A chapel's new look, outlook

Published May 23, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -Eckerd College's chapel is getting a new name and a broader purpose on a campus of diverse beliefs.

Constructed when Eckerd was still owned by the Presbyterian Church, the chapel has in recent years glowed with the lights of the Hindu festival of Dewali and played host to Tibetan Buddhist monks "painting" an intricate sand mandala.

Now the octagonal building with unusual exterior elements is being renamed for the college's second president, the late Billy O. Wireman, a world traveler and advocate of international understanding.

How fitting, said current president Donald R. Eastman III, in the program for Friday's dedication, that a college "which has, from its inception, welcomed all faiths and all races from all nations recommits itself to that mission in the name of Billy O. Wireman."

A few days before the renaming ceremony, the Rev. Mona Bagasao led the way past the chapel's newly landscaped memorial garden and expanded patio into the refurbished building. Fresh shades of green dominated new offices, a community room, kitchen and handicapped-accessible bathrooms.

She talked about the unique octagonal sanctuary whose red- cushioned pews form a circular and intimate space.

"This way, you look into the faces of those you're sharing worship with, " said Bagasao, chaplain and director of religious life on campus.

The walls of the chapel, she pointed out, are free of religious iconography or symbolism, a fact that makes the sanctuary ideal for interdenominational Christian services and programs for other religions. The cross on the roof, however, attests to the college's Christian heritage.

The estimated $1.1-million renovation got its start with Eckerd trustee emerita Martha Rudy Wallace, who made a large financial contribution and led a campaign to raise additional money for the ongoing project.

Wireman, a founding member of the faculty of what was then Florida Presbyterian College, became the institution's president at age 35. His inauguration took place a day before the chapel was dedicated in 1969. At the time, it was named for Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a trustee who had given $480, 000 for the building.

Wireman, who died in 2005, persuaded trustee Jack Eckerd to give the college more than $11-million in gifts. He later led the initiative to rename it after the philanthropist.

Wireman also was instrumental in getting the Presbyterian Church to give up control of the college and establish a "covenant relationship" with the institution instead.

Addressing about 200 people in the chapel Friday, Eastman spoke of Wireman's faith, optimism and indefatigable personality that helped save the college he loved.

"We gladly dedicate this chapel, this locus and symbol of the life of the spirit in the center of the life of the mind ... to Billy O. Wireman, in the sure and certain hope that his faith and his enthusiastic example will inspire and sustain all who worship and learn in this place."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 727 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.