Ever since his quick trip to England following the trauma of divorce in 1918, FloydStarr had cherished the dream of erecting a modest Anglican chapel on the Commonwealth grounds. Long before that vision became a reality, however, many a high moment of hope met not a few low moments of disappointment.
As Starr told the story, “The money just did not come in. We sent out plea after plea, offered prayer afterprayer, all to no avail.” Heretofore gifts had always come in for cottages when the need was evident, and even in the Depression donations came in for the gymnasium, but the pleas “for God’s own house” seemingly went unheard.
The first inkling finally came when a small grove across from the main entrance became available to the school. InStarr’s words, “With its sloping hill and towering trees, it was almost as if God hadsaid, ‘This is the place I would build my Temple.'” Once more pleas for funds went out, and this time money came in.
According to a time-worn newspaper clipping, on April 11, 1949, “Floyd StarrLifted the First Shovelful of Dirt for the Chapel.” Like all groundbreaking ceremonies, it was a day of anticipation rather than a day of accomplishment. Mrs. Charles Kindel, vice-president of the Board of Trustees, served as mistress of the simple ceremony. Following the invocation by Mrs.Anna Mealoy, Starr’s first social studies teacher at the Marshall High School, Mrs. Kindel expressed words of welcome, then introduced several “Friends who have Stood by During the Years.”Among the alumni speakers was a rangy read head named GordonLangley, at that time a student at the University of Michigan. Although Uncle Floyd could not have known then, his appearance on the program was but theharbinger of things to come.
Unlike many campus buildings, the Chapel-in-the-Woods did not rise from a single gift or a cluster of individual donations. Aside from one sizeable legacy, most of the contributions for the chapel were modest gifts from a wide spread of supporters. Indeed, as the fund grew, the boys also caught the sharing spirit. One of them named Curtis Antes even donated a generous award which he had been given for turningin “a well-filled purse at the Marshall theater.” “As a result of the tremendous outpouring of Christian love,” Starr reported, “we went right ahead on the actual construction, and by the time it was finished not one bill remainedunpaid.
The Chapel–in-the woods is classic Norman in design with its massive construction and simple lines. Rounded stone arches surmount typical recessed doors andwindows, slate tiles cap the study brick walls, and the chancel area is rich in carvings. In particular, the stained glass windows are slender rectangles topped by the traditional lancet pointsworked around the pictorial designs.
Ever the perfectionist, Starr was adamant in his insistence upon the highest artistry in the windows. As he described his search, he first compared the works of numerous artisans; then he came upon the windows of Wilbur HerbertBurnham in some of America’s greatest cathedrals. “The more we saw,” he said later, “the more we marveled at their beauty. We felt they would carry the message of Jesus right into the hears of our boys.”
Starr knew that Burnham must make the stained glass windows for the chapel, but he also realized that “such artistry is expensive.” What he could not have known, though, was the profound generosity of that consummate artist. After several visits and extensive correspondence, Burnham agreed to create thirty-two masterworks for only four hundred dollars each. Those in the sanctuary of the chapel narrate the life of Christ from Annunciation to the Resurrection. In the narthex, the pair of windows presented by Mr. andMrs. Burnham depict two early saints of the church universal, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Isadore of Spain.
Both biblical significance and Commonwealth history are embedded in the sanctuary windows. As Starr explained, because of the modest price for each window, “Many of our friends were able to donate the funds for them, often giving them as memorials.” Hence one finds local representation by the Frank and Clark Dean families of Albion and the Delta Tau Delta fraternity of Albion College pus an impressive array of regional donors from industry, from the professions and from the arts.
In the choir room and the vestry off the chancel area is a potpourri of “little windows.” Here is quite a different variety of memorial, for these acknowledge the persons who have given, not of their substance, but of their lives to Floyd Starr and his cause. Inscribed on these colorful panes are the names of Starr’s immediate family, dedicated housemothers, faithfulsecretaries, and loyal friends of every calling. The role call of these men and women constitutes an overview of the institution from its growth years to mid-century.
