Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

"Aspire Nobly, Adventure Daringly, Serve Humbly"

Nearly 5,000 couples have taken their marriage vows inside KU’s Danforth Chapel since it was formally dedicated on April 2, 1946. Tucked behind Fraser Hall on Lilac Lane, as many as 170 brides and grooms annually continue to find the chapel’s setting ideal for small, intimate weddings and the perfect venue to connect their future with the University where many of them first met. Although William H. Danforth, chairman of St. Louis-based Ralston Purina Company, provided the largest single donation – through his foundation – for the Gothic Revival structure, the vast majority of the needed funding was raised through the generosity of faculty, students, alumni, and Lawrence residents. And the actual construction was performed in part by German prisoners of war who had been captured in North Africa and were being detained in the Lawrence POW facility located near the Santa Fe train station.

The genesis that would bring these disparate individuals together was a September 1944 meeting between Danforth and KU Chancellor Deane W. Malott to discuss the possibility of building a chapel on campus grounds. (At the time, the Danforth Foundation was helping to fund the construction of college campus chapels; in addition, KU and the Foundation already had a relationship in the form of an annual Danforth Fellowship, which was awarded for up to four years of doctoral study to students who showed exceptional promise as future college teachers. KU was one of only 14 schools in the country eligible for Danforth Fellowships.) Apparently, the meeting went well.

“The chapel interest that you have shown impresses me very much,” the Ralston Purina chairman later wrote the chancellor, “and The Danforth Foundation is willing to cooperate up to $5,000.” Considering that the United States was still at war, and materials scarce, the University would have to obtain special building permission from the War Production Board, yet Danforth believed that work should begin at once. “While this may not be the best time for building,” he noted, “I have an idea that our campuses are ready right now for a spiritual awakening; so I don’t think we should necessarily wait until after the war is over.”

With that, he and the chancellor began discussing what form the new chapel might take. Naturally, Danforth desired to play a primary role in this process, beginning with the name itself. “We feel that by making a major contribution to such chapels we would like to have the chapel called the Danforth Chapel.” He went on to stipulate that the chapel should contain a marble tablet with specific wording, that it should feature an expert copy of Heinrich Hofmann’s painting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and that the building itself “should be small” but have its “beauty enhanced by an artistic leaded glass window, either over the chancel or over the entrance.”

What was most important, thought Danforth, was that the chapel “be of some solution in the development of a Christian atmosphere on the campus.” Malott firmly agreed, telling the University Daily Kansan on November 28, 1944, that “the University is happy to have the chapel as a center of emphasis for Christian living for which this University has stood throughout its history.” He wanted the students to have a quiet, secure place for prayer and meditation that would “never be locked or darkened.”

As to the question of funding, the Danforth Foundation followed through on its initial pledge of $5,000, although architects estimated the total cost of the chapel to be around $25,000. To raise the balance of funds, KU began to solicit private donations from alumni, students, faculty, and local residents. This effort attracted hundreds of individual monetary contributions. In addition, the Kansas University Endowment Association presented funds from the estate of Elizabeth M. Watkins, while A. B. Weaver, scion of a long time Lawrence mercantile family, donated money for the electric organ, in memory of his father. Even the chapel’s architect, Edward W. Tanner of Kansas City, the first graduate of KU’s Department of Architecture in 1916, offered his services free of charge. (Tanner had helped design Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza district, developed by KU alum J.C. Nichols.) According to the Kansan, “other memorial donations included … the carpet, altar set and stained glass windows.” Meanwhile, many University student groups participated in fundraising activities. The All Student Council, for example, “went Christmas caroling and collected donations from the fraternity and sorority houses where they performed.”

When it came time to actually begin constructing the chapel, architects at first decided to use Mount Oread limestone dug from a quarry on campus property. Excavation began in April 1945, and with the war still going on, the planners might have had to contend with a serious labor shortage. Yet ironically it was World War II itself that helped spur the construction of Danforth Chapel, because for workers, there was a ready (and apparently willing) supply of German prisoners – former soldiers of the Third Reich’s Afrika Korps – then housed in the Lawrence POW camp.

