By Anne Hartman Raether
For many in the University of Chicago community, a Sunday highlight is a visit to Rockefeller Chapel. Throughout its 92-year history, Rockefeller Chapel has welcomed individuals of all backgrounds and beliefs to its weekly services, featuring inspiring readings and reflections along with music from the Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, E.M. Skinner organ, and Rockefeller Chapel Choir.
Like many places of worship across the world, Rockefeller Chapel closed its doors in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Staff sought to fill the void by offering the Virtual Chapel—selections of music and readings from its rich archives—throughout the spring and summer. But as the pandemic continued and the new academic year began, Maurice Charles, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, saw a need for a service that speaks to what people are experiencing in the moment.
“With these services, we want to let people know we’re still here for them,” Charles said. “Even though the building is closed, there’s life still going on.”
Charles and Rockefeller Chapel staff, including Director of University Chapels Matthew Dean and Director of Chapel Music James Kallembach, planned a weekly streamed event with many of the hallmarks of a typical service. To create a quiet and meditative service that mimics the feeling of being in Rockefeller Chapel, they opted for an auditory experience rather than a visual one.
“It’s easier to enter the space if you’re listening rather than watching,” Charles said. “It’s easier to close one’s eyes and relax rather than to see an empty building that reminds you that you’re not gathering with others.”
The Rockefeller Chapel Choir meets once a week over Zoom to discuss the musical themes for each service, and the solo vocal artists in residence then record their selections in Rockefeller Chapel while wearing masks. The spoken portions and carillon performances are captured separately.
For Dean, returning to the chapel to sing has been especially meaningful.
“Ensemble singing is so grounding,” he said. “’Conspiring’ literally means breathing together, and in a time when sharing air is potentially harmful, that we can maintain a virtual community is a testament to the magic of these places and people.”
Staff hope that the virtual services bring a sense of comfort to listeners and an opportunity to reflect in a spiritually grounded way. In a time when many are forced to quarantine and isolate, Charles especially hopes to reach those who are feeling disconnected, either from Rockefeller or simply disconnected in general.
There are some benefits to offering the services virtually, namely that listeners can tune in from around the country and around the world. The services have especially been popular among recent alums who are missing campus and the traditions that come with it, Charles said. Additionally, students who may be reluctant to join services in person can experience them privately to gain a better understanding of the tradition and community.
Beloved traditions are also being marked virtually, like the All Saints Day service to honor those in the University community who have passed in the last year. The Christmas Eve service will also be streamed, featuring the Rockefeller Children’s Choir, who will record portions of the service separately from their homes.
“We can’t replace what we did, but I think that gives us freedom to be creative,” Charles said.
Added Kallembach, “I think it’s important to recognize that the University has done a good job in a grassroots way of making the arts a priority, which is really important because you see it crumbling across the country. I think we have a good community that understands the intersection of art and community and how important that synergy is. And I think that’s what allows something like this to happen.”