Ceremony Marks Chapel Construction Progress

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Following a long-held construction tradition, the Sacred Heart University community gathered on campus Thursday for a topping-off ceremony on the site of the new Chapel construction.

More than 200 people gathered in the Quad for the ceremony, signing their names to the final steel beam and watching as the construction crew from Steel Fab Inc. hoisted it by crane 50 feet into the air and lowered it into position on the frame of the 14,000-square-foot building, which will serve as the spiritual heart of the University.

“I worshipped in the existing chapel as a student, and I felt like I grew up here for four years. Now the University’s growing and adding an important component to community life, so for me it’s an overwhelming experience,” said Annette M. Bailey, Ph.D., who now teaches social work at SHU. Bailey signed her name twice on the beam, first using her maiden name, then her married name, and Class of 1985, the year she graduated from SHU.

Most simply wrote their names. Others drew hearts or wrote personal messages, one reading “with God’s love and blessings,” another saying, “for the Iraqi Christians.”

The topping-off ceremony occurs when the major structural steel of a construction project is complete, according to Don LaBreck, project manager from Steel Fab Inc., of Manchester, Conn. “It’s a tradition that goes back several hundred years. The roots are northern European. Iron workers sign the beam as their mark that they were there and helped with the construction,” he said.

It also offers good wishes to the occupants of a new building.

Just as the ceremony marks a milestone in a construction project, the construction of a new chapel marks a milestone in the life of the University, said SHU President Anthony J. Cernera. “It’s a symbolic moment. By building this chapel we’re saying something about the past, we’re saying something about the present and we’re saying something very important about the future,” Cernera said.

Cernera said the construction companies involved are doing an outstanding job. “They understand they are building a spiritual center, not just another building. They approach it with that sensitivity,” he said.

Guido Petra, president of Petra Construction in North Haven, Conn., said the project means a great deal to the company because it means so much to the University community. He also appreciates the uniqueness of its design.

“The construction methods are atypical due to its uniqueness. The geometry of the building is one of a kind. The materials being incorporated into the finishes of the building, both exterior and interior, are beautifully integrated stone, glass and steel,” Petra said.

Brad Prestbo, an architect with Sasaki Associates in Watertown, Mass., which designed the Chapel, said its geometric complexities will manifest themselves as the project develops. “One example is on the north and south elevations where there are non-orthogonal limestone walls, which will represent the pages of scripture. On those walls will be passages from scripture,” Prestbo said.

Additionally, he said, the copper tapestry, or skin, that forms the walls and roof, will have five different patinas and will represent a tent, “signifying coming together under one roof.”

Cernera said the new Chapel is “a testament to our deepest convictions of life,” and will be a place for worship and reflection where people of all faiths are welcome.

LaBreck said the steelworkers began their phase of the construction just after Memorial Day and they are about 80 percent complete. They expect to finish their portion of the project by the end of this month, he said.

Petra said the new Chapel is scheduled to open in Fall 2008.