Graduates remember Danforth Chapels’ origins on college campuses - East Valley Tribune: Home

Graduates remember Danforth Chapels’ origins on college campuses

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Saturday, October 20, 2007 2:30 am | Updated: 7:18 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Sixty years ago this fall, the walls were going up for Danforth Chapel on the campus of Arizona State University. Today, it is a fixture along one of the most heavily traveled pathways on the Tempe campus, located on Cady Mall between the Memorial Union and Hayden Library.

Yet few know that it was one of 24 Danforth Chapels erected primarily on American college campuses during the 1940s and 1950s as places for students to find spiritual respite or to attend a small wedding, a simple worship service or memorial services.

Establishing the string of chapels in places like Morehouse College in Atlanta and Montana State University in Bozeman was the passion of William Danforth, founder and head of the Ralston Purina Co., which brought the world Chex cereal and Purina Puppy Chow.

Before Danforth died on Christmas Eve 1955 at the age of 85, some 19 of his chapels had been built, most on state college campuses. Five others were in the planning stage. Danforth mandated that they “be located in a quiet but easily accessible place, but not too remote from the center of all campus activities.”

It was required that a print of Heinrich Hofmann’s familiar painting “Christ in the Garden” be framed and hung inside the entrance of each. Each chapel contained the same engraved inscription declaring it “dedicated to the worship of God” and that “those who enter may acquire the spiritual power to aspire nobly, adventure daringly, serve humbly.”

“Mr. Danforth felt that a small chapel in the midst of busy college campuses might be a place of refuge and inspiration for students who were caught up in the stress of the academic world,” said Genie Hopper Zavaleta of Tempe, who 60 years ago was a “Danny Grad,” a newly graduated college female assigned to another campus to do student religious work.

Years later, Zavaleta spent four years researching, for the Danforth Foundation, how the corporate leader and philanthropist funded college students’ work, especially in religion, and gave $5,000 toward erecting each chapel at such other places as Kansas State University and the University of Tennessee.

Zavaleta had graduated from Texas Tech University in Lubbock when she was chosen for the Danforth Graduate Program in 1947-48.

Enrollment was open to young women, who were chosen based on academics, leadership potential and religious devotion. About 15 were chosen per year. They were oriented at Camp Miniwanca in Michigan and sent to a college at least 1,000 miles from their previous campuses to ensure greater personal growth. Zavaleta was sent to Fresno State University in California.

In 1954-55, Ardis Vetesk Chapman of Bethlehem, Pa., was a Danforth Graduate at what was then Arizona State College. She was assigned to work from the chapel’s office, helping religious groups and working for the college’s Religious Conference, an interfaith umbrella organization of faith groups. She had graduated from Michigan State University and was part of a group of 23 Danny Grads that year.

“During the ’50s, Religious Emphasis Week was big on many campuses,” she said, noting that she worked with religious groups that had an organized presence on the campus, including Mormons, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. “I can recall being in the small Danforth Chapel many times, but the events are lost in my memory,” she said.

Chapman worked with a program at ASU called Panel of Americans, balancing a “majority white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the proverbial WASP,” and representatives of minority faiths and groups, including Catholics, Jews, American Indians and Hispanics. “After hearing about how each of the minority folks dealt with prejudice, or misunderstanding, the majority Protestant would conclude by talking about how easy it is to not notice that the privileges we assume are normal are not normal for others,” Chapman said. All were pressed to work for inclusiveness, she said.

Danforth participated in the dedication of each chapel. They represented a small part of his vast philanthropy, including Danforth fellowships that funded education for thousands.

Danforth knew ASU because he often spent winters at the San Marcos Hotel in Chandler and was a friend of English professor Ronald Bridges, a Congregational layman. When Danforth learned that ASU had no chapel, he offered $5,000 to build one. It included a challenge for the college to raise about $10,000 to build it. Students spent two years holding dinners, carnivals and other fundraisers, and 75 donors and groups helped it reach the goal, according to university history. Construction by Del Webb Co. began in 1947, and the chapel, with seating for 65, was dedicated on Feb. 26, 1948.

Over the years, the ASU chapel made news because of a simple 4-foot cross that was perched on its roof. Twice it was removed through complaints and legal actions, primarily by the American Civil Liberties Union, over church and state separation issues. It was twice put back up, but was permanently removed in 1990.

The chapel gets heavy use, said Kacie McKay, who handles chapel scheduling for campus religious groups, weddings, memorial services, 24-hour prayer vigils and other activities. “It is busy — it is constantly in use,” she said. Its low rates are a key reason. Anyone associated with ASU can rent it for $35 for weddings or memorial services ($75 for non-ASU people).

Besides her work researching the Danny Grad program for the Danforth Foundation after a fire destroyed its records in St. Louis, Zavaleta joined 16 other grads in 2002 at Camp Miniwanca for a reunion, when they created the Danny Grad Scholarship Fund of the American Youth Foundation. It provides scholarships for female teens of color (ages 15 to 18). For information, visit

The 24 Danforths

Genie Hopper Zavaleta of Tempe took on the task of researching the 24 Danforth Chapels said to have been built through the philanthropy of William Danforth. A fire at St. Louis, Mo., headquarters, destroyed records, and Zavaleta’s research found 21 and unverifiable information on four other chapels. Three were built in St. Louis, in connection with Ralston-Purina Co., which Danforth founded and led until his retirement in 1941. He directed his foundation until his death in 1955. Here is a list of sites of Danforth Chapels that Zavaleta was able to find:

• Camp Miniwanca, Mich.

• Berea College, Berea, Ky.

• University of Iowa, Iowa City

• Colorado State University, Ft. Collins

• University of South Dakota, Vermillion

• University of Kansas, Lawrence

• Kansas State University, Manhattan

• Montana State University, Bozeman

• Morehouse College, Atlanta

• Arizona State University, Tempe

• Florida Southern, Lakeland

• University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

• Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg

• Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa

• University of Buena Vista, Storm Lake, Iowa

• University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg

• Japan International Christian University, Tokyo

• North Carolina State University, Chapel Hill (razed)

  • Discuss

EVT Ice Bucket Challenge

The East Valley Tribune accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Facebook on Facebook

Twitter on Twitter

Google+ on Google+


Subscribe to via RSS

RSS Feeds

Your Az Jobs