Wartburg Chapel in Fall

By Stephanie Robbins Boeding ’99

Picturing Wartburg College without the Wartburg Chapel as an anchor on the south side of campus is nearly impossible for those who have known the college since 1994, when the structure was completed and dedicated, forever changing the college’s landscape both literally and figuratively.

The Rev. Larry Trachte, who was Wartburg’s campus pastor from 1974 to 2009, vividly remembers campus religious activities held in Neumann Auditorium and other campus locations before the Chapel was built. “There are no windows in Neumann Auditorium. When the architect started interviewing students about what they wanted in the chapel, they would say light and intimacy.”

As the architect, Ben Weese of Chicago, drew up plans for a more traditional, linear chapel design, Trachte was skeptical it could bring a feeling of closeness. “I had never envisioned the chapel as it is now,” said Trachte. “The contemporary chapels being built on campuses tended to be in the round.” But Weese had spent time studying historic churches in Germany and in his plans included a balcony similar to one in the city church of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther had preached. “The balcony circles, or encloses, the worshipping community,” said Trachte. “The balcony architecturally creates the community and does the thing that I most wanted, which was create intimacy downstairs but capacity upstairs.”

In the early 1990s, Wartburg received two substantial financial gifts that would lay a new foundation for spiritual life on campus. First was a $1 million gift from Elmer Wavering of Florida, to be used in the building of a campus chapel in honor of his late wife, Vera. Wavering had made his fortune as a pioneer of automobile electronics. Soon after, a gift from the late Col. F. Herbert and Cora Moehlmann established the Moehlmann Chaplaincy Chair, which would ensure a permanently funded chaplain position at the college. Trachte remembers when then-President Robert Vogel ’56 told him the news. “Bob came into my office, shut the door, and sat down. And in his last years here, he was very emotional, and he said to me, ‘Larry, Wartburg College is going to have a chapel!’” Trachte recalled. “I hadn’t dreamt of that, but it was his vision to build a chapel, and the core of his commitment to re-establish Wartburg as a college of the church.”

Trachte had two other items on his wish list for the new chapel: “Having lived in Germany for two years, I also wanted bells. I want students, when they leave campus, to miss the bells.” The second was a baptismal font with running water. “We’re an ecumenical community, and the one thing we all have, whether we’re Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, we all share a baptism. We were baptized into the body of Christ, and that’s part of what makes us one.”

Chapel spires are prepared to be lifted to the top of the chapel

The college will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Wartburg Chapel with a public reception during Homecoming & Family Weekend, on Saturday, Oct. 12. 
Visit www.wartburg.edu/chapel-25 for more information.

Chapel in Winter
Chapel Interior Construction
Pastor Trachte at Chapel groundbreaking

“My first memory with the Wartburg Chapel was my first worship service as a junior in high school during Meistersinger Honor Band. I was talking to a student about wanting to come to Wartburg possibly, and he took the time to really speak with me about what life at Wartburg would look like. I still have my bulletin from this service, as he even wrote his email on it in case I ever had any questions or wanted to reach out. We’re still friends today, and I have had many Meistersinger Honor Band Chapel Services since as part of the WCCB. It had been so moving to see the WCCB come together to host the service, from the message to the praise band and prelude music. I am so thankful that we have a place on campus to come and worship together, regardless of your denomination.”

  • Sofia Bouffard ’20

“Eucharist on Wednesday nights. I loved it when there was just an acoustic guitar. The sounds of all the voices coming together in that simple space was a balm to the soul.”

  • Hiliary Burns Baethke ’04

“Julie and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in the Wartburg Chapel with a reaffirmation of vows. The ceremony was led by Pastor Trachte.”

  • Jim Grosser ’76

“The Wartburg Chapel is where I grew and explored amazing friendships, my relationship with my beliefs, and self-confidence. The Wartburg Chapel is where I opened up to peers and PB (Pastor Brian Beckstrom) about my past and experiences that had haunted me for years. It was a place where I could go when I was stressed or overwhelmed. A place to relax, enjoy company, or think alone. Wartburg Chapel was where I found the path to feeling like myself again.”

  • Morgan Riedesel ’18

“The Wartburg Chapel is hands-down one of the best places to sing. I was a part of the Wartburg Choir for three years during my time, and whenever we had the opportunity to sing in there I was filled with love and goosebumps.”

  • Shelley Hartman ’11

“As the Chapel was being finished, Karen Larson, Kit Kleinhans, and I were asked by President Vogel to work with Pastor Larry Trachte to develop policies for facility use (especially weddings). I knew Karen before that, but we became closer friends working on this project. A few years later (1997), we were subject to those policies when P.T. married us in the Chapel. Karen still plays there three times a week. You might say the Chapel has been a part of our entire life together.”

  • Dr. Daniel Black

“My husband (Lucas Lenhart) and I were married in this church. Wartburg means a lot to us as a couple as that is where we met. The ceremony was beautiful, and Pastor Trachte was a really great part of our ceremony as well. I couldn’t imagine having our wedding at a better place for us!”

  • Emily Kleiss Lenhart ’06

“When I was 5 years old, I would go to work with my dad, Tony Lutz, before school. John Laube, former maintenance director at Wartburg, would give me a hard hat and a tour of the progress of the Chapel. I even got to pound in a few nails.”

  • Erik Lutz ’10

“September 11, 2001: So many people from all over campus flocked to the Chapel for worship and to find peace. People were scared and confused that day, but even when worship was over, many of us lingered, checked in with each other, sat, and cried together. The Chapel was an extra safe ‘home’ that day.”

