Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Medieval Cathedral - In Tennessee!

Recently, my wife Phyllis and I had the opportunity to visit the campus of The University of the South at Sewanee Tennessee.  Sewanee is located on the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga.  It is a small liberal arts and theological university that has its roots in the Episcopal Church.  Much of the money to found the university came from donations from various Anglican churches in Great Britain.  That heritage is reflected in the beautiful gothic stone architecture of the campus. 

The center point of the campus is All Saint's Chapel.  The "chapel" nomenclature is misleading.  This is a very large place of worship.  Even referring to it as a "church" might be an understatement.  I was astounded to find such a wonderful piece of architecture hidden away in rural Tennessee.  The Campus at Sewanee is well worth a visit should you be traveling on I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga.  Here is a brief history of the school and the chapel from the university web site:

All Saint's Chapel History

All Saints Chapel.  Photo from:

"To understand fully the history of All Saints' Chapel, one must first have a grasp of the history of the founding of the University of the South and the town of Sewanee.

The history of the founding of the University begins on July 1, 1856, with a letter that Bishop Leonidas Polk wrote to other bishops in the south concerning his desire to create a joint educational center which he envisioned to be "our common property, under our joint control, of a clear and distinctly recognized church character, upon a scale of such breadth and comprehensiveness, as shall be equal in the liberality of its provisions for intellectual cultivation to those of the highest class at home or abroad."

Bishops from North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas met that year for the General Convention in Philadelphia and agreed upon the idea.

A series of stained glass windows in the chapel
foryer tell the hisotry of Sewanee. 
Here the bishops meet to plan the new university.
Photo by Mark Hubbs

The following year at Polk's family home in Beersheba, Tennessee these bishops signed the constitution for the university. In January of 1858, the State of Tennessee gave the university its charter under which the institution, as a political as well as an educational entity, could shape the environment to meet its needs. The Vice-Chancellor was given the rights of "mayor" for the town of Sewanee as well as acting president of the university. The cornerstone was laid on October 10, 1860 among a gathering of some 5,000 people.

However, the university's development was brought to a sudden halt with the outbreak of the Civil War. As General Rosecrans pushed the Army of Tennessee in the direction of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, the Federal Army passed through Sewanee and left few remains of the university behind. It was during the re-establishment of Sewanee in 1866 that our chapel began its part in the history of the university. The original chapel for the university was built in time for the re-opening in 1868. It was named St. Augustine's after the school in Canterbury, England. The site of this building is marked by a stone marker in the south lawn of All Saints' today.

The original St. Augustine's was enlarged nine times between 1867 and 1910 to meet needs of a growing student body. Eventually it was decided to abandon St. Augustine's for a larger structure, All Saints' Chapel. The groundbreaking took place in 1904 with anticipation for its completion to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Architectural plans were drawn up by noted architect Ralph Adams Cram of New York. Construction began in 1905 but was halted in 1907 due to the failure of the Bank of Winchester during the great financial panic of that year. In 1910, a wooden floor and ceiling were installed to make the chapel available for use.

It was not until 1957, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the university, that Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady initiated the completion of the chapel. Using Cram's original plans and designs created by Dr. McCrady in 1937, construction began anew and the chapel was completed by July of 1959. His designs were inspired by numerous architectural masterpieces.

The tower is primarily based upon that of the University Church at Oxford University, England known as Saint Mary the Virgin. The vaulted ceilings are designed principally from the models of the medieval French cathedrals Chartres and Amiens. The rose window is based upon that of the south transept of Notre Dame de Paris in France.

Today All Saints' Chapel continues to represent the geographical and symbolic center of campus. It stands 61 feet high and 233 feet long. Shapard Tower is 134 feet tall."

The main nave of the chapel.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

The vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows as seen from the nave.
The cathedrals at Chartes and Amiens France inspired much of this design.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

Two aisles run along each side of the nave.  This is the west aisle. Photo by Mark Hubbs

Carved stone baptismal font.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

The main altar in front of the choir.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

One of a score of magnificent stained glass windows that face the nave.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

The choir stalls, looking towards the altar.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

Choir stalls, looking towards the nave.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

The pulpit.  Photo by Mark Hubbs
Carved figure on the pulpit.  Photo by Mark Hubbs
Stairs to the pulpit as seen from the transcept.  Photo by Mark Hubbs

An English style cottage. Some of the old housing on campus.  Photo by Mark Hubbs
You can learn more about The University of the South and All Saint's Chapel at these links:



  1. Such beauty ~~ wow !! Interesting history ..