Happy 100th birthday, Swasey

issue 01 | summer 2024
Swasey Chapel graphic

Swasey Chapel is a place for joy: Weddings, too numerous to track. Baccalaureate and academic award convocations. So many happy memories of surprised President’s Medalists being summoned to the stage and propelled by standing ovations.

The sanctuary is home to the university’s gospel, chamber, and concert choirs, and to popular performances from the acclaimed Vail Series and Bluegrass and American Roots Festival. It also hosts renowned authors, speakers, and world-class musical performances and artistry.

The chapel’s greatest contribution, however, may be the indelible memories it leaves with students, faculty, and staff.  

“We must salute the past as we move forward,” said David Woodyard ’54, who’s taught at Denison for more than 60 years and proposed to his wife, Joanne Adamson Woodyard ’55, outside Swasey Chapel. “For a lot of alumni, this place is where their life transpired and grew.”

As Swasey commemorates its centennial anniversary in 2024, it remains the celebrated centerpiece of the university. 

Divine connection

The chapel’s namesake and benefactor, Ambrose Swasey (1846-1937), earned honorary degrees from seven academic institutions, including Denison, without ever attending a university.  

“All my brothers and sisters went to academies or colleges,” Swasey once said, “but my only schooling came from the little country grammar school” in Exeter, New Hampshire.

A teenage apprentice in machine works, Swasey displayed a remarkable aptitude for mechanical engineering. He was awarded 23 patents and, along with his business partner, Worcester Warner, founded a company that specialized in machine tools. The duo later gained international acclaim for designing astronomical instruments.

As his fortune grew, so did Swasey’s desire to spread his wealth. He gave generously to academic institutions and religious organizations. Denison, founded as denominationally Baptist, satisfied both criteria.

Swasey and his wife, Lavinia, were devout Baptists. He had grown up hearing tales of his ancestors being driven out of Salem, Massachusetts, because of their religious convictions.

Much like business magnate and fellow Baptist John D. Rockefeller, who also donated to Denison, Swasey needed little encouragement to support the university after relocating his company from Chicago to Cleveland. 

“There were a fair number of colleges established by the Baptists,” said Dennis Read, associate professor emeritus in English. “If you were a Baptist and you made some money, there was an obligation to support these institutions.”

Swasey joined the Denison Board of Trustees in 1897, becoming its president in 1923 and serving as its honorary president until his death. He financed a men’s gymnasium (now Bryant Arts Center) in 1905 and the building of Swasey Observatory in 1909. When the university unveiled its “Greater Denison” plan for campus expansion, he was the first to reach for his checkbook.  

“They needed a chapel, which was central to any Denison student of that era,” Read said. “Swasey stepped forward.”

Even as the chapel’s cornerstone was being laid in 1922, Swasey was increasing his investment. He made possible the purchase of an echo organ and a bell tower containing a carillon of 10 bells in honor of Lavinia, who died in 1913.

The chapel, which seats more than 950 people and mirrors Sir Christopher Wren-style English churches, was dedicated April 18, 1924. It cost $400,000.

“I think of Swasey as a place where someone can have a spiritual experience, a connection with the divine,” said Timothy Carpenter, Denison’s gospel choir leader and Christian life coordinator. “It is a magnificent gift to this campus.”

The centerpiece of campus

Today, Swasey remains the premier venue for campus performances, lectures, exhibitions, and milestones along a student’s academic journey. A gathering at Swasey carries a sense of solemnity, of elevation, of celebration.

“Swasey adds a formality and a unique energy to these events,” said music professor Ching-chu Hu.

The chapel has hosted some of the world’s most renowned lecturers, authors, academics, musicians, entertainers, politicians, and cultural icons. Yo-Yo Ma. Itzhak Perlman. Dizzy Gillespie. Renee Fleming. Steve Carell ’84. G. Gordon Liddy. James Baker. George Will. Bob Dole. Madeleine Albright. Eudora Welty. Michael Starbird. Mariana Ortega. Amor Towles.

The list goes on.

“When artists come and they see the grandeur of the chapel, they really appreciate the space and the setting,” said Hu, director of the Vail Series, which is hosted at Swasey. “It also serves as the public performance space for several of our larger ensembles as well as our festivals. So many in the community know Denison primarily from their attendance to these events.”

For students, memories made at Denison often start in Swasey. Over four years, the Swasey bells provide the soundtrack to campus life, and the steeple serves as a lodestar for students returning home to The Hill.

First-year students begin their academic voyage by assembling in the sanctuary before heading down Chapel Walk for their class induction. They return four years later for Baccalaureate ceremonies that mark a culminating Swasey event for graduates.

And every spring, the Academic Awards Convocation celebrates faculty and student excellence in an emotional, cheer-filled ceremony where the Provost’s Academic Excellence Award winners are honored and the President’s Medalists are announced.

The President’s Medal is Denison’s highest honor for a graduating senior. There’s a parallel award for alumni, the venerated Alumni Citation, awarded to Denison alums for professional accomplishments and service since 1949. Those recipients also find themselves back at Swasey, seated on the stage — a full-circle moment for a celebration of lives launched on The Hill.

Swasey Chapel turns 100!

As Swasey commemorates its centennial anniversary, explore more fun facts and stories below:

Published May 2024
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