merged with the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in January of 1981 and is now the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant on West Sixth Street. Gannon University purchased the property that year with a vision of continuing the church as the University Chapel. The Chapel was dedicated on Oct. 8, 1989 by The Most Rev. Michael J. Murphy.

The University announced plans to renovate the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel after it closed again in mid-2019 due to a gas leak that was discovered below the Chapel.

Thanks to a lead gift by Msgr. Brugger, a $2 million campaign was launched to help fund renovations to this important campus landmark. Over the next several months, more than 200 donors contributed to the campaign to help enhance the Chapel’s appearance and amenities to provide a spiritual home for Gannon family and friends to grow in their faith walks.

“These donors definitely recognize that our faith is our cornerstone of our mission and also symbolic of their own faith,” said Almitra Clerkin ’85, ’17M, associate vice president for University Advancement, who spearheaded the campaign.

Gannon President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., emphasized the Chapel as an important symbol of Gannon’s identity as a Catholic institution.

“The (Chapel) is a gorgeous place that we have invested our heart and soul into because it’s the heart and soul of who we are as a Catholic university,” Taylor said. “Our ability to come together as a Catholic community in a Catholic institution is important to who we are. Whether we’re there to celebrate daily and weekly masses or the birth of Christ, it will be a place that moves us as an institution when we walk into it, and the aesthetic in the building will be moving and powerful.”

“The (Chapel) is a gorgeous place that we have invested our heart and soul into because it’s the heart and soul of who we are as a Catholic university.” - Keith Taylor

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