Catawba’s Onwake-Dearborn Chapel marks 50th year

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

On Sunday, Catawba College’s Omwake-Dearborn Chapel will mark its 50th anniversary. The occasion will pass quietly on campus since no official college commemoration is planned until Homecoming Weekend in October and since it is Super Bowl Sunday.
But 50 years ago, on Feb. 2, 1964, the American Gothic, 1,000-seat chapel was dedicated on a cold, clear Sunday afternoon. The occasion celebrated the completion of a project dreamed about and begun under the administration of Catawba’s 14th president, Dr. A.R. Keppel, but fulfilled under the administration of Catawba’s 15th president, Dr. Donald Dearborn.
Conversations about raising funds to construct the chapel began in early 1961. Keppel turned to the congregations of the Southern Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (today the United Church of Christ) for financial assistance with the chapel. Within two years of launching the chapel campaign, pledges to the Chapel Fund reached $338,321.33. Trustees approved the chapel construction and ground was broken for it on Dec. 16, 1962. R.K. Stewart & Son of High Point, the low bidder at $424,000, was awarded the contract.
When Dearborn took office in 1963, he inherited this unfinished project. Although under construction, the chapel was not fully funded. His task was to find adequate funds to finance the construction and see the dream realized.
On the afternoon that the chapel was dedicated, an act of “presentation and acceptance” was staged on the grounds outside. The keys to the chapel passed from the chapel architect, of Barber and McMurry in Knoxville, Tenn., to the college trustees. The Rev. Richard “Dick” A. Cheek, a 1947 alumnus who led the campaign within the churches of the denomination, and the Rev. Dr. Banks J. Peeler ’19, former president of the Catawba Trustees, led the dedication service.
The chapel’s most prominent features include its nave, lined with stone Gothic arches; the chancel, dominated by soaring three-paneled stained glass windows rising above the reredos; a large stained glass rose window at the rear above the balcony; and a 75-bell carillon. Although an electronic organ was in place at the time of the dedication, it was later replaced by a Cassavant Organ. Imbedded in the west wall of the narthex is a single stone from the Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England, which was built in 1220.
Less than three weeks after the dedication, the new chapel was the setting for Dearborn’s inauguration as Catawba’s president. James Dayvault, then president of the Catawba Student Government Association and a member of the Class of 1964, brought greetings at the inauguration. In this same venue five months later, Dayvault would wed Martha “Marty” Seiwell ’63 in a ceremony officiated by her father, Catawba’s campus pastor, the Rev. Porter Seiwell.
“Jim and I, along with my mother, Maria, were very excited to be married in the new Catawba Chapel by my dad, Porter Seiwell,” Marty Dayvault recalled. “I remember thinking how long the aisle was compared to First Church in Salisbury. We wanted to be the first couple married there, but we were the second or third. We were married July 26, 1964, and I remember only too well how hot it was that day (the chapel was not air conditioned back then).
“Our only daughter, Susan, was baptized in the chapel by my Dad in April 1969,” Marty continued. “My brother Dick (’67) and his wife, Linda, were also married in the chapel by our Dad on Dec. 24, 1972. Our entire family has always loved Catawba and has had a passion for supporting the Campus Ministry Fund.”
Under Dearborn’s leadership and thanks to the generosity of key trustees, namely J.W. Abernethy and Dr. Adrian Shuford Jr., the final funding for the chapel was raised after its completion. Dearborn died unexpectedly after suffering a massive heart attack in November 1967. Several years after his death, the Catawba Trustees named the chapel the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel in acknowledgement of the role he and his father-in-law, former Catawba President Howard Omwake, had played in the college’s history.
The Omwake-Dearborn Chapel remains a prominent flagship building on Catawba’s campus, 50 years after it opened, and requests for bookings in it come frequently to the Catawba Conferences office.
The chapel is used weekly during the academic year for campus worship services and it is the site of the annual baccalaureate service during commencement weekend. It continues to be where special services, like opening convocation, concerts and recitals, are held. On average, between 20 and 30 weddings and a half dozen funerals occur there each year. These weddings and funerals are not always those of Catawba alumni; many in the Rowan-Salisbury community request the venue because it offers a larger seating capacity than their home churches.
The chapel was air-conditioned in 2005, a welcomed change for wedding parties who likely had heard stories of candles melting during ceremonies scheduled on hot summer days. The seating in the chapel was also enhanced that same year with pew cushions. And, the chapel’s seating has also been “recalculated” due to today’s larger individuals; seating was reported at a capacity of 1,000 in 1964, but now, using a standard 22-inch seat measurement, the capacity is 787 seats.
Some structural and technical improvements have also occurred in the chapel, including an upgrade to the sound system and automation of the carillon.
Catawba College Chaplain and Senior Vice President the Rev. Dr. Kenneth W. Clapp ’71, was on hand for the chapel’s dedication in 1964. Church youth groups from throughout the synod came for that big day, and Clapp accompanied the youth from his home church, Mt. Hope, in Whitsett. This was Clapp’s first encounter with Catawba, the college that would become his alma mater and where he would spend a large portion of his professional career.
“After 50 years of standing at the head of the Catawba campus, the chapel, built to the glory of God and in honor of Catawba benefactor, Mr. Julius Abernethy, continues to be a facility that enables students, community members and visitors to experience a closeness to God as they experience its beauty and symbolism,” Clapp said.
“For 25 of those years, I have walked through this beautiful edifice almost every day on the way to my study and each time I enter it, I still feel a sense of awe as the morning sun pierces the chancel window, casting slivers of multi-colored light across the pews and through the arches, light that proclaims anew the wonder and presence of God in our lives. “
Clapp, other college administrators and representatives of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ (the successor denomination to the Southern Synod that gave funds for the chapel’s construction) are making plans to commemorate the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel’s 50th anniversary during Catawba’s homecoming weekend activities Oct. 24-26.
Members of the Southern Conference will be invited to participate in the celebration.
Look for details in the coming months on the Catawba College website at