chapel in black and white

Island Chapel

. . . I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.

(Shelley, Julian and Maddalo)


Before a concert on the campus of what used to be called Northwestern College, in St. Paul, Minnesota, I walked with my friend Becca down to Lake Johanna. Soon we would be sitting in the romanesque Nazareth Chapel, listening to flutist Michele Frisch playing the Bach Chaconne and my Lines from the Japanese, but at the moment it was trying to rain, and we wandered over a bridge onto a little island. As we crossed, a heron landed to our left in a gaggle of geese. I’ve always liked herons. Some years ago, I wrote a piece for soprano Karen Clift and clarinetist Burt Hara called Great Blue, a setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem about a heron that prefigures the death of the speaker’s mother:

Sunk in the tattered wings
He wore as a hunchback’s coat.
Shadow without a shadow,
Hung on invisible wires
From the top of a canvas day,
What scissors cut him out?

Carolyn Kizer, “The Great Blue Heron” (excerpt)

I looked up the rise of the island. At its modest summit there was a small graystone chapel, neglected, but not quite in disrepair. The rough, functional door was obviously not original. The windows had been removed and were boarded over. But care had been lavished on the design of this little sanctuary and in its placement overlooking the lake. A colorful mosaic over the door still praises Regina angelorum: the Queen of Angels. There once was a sculpture of the Madonna and Child above it in the tower.

St. Non's Chapel

St. Non’s Chapel

I remembered another little chapel at St. Non’s Well, near St. David’s, Wales. That chapel was also tiny, with barely enough room for a dervish to whirl in. As I approached it in 2002, sweet mezzo-tones floated out of it. When I peeked inside, there was a man playing the viola, an amateur, he said. He liked to practice in the chapel. St. Non, the mother of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, looked on approvingly from her stained-glass perch.

violist practicing

Violist at St. Non’s Chapel

I can only speculate that the original R.C. nature of the Island Chapel makes it unsuitable for use by its current Evangelical Protestant proprietors. But I think this “waste and solitary place” could yet serve a holy, noble purpose beyond that of 24-hour storage. It could be a place for couples to start their lives together; a setting for Evensong or the occasional Compline service; a refuge for the lonely violist, too shy to play out in the open, but hoping that someone will happen by.

More about the history of the Island Chapel at University of Northwestern, Saint Paul.