One of 14 such detention centers in Kansas designed to hold German POWs, the Lawrence compound contained about 200 prisoners and was considered a “branch camp.” (The Sunflower State’s largest POW facility, Camp Concordia, held approximately 4,000 prisoners.) Lawrence residents had little reason to fear their foreign “guests,” for all prisoners were carefully screened to ensure that hardcore Nazi-party members had been purged from the ranks and safely shipped off to higher security facilities in Oklahoma. Many prisoners were allowed to work days in town or on farms at odd jobs before returning to camp in the evenings. As such, the men whom Lawrence residents encountered were likely to be draftees, patriotic to be sure, but hardly Hitler or Himmler clones.

Luckily for the Danforth Chapel project, many of the Germans had been skilled stonemasons before the war. Architect Tanner sought their expertise and even heeded their advice when they told him the limestone originally selected was too hard to reshape properly for construction. Instead, based on the Germans’ recommendations, the chapel ended up being built with limestone from a farm situated two miles south of Highway 40 between Lawrence and Topeka.

The necessity of transporting the materials back to KU landed jobs for dozens more German prisoners. Each of the POWs was paid $1.40 a day for their labor. By most contemporary accounts, they got along very well with the local population and were known for their politeness, industriousness, and enthusiastic work ethic. And conversely, as a 1984 article in Kansas History about the state’s WWII experiences with German prisoners noted, “The POW’s were most impressed … by the kindness and general good treatment they received from Kansans.” (Indeed, some of these Germans actually returned to live in the US after the war, and others developed strong friendships with local residents that lasted for more than 50 years.

Finally, on April 2, 1946, KU was ready to formally dedicate Danforth Chapel. Chancellor Malott declared an all-school convocation in Hoch Auditorium and welcomed a host of distinguished guests and benefactors to participate in the ceremonies. When visitors made their way down Jayhawk Boulevard to the chapel, they immediately saw the copy of the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane painting and a stone tablet bearing an inscription, as per its namesake’s request. “The Danforth Chapel,” it reads, “dedicated to the worship of God with the prayer that here in communion with the Highest those who enter may acquire the spiritual power to aspire nobly, adventure daringly, serve humbly.”

The chapel certainly provided a quiet, comforting spiritual oasis for students. But since its opening coincided with the beginning of the postwar era, Danforth immediately became popular for KU couples looking to get married. On June 17, 1946, commencement day, just two months after it first opened, seven couples took their vows in Danforth Chapel on that single day. (They were not, however, the first Jayhawks to get married there. Leane Sancow and Robert Fisher, both of Hope, Kansas, tied the knot in Danforth on March 20, 1946, 13 days before the chapel’s formal dedication.)

In its early years, the chapel also saw some truly terrible times as well, particularly when vandals broke in and stole the original copy of the Hofmann painting in February 1949. In spite of this theft, Chancellor Malott stood firm and vowed to keep his pledge that the chapel would remain open at all times. “No act of malicious vandalism will change that policy,” he assured the University on February 21, “nor can such action deprive KU students of the privilege which the little chapel offers for personal meditation.” The University soon acquired another copy of the painting, yet by the mid-1960s, continued pilfering and vandalism eventually required locking the chapel at night.

Over the course of its history at KU, Danforth Chapel has undergone several changes, most prominently evolving from a strictly Christian house of worship to an inter-faith or non-denominational one. However, on most spring and summer weekends, one can still find happy couples beginning their lives together in the little 90-seat chapel that, to this day, remains important in the spiritual lives of so many KU students

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For a wide variety of materials pertaining to Danforth Chapel, including newspaper accounts, personal correspondence, and University records, see its Building file in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. See also the following issues of the University Daily Kansan: February 19, 1946, p. 1; March 20, 1946, p. 1; March 27, 1046, p. 1; April 1, 1946, p. 1; and April 2, 1946, p. 1. Also, the Graduate Magazine, (November 1944), p. 5; and (February 1946) pp. 4-5. Building Scrapbook, vol. 4, pp. 9, 25, 35, 71, 102, and 198. For a look back at the chapel’s history, see the Kansan, October 14, 1981, p. 5, and the Lawrence Journal World, February 25, 1996. For the article on German POW’s in Kansas, see Patrick O’Brien, et al., “Stalag Sunflower: German Prisoners of War in Kansas,” Kansas History 7 (Autumn 1984), pp. 182-198. A excellent source is Lowell A. May, Camp Concordia: German POW’s in the Midwest, (Manhattan, Kan.: Sunflower University Press, 1995).]