To create a sanctuary out of stark Norman walls, the Henry Candler family supplied the chapel furnishings, former social servicesdirector Joan Staudt Pracy contributed hand-carved figures of the four apostles, and evangelist Homer Rodeheaver sent a generous supply of his songbooks. As a capstone to the gifts, theRenniger family of Lansing donated a magnificent Connsonata organ “in living memory of Orrie J.Renniger, Founder of the Renniger Construction Company of Lansing” which build the chapel.
The dedication ceremony for the Chapel-in-the-Woods was held on a Tuesday afternoon,October 3, 1950, thirty-seven years to the day after Starr Commonwealth received its charter in1913. Nearly 700 people overflowed a sanctuary built for 400. Many in the audience had come to see thenew chapel and to explore the campus, but most were present to hear Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the popular radio preacher and author of The Power of Positive Thinking. It was his first visit to the school, he said upon his arrival, and he came because “If I ever sawChrist likeness in a mortal man, it’s in the man we like to call ‘UncleFloyd.'” Dr. Peale state further, “If you get a dream in your heart, if you believe in it, and if you work hard on it, it will come true. Men with dreams are the men who build things out of this world.
Throughout his address, however, the pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Church spoke directly to the boys. In words most of the adults in theaudience had heard or read before, Rev. Peale declared, “A boy can become what he thinks he can if he will. Life is what thought makes it. Paint a picture in your mind as to what you want to be, and you will succeed.” To the members of his congregation buthalf a decade out of World War II, such brave words may have seemed unduly optimistic, but to the adolescents at the Commonwealththey spoke of the hope they bore for the years ahead.
All in all, it was a service rarely equaled on Founder’s Days before or since. As Starr said in theinvocation, “Surely God is in this place.” A Starr Panel boy, Thomas E. Kennedy, ably introduced the guest clergyman; the Rev. Father John Mangrum, rector of the St. James Episcopal church in Albion offered prayer; and David L. Strickler, professor of music at Albion College, “presented a finetenor aria from the oratorio, ‘Elijah.'”
To acknowledge more adequately the munificent gift of the Connsonata organ, the Monday edition of the Albion Evening Recorder reported a week later that “Anorgan befitting its role in the chapel’s spiritual development of youths at the Starr Commonwealth for Boys was appropriately dedicated Sunday afternoon, five days after the institutions latest facility, the Chapel-in-the-Weeds, was dedicated last Tuesday.” Again Starr conducted the forepart of the service, assisted by two alumni from the recent past. JamesFrank Pate, a 1941 graduate then teaching in the Seneca public schools, gave the opening prayer. To close that portion of the service was Dr. Vernon Fox, at that time assistant deputy warden at the Southern Michigan prison near Jackson, offered his words of thanksgiving.
The musical program which followed was composed in two parts. One was a selectionof organ pieces performed by Robert G. Campbell, music director of the Conn Company of Elkhart, Indiana, which constructed the instrument. A visiting journalist wrote in praise of his performance: “His brilliant mastery developed the rich tonal qualities ofthe organ to exemplify to the fullest extent the beauty of the compositions he played.” Starr was charmed by thevirtuoso performance. As he told Campbell after the program, “this fine instrument completed my dream of a religious settingconducive to the spiritual growth of our boys.”
The other part of the program consisted of a variety of tenor solos by Harold Haugh of the University of Michigan music faculty. The same reporter noted that “Mr. Haugh definitely captivated his audience. With his sturdy voice of impressive dynamic range, he sand with equal ease the simple reverence of a hymn like ‘O MasterLet Me Walk With Thee’ or an oratorio area like ‘In Native Worth’ from Haydn’s The creation.” The recital by Professor Haugh brought to a fitting close the dedication of the chapel.
Outside, a final touch of Old England soon graced the tranquil setting of the Chapel-in-the-Woods. Across the wooded hills before and beside, theflower bulbs, gifts primarily from the auxiliaries which in earlier years contributed so generously to the Commonwealth.
Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.