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The Idea of the Chapel

Each year students gather on Main West Quad for Joe College Day, an event put on by the Duke University Union that brings multiple bands to campus to put on a free outdoor concert.  This year's event included performances from Delta Rae, Bally-Hoo!, Matt Wertz, Cage the Elephant, and Pretty Lights.
Each year students gather on Main West Quad for Joe College Day, an event put on by the Duke University Union that brings multiple bands to campus to put on a free outdoor concert. This year's event included performances from Delta Rae, Bally-Hoo!, Matt Wertz, Cage the Elephant, and Pretty Lights.

I know next to nothing about our Chapel. I think I’ve only been inside it once—Maya Angelou comes every month, right?—and what’s more, I’m about as religious as a Marxist eating Chinese take-out on Christmas morning.

But sometimes, when I ride the C-1 around the Chapel circle, silently taking in its four peaks contrasting with the setting sun, pink and gold slipping around the stilled bells, I feel a tingle of nostalgia. I feel proud when I walk by tourists and parents and pre-frosh and alumni posing with their families in front of it, personalizing their own postcard. And I see now why veteran tour guides stop their groups in its shadow to lecture on Duke’s history and answer any questions.

In short, I’m in love with the idea of the Chapel.

With its English Gothic architecture and a bell tower modeled after the one on top of the Canterbury Cathedral, a casual glance could put its founding at 602 AD. Personally, I like to think it’s mid-15th century, though I suppose our University’s founding would put it at a gentrified 80. Either way, the feigned antiquity conveys stability, and nothing says antiquity like a now comfortably non-denominational church that could have been built in the 7th or 15th centuries.

There are hundreds of older, more distinguished edifices out there that tour groups were visiting before James B. Duke was in diapers. Notre Dame in Paris, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Westminster Abbey in London—all are older and, frankly, more glorious than our homely, 210-foot tall edifice.

But I wouldn’t trade our Chapel for any of them. For us, it is no longer a building to fit in one’s view finder or—God forbid (oops!)—pose in front of as a pre-frosh. It is part of our home, and whether we’ve entered it religiously every Sunday morning or just at the bookends of our Duke career, we cannot separate our experience from the idea of the Chapel.     

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