  • Maggie Atkinson Gibney ’04

“My favorite memories of this beautiful building: being the first senior to share my Senior Chapel message, singing with the Wartburg Choir, playing the piano alone in the Chapel as a study break, Wednesday night Eucharist services. What a wonderful addition to the campus 25 years ago!”

  • Jen Christy Bye ’95

“Having a chance to become part of Spiritual Life & Campus Ministry gave me an opportunity to explore another part of myself and college life. As a Eucharist/Sanctuary curator, I developed a deeper spiritual connection within myself and the environment I was growing and learning in. It changed my life … and saved it, too.”

  • Rochelle Beardsley ’17

“Having a chance to become part of Spiritual Life & Campus Ministry gave me an opportunity to explore another part of myself and college life. As a Eucharist/Sanctuary curator, I developed a deeper spiritual connection within myself and the environment I was growing and learning in. It changed my life … and saved it, too.”

  • Rochelle Beardsley ’17

“Every time I come back to campus and step into the chapel, I have an overwhelming feeling of being back home.”

  • Amy Freeseman Yeager ‘98

The building plans came through with those items, plus the light that students craved in a new worship environment. The foyer was intentionally small and dark so that as people come through the door into the sanctuary, the contrast of light and space would lead eyes upward to the cross in the main east window. “I love the cross window, where you can see the blue sky and clouds, and there’s an entrée to the world,” said Trachte. “The south side windows, toward the street, have the curvature of the earth, and Ben did that intentionally so that you’re looking out at the world.”

But not every part of the design was a hit with Trachte. “One thing that bugs me as a German, is everything is off-center. You come in the door, the main entrance in the center, and you run into the pews.” When Trachte asked about it, the architect had a theological reason: “If things are symmetrical, no one notices them. The architect said, ‘I want them to notice them, because the only thing that’s centered in that chapel is the cross.’”

Chapel Construction with scaffold
Chapel Worship in 1990s
Chapel Wedding

Over the past 25 years, the Chapel became a place to gather for significant moments on campus. One of those times was September 11, 2001. “The whole country was in shock,” said Trachte. “The chapel was packed, standing room only. We just did a service and sang the hymn ‘Healer of our every ill, hope of our tomorrow,’ and that became a theme for us in the following weeks; we sang that a lot.”

Trachte recalls the numerous weddings that have taken place in the Chapel since 1994. “I remember one weekend when I did three weddings, and I thought, never again! It was too much, and I wanted to just enjoy each couple.” The Chapel has been the backdrop for grieving as well, including the occasional funeral of a college employee or alumnus. “When you think of the importance of having a spiritual center to the community, the Chapel really has been that. It gave us something we didn’t have for times of tragedy and times of joy.”

What Trachte finds perhaps most significant about building the Wartburg Chapel 25 years ago is the statement the project made. “At the time when a lot of the Lutheran colleges, including Wartburg, had gone away from their German ethnic and religious roots, it’s Lutheran heritage, here we built a chapel. It made a strong statement—it said we are a college of the church.” 

“I underestimated what a chapel would mean to Wartburg College,” said Trachte. “It’s been one of the most significant buildings and gifts that I believe the college has ever received. It stands as a testimony to our calling and commitment as a college.”

I spend considerable time encouraging people to experience God outside of church buildings, out in the world. It’s literally my job. I work through the Alaska Synod office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) as the director for evangelical mission. It’s my job to nudge congregational leaders and pastors out into the world for the sake of outreach, but also for inspiration. “God doesn’t live just in the church building,” I tell them, “God is already out in the world, in all sorts of places. Pay attention!” A pastor recently came alive describing the joy of picking up trash in the neighborhood with his congregation. The love of Jesus was right there in that dusty fellowship, God incarnate.

Since I’m busy cajoling folks to look outside the church for God, it’s noteworthy to reflect on a building with a pale blue interior in which I so clearly saw God at work — the Wartburg Chapel. Built just a few years before I arrived on campus, the chapel drew me in quickly, though I was probably a soft target. Raised in a rural Iowa Lutheran congregation and active in high school youth group, I was looking to connect with campus ministry activities. I didn’t expect to so deeply sense God’s abiding presence in that place and that it would, after four years, gently nudge me toward what has become my call and life’s work.

God was at work in the Wartburg Chapel, for me, in countless ways. God was at work in the rhythm of the guitars at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday Eucharist, where I soon found friends to sit with each week. God was at work in the basement, where I attended several campus ministry activities, including one memorable one where we were breaking a Lenten fast with a huge meal (perhaps God was at work to keep me from fainting!). God was at work at the sanctuary, where I sang concerts with the Wartburg Choir, ribcage expanding in that black dress, gripping the hand of a bass or tenor, harmonies ringing from an a capella rendition of “Precious Lord.” God was at work at the baptismal font in the back of the narthex, where a close friend came to be baptized at a small ceremony, and we stood shoulder-to-shoulder as water was poured over her forehead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God was at work in the chapel offices upstairs, where I had a small desk with scribbled notepads of ideas for Bible studies and programs when I served as Campus Ministry Board president. God was at work in that same office, when I told one of the campus pastors that I was loving my position as board president so much that I wished I could do it forever. God was at work when she said to me, “Lisa, it’s called being a pastor.”

My parents live near Waverly, and so over the years, I’ve driven by or been on campus many times. It warms my heart to see the Wartburg signs, and I’ve enjoyed watching the campus change. But there is nothing like the feeling of stepping onto the grass and looking up at “Ein Feste Burg,” carved in stone on the chapel’s western exterior wall. A mighty fortress. Strong, and yet porous to the love and work of God. God is at work, both inside that chapel, and out in the world.

June 2019
Rev. Lisa Smith Fiegel ’99, Anchorage, AK

Rev. Lisa Smith Fiegel ’99,